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.