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What will the browser look like in five years?

Opera's Charles McCathieNevile on the web browser's near-term future.

The web browser was just another application five years ago. A useful app, no doubt, but it played second fiddle to operating systems and productivity software.

That’s no longer the case. Browsers have matured into multi-purpose tools that connect to the Internet (of course) and also grant access to a host of powerful online applications and services. Shut off your web connection for a few minutes and you’ll quickly understand the browser’s impact.

I got in touch with Charles McCathieNevile, Opera chief standards officer and a speaker at the upcoming Web 2.0 Expo, to discuss the the current role of web browsers and their near-term future. He shares his predictions in the following Q&A.

MS: Will the web browser become the primary tool on computers?

Charles McCathieNevileCharles McCathieNevile: It isn’t already? Email, document management, device control, are all done through the browser. Games are increasingly browser-based — while it is not the only area that has taken time to move to the web, it is one of the biggest. There will always be applications that don’t run in the browser, just because that is the way people are. But there is little reason for the browser not to be a primary application already.</p.

MS: Will we even see a browser in five years? Or, will it simply blend with the operating system?

CM: We will see it, but as its importance increases it will be the part people see of their interface to the computer. So it will be less noticeable. Five years ago people chose their computer for the OS, and the software available for that OS. Ten years ago much more so. Increasingly, the browser will be the thing people choose.

MS: What has been the most significant browser advancement of the last 2-3 years?

CM: There are many I could name, from the huge increase in Javascript speed (and capabilities) in all browsers, to the development of native video, or the increased interoperability of XHTML, CSS and SVG. But the most significant in the long term just might be WAI-ARIA — a technology that makes it easier to make rich applications accessible to anyone, effectively by tagging code to say what it is meant to do. Because an important aspect of the web is its universality.

The ability to build innovative new things has always been around, and it is part of what engineers do by nature. But the ability to make sure everyone can use and benefit from them is the prerequisite for a societal shift. If you like, it isn’t the “bleeding edge” that is most significant (although it is generally the most interesting and captures the most mind-share), but it’s how the “trailing edge” shifts. That what changes everyone’s life.

MS: How important is cloud computing to the future of the browser?

CM: It shows a pathway for things that people want that require more power than the browser could provide at the time. So in that sense, it is very important. The major successes, the Web applications with million of users, are important in the sense that their user base sets some of the requirements for browser development.

MS: Will a single company achieve cloud-based lock in?

Web 2.0 Expo San FranciscoCM: I hope not. And I don’t think so. Although very few companies have the computing power to build global-scale applications that people use many times in a day, that power is not necessary for many applications. And there are plenty of things that people are not very keen to put on a cloud at all — or at least will insist on being able to move their data from one cloud to another. So while there will be very dominant players from time to time, I don’t think we will see one company take over completely.

MS: Will browser innovation come from the mobile side in years to come?

CM: Of course — in a continuation of the contribution of mobile browsing to the overall ecosystem. While mobile is increasingly important, it will not be the only driver. Large-screen devices, which are almost of necessity static, medium-sized devices, and different interface modalities such as voice and game controllers, will also drive innovations that will contribute to the richness of the entire web platform.

MS: What impact will tablet computing have on browsing?

CM: It’s another class of device. We have seen it around for years, although it is now taking off with the shiny new toy. So it will highlight the importance of developing for a range of platforms — and I think in large part the value of developing as much as possible with the “One Web” concept — making applications and content that are easy to adapt to the increasing diversity of devices people use.

MS: Will web applications catch up to mobile applications?

CM: Oddly enough, many people still ask the question the other way around. So I guess the real issue is whether we will see genuine convergence. And the answer is yes. There are new things being developed on the desktop browser, and they include the capabilities that we now see in mobile applications. Initiatives such as JIL and BONDI were developed to “hothouse” specifications that could form a basis for what is now W3C’s Device API group, and the development of technology like Web Workers, database storage and HTML5 video is being brought to mobile as fast as we can.

Note: This interview was condensed and edited.

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  • Tom

    I don´t know in 5 years, but Opera 10.51 looks today as a total disaster. I am a long time opera user and never had so many problems like today.

  • Martijn

    Tom, what kind of problems do you have then? If you have, for example, drinking problems, you shouldn’t blame Opera for that.

  • Stephen

    “Increasingly, the browser will be the thing people choose”

    Really?

    http://uxmag.com/short-news/these-are-your-users-read-and-be-horrified

  • Mark

    I LOVE 10.51 browser, it’s the best browser ever (and the Best Opera broweser ever).

    I have also been a long-time Opera user (4+ years)

  • Henrik

    The problem is that browsers do not show the same code the same way.
    Most browsers are getting better.
    But most of the world is still using Internet Explore, because that what came with the computer.

    IE is 5 years behind other browseres when it comes to support for morden stardart.
    And they are more interested in using there own standart, and want web develeport to use them aswell.

    They have taking a lot of beating over that, the last few years, but they are still slow. And don’t realy care.

    Also on the run all thing true the browser.
    I still use a real mail program, and a real IM program.

    I also like my office program to be a real program, and not just a web side.

    I like it that I have privaci.
    I like it that I can write, read, play, work.
    Even if I’m offline, or on a slow/bad connection

  • Nathan

    I don’t have a drinking problem but I do have lots of girlfriend problems, can Opera 10.51 help me solve them?

  • Dave

    As an interesting counterpoint, here’s a forward-thinking look at “browser trends” in general:

    http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2010/04/10/holistic-web-browsing-4-trends-of-the-future/

  • Chris

    lol @ 4 years use. Started with Opera in 1999, come back when you hit a lustrum. (dunno what a lustrum is? go watch True Grit!)

  • anon

    I got as far as:

    “…a speaker at the upcoming Web 2.0 Expo…”

    before giving up on this article.

    Web2.0 is really proprietary software 2.0, and that is why the phrase is getting thrown about so much. People are failing to recognise that with web applications you have even less control over your data than when using proprietary products on the desktop.

    And for this reason I reject anything presented as Web2.0 – it is a label that it will pretend to be user friendly, when really exploiting the naivete of users….. and journalists! Or maybe O’Reilly has its own Web2.0 ideas, so is joining the feeding frenzy?

    Every feature added to the browser in about the last 5 years has been about dumbing them down and getting new users spending money or entering personal info through them. We will only see this type of “progress” over the next 5 years. We won’t see browsers trying HTTPS by default, for instance, something that really could improve user security. We will see more things like geolocation (to target adverts), and more aggressive nagging from browsers to turn on privacy-violating features like that.

  • squeexix

    “but Opera 10.51 looks today as a total disaster.”

    This is the unfortunate truth. I hope all of the horrendous bugs with super basic things like page loading, page rendering, UI interaction, that have been ignored since the beta will get fixed in 10.52. Of course that’s unlikely seeing the tiny bug fix logs coming out of the snapshots so far. No wonder no one uses Opera :(

  • Aaron Toponce

    @Tom I’ve been using the Opera 10.51 browser for some time. Can you explain the specific issues you’re having? If not, is there a way you could come off as someone less than one who hates Opera?

    Personally, we’ve seen major improvements in the browser, and it’s only time before we see the mobile browser and the desktop browser merge, as mobile devices become more powerful. Which means, it’s only a matter of time when mobile sites and non-mobile sites merge, making it very difficult to distinguish between the too.

    If you ask me, Chrome OS is the right operating system for today’s Internet, and no doubt well see more advancements in similar operating systems in 5 years time.

  • David Megginson

    “The web browser was just another application five years ago. A useful app, no doubt, but it played second fiddle to operating systems and productivity software.”

    *Five* years ago? As in 2005? I think you need to add at least 5 years to that for the general public, and at least 10 years for geeks. Granted, there are still people who spend most of their lives in Word or Excel (or WordPro), but the majority of them are still stuck there.

  • donij

    The browser in 5 years will look just as it looked 5 years ago. I don’t see any significant change.

  • Karl

    @Aaron: Does anyone really hate Opera? If you don’t like it, you can just rejoin the 99% of the population that doesn’t bother to acknowledge its existence.

  • Joe

    The default should absolutely NEVER have been to hide the menu bar. As it is, everyone who was familiar with Opera before 10.5 suddenly had absolutely no clue where anything was.

    That is a big poke in the usability eye, and for what? To look like Chrome by default?

    Don’t dick with the default interface unless you absolutely have to.

  • Mike

    Hopefully in 5 years no one will be using Opera.

  • Billco

    “I guess the real issue is whether we will see genuine convergence.”

    What is this, 1997 ? I’m trying to temper my disdain for Opera, but this article reads like buzzword bingo. Convergence this, tablet that, cloud computing with a chance of hail… Does anyone not see that the browser is becoming a (crappy) virtual machine ? This “browser as a platform” hysteria has got to be the most inefficient and technologically deleterious idea since Java. Instead of trying to get Microsoft, Apple and Linux to play nice with each other, the web people are trying to stretch their own vision of a meta-operating system on top of the existing cruft, with all the repugnant hacks and serpentine code that entails.

    As a developer, I find this trend extremely offensive. We spend a significant portion of our working hours tweaking code and making things fast, so that these drop-outs can counter our optimizations with sloppy scripting and reinvented wheels.

  • Paul M. Watson

    I don’t think people will choose based on the browser. If anything they’ll choose based on “does Facebook work?” The browser is already largely an invisible window to the web.

    And for a browser guy to call the iPad and tablets “toys” is odd when they represent one of the better devices for pure web access.

  • Matt S

    @Karl “Does anyone really hate Opera?”
    Yes, I would say so. Opera appears to be a “joke” amongst the web development world :( . When I say that I mean when I mention to my web development friends that I use Opera, they laugh and usually ask “who uses Opera?!” Every time I have mentioned it they always laugh. Every person. It is quite literally a joke to any developer I have talked to. It is unfortunate that a nice browser is seen that way, but since it doesn’t offer anything to developers (no plugins, not open source), they have no interest in it :( .

    @Karl “If you don’t like it, you can just rejoin the 99% of the population that doesn’t bother to acknowledge its existence.”
    Technically it is 100% with rounding :)

  • Jim Carter

    Will Opera or Opera Mail support usenet news groups within the next year? This is a large part of online life; without it, I might as well stay with Firefox and Agent.

  • bowerbird

    of equal importance to the browser per se
    will be _what_ the browser is being fed…

    i hope it’s not the same heavy-markup
    crud that’s been forced on us up to now.

    light-markup systems let people make
    web-pages without learning obtuse code.

    there are scripts with filesizes under 80k
    that convert light-markup files to xhtml.

    put that 80k script into a modern browser
    (which runs what, dozens of megabytes?)
    and all of a sudden we could start serving
    light-markup (which ordinary humans can
    negotiate), not just the heavy-markup
    crud dominating the web we have today.

    return authoring-capability to people!

    -bowerbird

  • Scottix

    I am not sure everything is going to be based on the browser. Especially if a company like Apple take over the majority market. I almost feel like we are taking a step back from the browser and mainly using API calls to the internet. I think the world is changing how we use programs. The browser IMHO is dying.

  • Andrew

    I’d rather see any interview with Google Chrome’s team, because honestly, the only achievement Opera accomplished in the last few years is successfully blinding politicians into believing Opera’s failure to succeed was because of Microsoft.

    Opera will be in 5 years, where Google Chrome is in 2, if they are still in business.

    I hate to put other developers down, but honestly, Opera doesn’t deserve respect. Opera is a highly overrated browser (it only ever had a userbase because people wrongly believed it was blindingly fast), and I can’t respect a company which isn’t honest about its own products.

  • Tom

    One of the problems with 10.51 is when you install as an upgrade.

    Another problem is with the forums. Bad moderator conduct.

    I will still use Opera and expect 10.52 is released soon and fixed.

  • web developer

    anon said:
    “Web2.0 is really proprietary software 2.0, and that is why the phrase is getting thrown about so much. People are failing to recognise that with web applications you have even less control over your data than when using proprietary products on the desktop.”
    May I ask why you think this? As much as I hate the term “Web 2.0″, your comment on it is very unclear – I’d be curious to know where you’re coming from there.

    Matt S said:
    “Opera appears to be a “joke” amongst the web development world :( . When I say that I mean when I mention to my web development friends that I use Opera, they laugh and usually ask “who uses Opera?!” Every time I have mentioned it they always laugh. Every person. It is quite literally a joke to any developer I have talked to. It is unfortunate that a nice browser is seen that way, but since it doesn’t offer anything to developers (no plugins, not open source), they have no interest in it :( .”
    I’m a web developer and an Opera user. I use Opera for one primary reason. That reason is not any of its many great user features – I use it because its the best browser to develop standards based web pages in. So if your web developer friends are laughing at you, the best thing to tell them is that they should probably look for another profession as they don’t seem to have a clue about the one they’re in (note that most “web developers” don’t – there’s a very good reason most of the web is made from crap code).

    For any web developers replying that one should ideally develop in the most used, not the most standards adherent browser – this was the argument used by IE developers 10 years ago. It was proven wrong then and is still wrong now.

  • Anonymous

    @Matt S. it’s sad too, because Opera is one of the most standards-compliant browsers out there, so they’re really only hurting themselves.

  • Alex

    I’ve been an avid Opera user for 10+ years (since 3.21?), even used to pay for the Windows and Linux versions. In my experience, it’s always been way ahead of Firefox.

    That said, I upgraded to 10.51 and found it to be slow as molasses on my 2+GHz machine, what with animation of the tab titles, etc. Got tired of it real quickly, downgraded back to 10.10, and am again a happy camper.

    Regarding Jim Carter’s quest for Usenet support, I use Google Groups for some of the comp.lang.* groups with no problems.

  • Mark Johnson

    The Society for Scholarly Publishing is having a panel discussion on the future of the web browser at its annual meeting in San Francisco on Friday June 4. Mac & Charles – Interested in participating? If yes, please contact me. Mark Johnson, HighWire Press, Stanford University
    https://www.resourcenter.net/Scripts/4Disapi2.dll/4DCGI/events/eventdetail.html?Action=Events_Detail&Time=834018462&SessionID=509234644jrb2avqy754139ccibtg9g103s4x65ypkq7su98ec88c0l99k3luf79&InvID_W=11523

  • Charlie J

    Hmm, instead of your web connection, try shutting off your operating system for a few minutes and you’ll quickly understand the operating system’s impact.

    The browser has to have an OS in order to function. Do folks not understand this?

    I’ll continue to use Final Cut Pro, thank you, as we will not see that kind of power and performance in a web app for a long, long time.

  • David Megginson

    @Charlie J:

    How about rephrasing: “Try removing your battery or electrical cord for a few minutes and you’ll quickly understand electricity’s impact. The operating system has to have electricity in order to function. Do folks not understand this?”

    Seriously, I don’t agree with everything Mac wrote (it’s laughable to claim that the browser wasn’t the most visible computer application until 5 years ago), but he’s right to imply that the operating system is most of the way to becoming a boring utility, like electricity, and that almost all the interesting innovation is happening around the browser layer.

  • http://www.lifelongchange.com/ Owen

    I don’t get why desktop has to catch up to mobile… The only thing that mobile has “extra” is the touch screen. In every other way it lacks – resources, productivity, usability.