Why Browsers Don’t Matter Anymore

You might have heard, a company called RockMelt announced a browser last week, even calling it a “social browser.” Thanks in part to Marc Andreessen’s VC firm funding it (even though the funder should never be the story), the product got a lot of media attention.

Big deal. Browsers don’t matter anymore, and here’s why not.

Once They Coulda Been Contenders

Browsers used to matter a lot. Microsoft invested a ton of effort to kill off Netscape Navigator because it represented the first legitimate threat to Windows. (Remember, that was before Google, the iPhone and Facebook.) Microsoft built a great browser with Internet Explorer, integrated it tightly with Windows, and bundled the two for as long as that was legally allowed.

Just as important as its profitable revenues, Windows ruled as the desktop platform. That is, it delivered core technologies that created a successful ecosystem for both Microsoft and its developers, which, in turn, delivered the rich environment of applications and competitive hardware for users. The magic of Windows was that it delivered Microsoft’s APIs — which let it “control” developers — housed in a UI that effectively locked in users. This combination, along with Microsoft’s distribution through OEMs, developer support and programming tools, created a network effect that increased the overall value of the ecosystem, with winner-take-all marketshare for Microsoft.

Popular browsers offered the promise of a similar platform: an application that, with the rise of web apps and media, could act as a user’s primary UI. Browsers deployed core distributed computing technologies and APIs and acted as a distribution channel or launchpad for portals and search engines.

Today’s Platform Delivery Vehicles

But today’s platform is the web itself; key platform technology suppliers don’t depend on browsers to make or break their APIs and user interfaces:

  • Google has a browser, but Chrome isn’t necessary to feeding search, Gmail, Google Apps and distributed computing technologies. Google’s Android mobile OS appears to be the platform for tablets rather than Chrome running on some other OS. Google does its most important UI innovation in search.
  • Facebook hasn’t built a browser, nor an operating system for that matter. It uses its web site and mobile apps to establish and distribute its APIs and UI. Developers can tap into Facebook APIs like Facebook Connect across the web in a browser-independent fashion.
  • Apple too has a browser, but it relies on its desktop and mobile operating systems for API and UI implementation.

Other companies that deliver mass-market APIs for consumer apps, like eBay/PayPal, Amazon and Yahoo, don’t depend on specific browsers. Neither do enterprise suppliers like IBM, Oracle, SAP and Salesforce.com. Even Microsoft, which despite a lack of buzz still dominates browser market share, can’t depend on Internet Explorer to establish its standards or businesses. Silverlight and Bing underscore that fact. All that’s to say that the excitement about RockMelt arises from the potential of establishing a new browser, but it feels like that potential is based on an outdated model.

Where a New Browser Might Matter

OK, you may argue that I’m confusing cause and effect, i.e., because a couple of the platform companies’ browsers have lousy marketshare, they’ve had to rely on other means to spread their APIs. I can concede that, and admit that a browser can still be a platform hub, just not on a web desktop. A new browser could use that powerful API/UI combination on new devices:

  • Mobile. Conceivably, a browser could relieve some of the OS fragmentation across mobile phones. The mobile platforms of Microsoft, Google, and Apple are OS-based, while Facebook is building its mobile platform without either a browser or a mobile OS.
  • TV. Similarly, next-generation TV and gaming devices suffer from an OS fragmentation that’s slowing app development and deployment. This one feels like an OS war to me, as most of the middleware players are names that are unfamiliar to web or game developers. Google TV is built out of a combination of Android and Chrome.

Question of the week

What would it take to make a differentiated browser?
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David Card

VP Research Gigaom Research

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10 Comments Subscribers to comment

  1. The big problem now is the increasingly silo-ed (appified) nature of the web. We are back to where corporate networks were 15 years or so ago. An app and a silo for Facebook, one for Linkedin, another for iTunes. Google has become a service for RoW (Rest of Web, rather than Rest of World)…): so any new browser has to look over those silo walls and at least allow the contents to be viewed by the user as if it were a contiguous information resource. Wasn’t that the point after all?
    And it must not require a fundamental change in user behaviour either. My suggestion is that the nearest to that goal so far is Webmynd – users continue to use Google/Bing et al as they choose; it is respectful of pay-walls and ‘password fences’ – and it stitches together the fabric of the underlying information.

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  2. John22, Forrester has been calling these silos the “Splinternet,” though I’m not sure the coinage has taken:

    http://forrester.typepad.com/groundswell/2010/01/the-splinternet-means-the-end-of-the-webs-golden-age.html

    Indeed, Webmynd maintains existing user search behavior, and offers a nice pitch to content publishers if it gains any traction. If a user identifies a large number of content providers to add in, I suspect he’d be presented with fairly cluttered search results – does Webmynd prioritize or enforce relevance?

    They call me a “curator” here at GigaOM Pro, so you know I’m a fan of professional concierge-style services ;->

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  3. It’s funny that the Internet will see obsolesce of traditional “hunter” searches, in favour of “room” services like truncated experiences that appz deliver natively. Thing is though, while only a minority will consistently search like it’s 1998, it really makes no difference because the serendipity that apps try to commodify into relevant services/experiences all stem from this 1998 mentality, further, since all of this is happening within one landscape, whether desktop or mobile it constantly retrieves itself, like assembly languages shorthanding 0′s and 1′s. What am I saying? The only change is mobile, which is merely about shopping and memory, and it retrieves the hypnotic desktop experience and lunges it into outdoors. Just had to get it out, thanks.

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  4. oh yea, browser being irrelevant, in a mobile context, they are LESS relevant to MOST, most people will be like the same people who only retrieved email in 2000 and thats it, they will be happy with the app experience, however, like youtube being nothing without uploaders, as smart phones scale and android has a unified Os, only then will people know, perhaps it will retrieve the big 3 network model of tv, where you have app networks, which will just inspire splintering and mobile irc. as things become services, banking, shopping, guidance, news, i guess, if gigaompro has an app, we need browsers to provide the negative space about apps, like gigaom, to understand why a certain app, works a certain way. which is why browsers will never be irrelevant to people who want to understand the how and why.

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  5. r4ltman, I concede I rarely use my phone’s browser, and get by quite happily with apps. It would take a pretty special UI to establish a consumer-visible application like a browser on either a TV set or a phone. Maybe solving fragmentation is a middleware – or app network, as you hint – problem after all.

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  6. David, agreed! 5o9 has the mobile app that delivers APIs to the web service so they deliever a relevant browser user experience. We connect the OS to the Browser! Our Middleware is Client/Server software where the client is a native communications app and the data is picked up at the server so business rules written by developers can customize a response. Any device API is accesable and a user DB is established for your business needs delievers user prefferences.

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