Deconstructing browser trends


Updated: May 25, 2011

All right, the big moment has come. In the past dozen weeks and a similar number of Internet-related articles, I have alluded, hinted and clear-stabbed at various trends and hypes that seem to be gripping the modern browsers. In my Taming Firefox 4 article, we had a brief if heated piece on Tabs on Top thingie. Firefox came into spotlight again with Aurora, a dev-build, and so did Internet Explorer, with its version 10 preview.

All right, so time to wrap it all up into a single rant. Today, I want to talk about all the recent technology changes that are happening in the browser world. Some are good. Others are plain stupid and useless. I'm going to help you know which are which. It's a war, between logic and beauty.

Teaser

Tabs on top

Without repeating myself, this is the crown jewel of bluffology. Tabs on top started the entire new era of simplification that is plaguing everything now. It may have been conceived as an improvement for mobile phones or netbooks, which started flourishing around the same time, it may have been a uniqueness gimmick by either Google or Opera, I don't quite remember which one. But it has stayed and it won't die.

openSUSE, tabs on top

I have lambasted the ideology before. Now, let's focus on ergonomics.

Browser element structure hierarchy

Placing tabs on tops means your static browser elements are also included inside tabs. Navigation buttons, as well as the address bar are there, too. They do not change in any way, which means they do not belong inside the context of temporary elements like tabs.

We could also argue that browser minimize, maximize and close button could also go into tabs, since after all, we are breaking the boundary of confinement. The browser loses its structure, it loses the permanent framework that defines its logic and purpose. For that matter, you could place an embedded media player into a tab, simply because it could go there.

Tabs on top, Chrome

The side effect of this change, specifically related to Firefox, is the removal of the Status bar at the bottom of the browser window, which is used for storing extension icons, notifications and download progress. This is the first and most important reason why including style, so to speak, with content is a wrong idea. The second aspect is the more popular one.

Visual clutter, vertical space

Conserving vertical space is a noble cause, however again, the secondary market segments seemed to have been given top priority. Netbooks and smartphones, which have relatively small screens, could benefit from more content being displayed, which might warrant minimizing browser window borders and display fields in favor of web pages.

Again, this is a false notion, since people can use only a small part of the content at any given time. You can read only a small number of lines of text. In theory, three lines of text would have sufficed. However, there's the matter of spatial reading, claustrophobia and clarity, so you need more. But anything beyond a dozen lines becomes meaningless in terms of reading.

But we can assume that tabs on top have been designed, and advertised, for people whom reading is not the primary objective of using the Web browser. Therefore, the focus is on video. So you may want more vertical space. But this runs contrary to the wide-screen logic. Because wide screens minimize vertical space. Asking for more of it means you are looking for 4:3 rather than 16:9 aspect ratio. Self-defeating in purpose, it seems. Newer formats actually mean videos are shorter in height, so the reasoning for increased vertical space is out of place. Images are also scaled to fit viewable browser space, which means you do not need more of it to be able to see entire elements.

Playing video on a netbook

The only argument left is that of a change for the sake of change. It seems to have worked, as tabs on top are becoming the new standard. This is wrong on so many levels, but it is impossible to reverse the tide.

Frequent browser releases

This only stands to logic if newer releases feature major changes. Otherwise, we're talking pure press pressure. Repeat that ten times in a row, fast. Bottom line, Google is doing itself a big marketing favor by its aggressive release schedule. First, it was there first with this kind of thing, so the strategy is interpreted as being modern, progressive and unique. Second, since most people judge things by quantity rather than quality, there's another layer of differentiation in Google's advantage.

Chromium

IE10 preview

All in all, Google did a wonderful stunt. People thought, with so many versions out there, they must be doing something important. Now, this clearly worked, as both Microsoft and Mozilla are following suit, even if there's no real justification for this kind of regime.

Now, pumping out releases can be done easily. You merely need to add one line of comment into your binary source, recompile it, and then:

svn commit firefox.exe -m "added new comment"

Or use git commands, if you prefer.

So now, you have Internet Explorer 10. And there's Aurora. Mozilla is planning to release a new browser every few weeks, which won't be a bad thing if the entire Mozilla framework keeps pace. Otherwise, it's going to be a big, botched operation. How come, you're asking?

It's all about extensions. Firefox is the most popular open-source browser, because of its extreme customizability. In this case, Google followed suit. Opera is lagging behind, partly because there are no addons to modify the browser.

Firefox extensions are the primary element that makes it so popular. Now, take these away and you lose an enormous strategic advantage. This is happening with Firefox 4 right now. Even though the browser was released several weeks ago, many extensions are still incompatible. In fact, I am waiting for the extensions to be fixed before I can fully switch.

Incompatible addons

With the new schedule, there's a chance that Firefox 5 might come out even before most extensions are made capable for Firefox 4. This will create a logistics nightmare. Like I said, the entire framework needs to be in sync - Firefox AND addons.mozilla.org.

I believe the rapid browser release cycle is justifiable only if there are big technology changes being introduced and if full backward compatibility can be guaranteed, at least over the span of two consecutive releases. Google seem to be managing fine. Mozilla needs to sort its game. It's yet to be seen whether Microsoft can pull a similar stunt.

Browser speed benchmarks

Nothing new, I've molested this subject unto death in the past. Just a brief reminder. Browser benchmarks are geek e-penis competitions. He who makes the most optimized code wins. The name of the game: Javascript.

For normal people amongst us, browser benchmarks are as relevant as using OpenMP API specification for parallel programming. In other words, not. Apart from being irrelevant for daily use, the benchmarks are flawed by design, as they take into account only a tiny fragment of the overall Internet infrastructure, with most and most critical elements out there, beyond the reach and control of the user. In the best case, the benchmarks may tell the tester how good their own internal setup is, nothing at all about actual speed. And if you're suffering from slowness, you've got a bigger problem than the choice of a browser.

Browser speed tests

This phenomenon has also become a major cornerstone of modern trends. The war initially simmered between Google and Opera, who went as far as creating a handful of C quality Matrix-style demos. The Norwegians did it with more panache, I must admit. Mozilla jumped on the bandwagon and throttled up their zeal with the Firefox 4 release. Microsoft is a late and somewhat reserved newcomer, and they are keeping a low profile for the time being, but things might flare up.

What am I trying to tell you? Well, raw Javascript benchmarking is fine and all that, but it bears virtually no relevance to continuous, prolonged daily use in a typical home setup, with a thousand sub-optimized settings and user interference. While a fast release schedule and redesigned ergonomics tricks can be somewhat justified in the court of people, benchmarks are truly hopeless.

More reading

Some of the bits here might seem disjointed. Which means you probably ought to read the original articles. What more, this will prove that I'm not after shameless and baseless trolling for the sake of media attention, I'm actually debating with style and clarity. There are many good things about modern browsers, but still.

Firefox 4 Preview - Foxy, sharp and fast!

Taming Firefox 4 - The annoyance-less guide

A few more Firefox 4 tips

Internet Explorer 9 Beta preview - Good job Microsoft

Internet Explorer 9 - The heat is on

Firefox 4 vs. Internet Explorer 9 - Head on!

Let us not forget the smartphone attitude and a total redesign of desktops, which seems to be plaguing the world of Linux.

Unity - What is it good for? An in-depth review.

Gnome 3 - This is the end, it seems

Let us not forget codecs, either!

Codec wars explained (freshly posted just days ago)

It's all part of the grand scheme called Y2K post-traumatic syndrome. Connect the dots. Do you see a pattern? If you don't, then you are a very happy person indeed.

Conclusion

Across the span of years, you can see a number of trends emerging, shaping the form of the new browser. As users, we must be critics, too. We must challenge both old and new technologies and concepts. We have the responsibility to be skeptical and practical, conservative, selfish, demanding, and doubtful, because ultimately, seemingly whimsical marketing decisions will define the future of computing.

As it seems, browsers are transforming, as I would not quite say evolving, from a portal of information into a status icon, where code processing speed, weird ergonomics and the frequency of releases determine the quality. It's almost like progressive art.

All in all, the user experience remains wildly unchanged, so it's not all bad or disruptive. If anything, the fierce competition has also led to improved standards. The side effect is that of the WOW effect. We just have to make sure the WOW effect comes second, not first.

Cheers.

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