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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