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Summary:

[qi:074] Last summer, when I got my first iPhone, I found myself spending an equal amount of time downloading and installing various applications — some paid, some free — and using the excellent Safari browser to surf the web. Over the past few months, I realized […]

[qi:074] Last summer, when I got my first iPhone, I found myself spending an equal amount of time downloading and installing various applications — some paid, some free — and using the excellent Safari browser to surf the web. Over the past few months, I realized that I was barely using my browser anymore, that the applications had gotten so much better that I was content to let them speed me to my web destinations.

Sometime in the past few weeks, I had an even bigger realization: The browser is dead. And it’s because all those apps that now monopolize my time have taken their pick of browser parts from the bin and blossomed into a phenomenon all their own.

The App Age

rohit_sharmaBack in 1998, in a world not yet connected by Google, Facebook and Twitter, the gentle folk from Redmond launched Active Desktop with Internet Explorer 4. It allowed the user to add to the desktop HTML content that could be updated and synchronized without visiting the web site in a browser.

Fast-forward to today, and it appears the time for this idea has finally arrived, in the form of applications –- first on superphones like the iPhone, and as more apps untether themselves from the umbilical cord that was the browser, on netbooks and even laptops/desktop computers, too. With some 5.5 million apps being downloaded every day from Apple’s App Store, many iPhone users may have already forgotten that the rendering engine used underneath them all is a webkit, the same underlying layout/display engine used in Safari and Google Chrome as well as Android and Palm Pre webOS.

Going forward, this trend of apps jumping out of the browser and onto available screen real estate will only gain steam. After all, with active push notifications, clicking a stock price or weather forecast or gas price app on the live desktop is definitively a better user experience than that of a browser.

Google’s Chrome already enables shortcuts to be placed on the desktop, start menu or quick-launch bar in Windows OS machines. It strikes me that moving tabs toward the outsides of the browser display window is merely a first graphical step towards freeing the app entirely from the browser. Eventually the tabs may disappear altogether, with complex web applications, including those from Google, humming in their individual “containers” and reached via direct click, not via a browser tab.

This scenario is a fitting coda to the browser evolution that began in the early 1990s, when the browser was essentially the only purpose-built network-connected application. Today, browsers have lent their structure, chassis and struts to network-connected applications that devour user time and attention away from the browser itself.

The App Web vs. the Legacy Browser Web

A significant consequence of the potential emergence of the App Web vs. the Legacy Browser Web will be felt on the web’s monetization engine –- advertising. From Adsense to Adwords to DoubleClick, as well as various other forms of click-based monetization, all must evolve as the App Web begins to dominate users’ time. To the extent that this Legacy Web was a cognitive medium, the emerging App Web skews, TV-like, towards an emotional engagement with the user. In this scenario, deep, immersive video applications à la Boxee (note Boxee’s non-presence in a browser) and thousands of casual gaming applications dominate user time and engagement.

Just imagine, a whole set of applications that finally free the video screen from its HTML-caged rendering/display and enable the presentation of desirable content through an intuitive, immersive video screen/application. In this engaging, app-mediated format, the proven monetization engine of brand advertising that powers television and other entertainment media will finally be possible in the online world. And the analytics that can be gleaned through the App Web promise to be better than the 18,000-30,000 viewers that Nielsen uses to predict/analyze the TV habits of 200 million American viewers.

The dominance of click-powered direct response advertising online will then face a challenge from demand/creation-oriented brand advertising. And it will have an unlikely ally to thank -– the humble browser, its genius revealed through letting a thousand applications bloom outside its constrained windows and tabs.

We are witnessing nothing short of the birth of a new and mobile mass media channel, one that will will reach more than a billion people around the world over the next few years via smart/superphones alone. This billion+ audience will be supplemented by numerous network-connected mobile and not-so-mobile devices and screens with thousands of network-connected applications. Each application is like a TV channel –- available on your mobile device or netbook or laptop/desktop — while the browser is a mere TV guide channel -– useful, but no longer dominant.

Rohit Sharma works with early-stage entrepreneurs in the area of infrastructure for cloud computing, networking, and storage systems. He was most recently a partner at Mohr, Davidow Ventures.

  1. Old hat.

    It’s called Site Specific Browsers.

    Hmm let me see. I am in a poor country do I buy a $500 smartphone or a $100 laptop. When will people realise that smartphones will not be the primary form of net access for people in poor countries.

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    1. I would have to disagree just in that users in developing countries are using cellphones at an alarming rate (African countries have the highest cellul phone adoption rate). In the next decade their primary access point to the internet will be through their mobile phones browser. That’s not to say that they’ll be using a $500 smart phone, but they certainly will be using a phone and the mobile web.

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  2. The same behaviour existed for years: my mom only read the newspaper and yahoo email.
    Now the “dumb” Internet catch more eyeballs in a few places and you can spend hours or whole lifes under facebook.

    But curious people will continue to use its browsers (and desktop applications) instead of boxed web sites.

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  3. Um, this is just wrong:

    “With some 5.5 million apps being downloaded every day from Apple’s App Store, many iPhone users may have already forgotten that the rendering engine used underneath them all is a webkit, the same underlying layout/display engine used in Safari and Google Chrome as well as Android and Palm Pre webOS.”

    Very few of the apps from the App Store use Webkit. Maybe you should research a bit more before making your grand prognostications.

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    1. “Maybe you should research a bit more before making your grand prognostications.”

      The entire blogosphere and most of the business non-fiction section of every airport bookstore would disappear in a giant flash if people did this.

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  4. The browsing experience on even the best smartphones (iPhone, Pre, Storm, etc.) is certainly better than 1990s-era cell phones, but it’s still terrible compared to a laptop or PC browsing experience. We’re a LONG long way from the desktop/PC browser losing it’s dominance as an application platform.

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  5. The writer has got it so wrong here. Its a headline writeup to get attention, thats it.

    Didn’t we say good bye to client-server, thick clients for a single unifying app container – the browser. Yes the mobile apps got more popular vs browser apps on a mobile device – not because of the constraint of the browser but because of the mobile platform – screen real estate, limited horse power etc. Can you take a iphone app to android or palm WebOS, the answer is no. And thats where the difference is – thats where the niche of browser will remain – cross platform, portable across devices.

    Calling the death of browser is immature and not expected from reputed blog like this one.

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    1. Kapil – you’re spot on. Like the insight.

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  6. Rohit is such a tool and has no integrity
    the guy is somehow linked to vdopia, vdopia provides video ads for the iphone
    i think MDV invested in the company and he led the deal
    if he disclosed his involvement with vdopia I would not have a problem with this article
    because he did not disclose this bias/conflict he is at best self-serving and at worst lacks integrity
    what a tool

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  7. not really how Google sees the world, either

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  8. Dude, this “I use Safari on iPhone, it’s amazing!” hype has become boring and numb. I mean, it’s like getting a hotel room and bloging how amazing is that you have a shower and a TV. We got past this excitemet that there’s a phone witha a browser. You can check Facebooka and Twitter. Spend a bunch of money on some “apps”. Few weeks later, what are you gonna do with it?

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  9. I believe very strongly that the web will evolve into a user-centered application platform, but the vision presented in this article ignores its main strength: it’s a universal, device-independent medium. HTML 5 contains features for building offline web applications; if these seemingly browserless widgets can run using open standards across devices, they have a future.

    However, they won’t kill the browser. The best part of the application web is that, as long as not caring what kind of web-capable device you use, it doesn’t matter *whose* device you use. I have three laptops, an iPhone, and sometimes use web applications from the computers of friends, families or companies I’m visiting. I can use my web apps from any of them. That’s an incredibly powerful trait and one that has a lot of commercial potential – and that requires the browser to work.

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    1. I agree. And, the main distinction should be device versus PC. I like to think that the web’s greatest strength is its independence, but also that its standards allow an application to draw the necessary information rather than simply a page. This sets the path for widgets and apps.

      Apps are going to dominate mobility because we want specific actions rather than general information from a small display. Think of it like scripting rather than as browsing. I draw what is necessary and contextually relevant.

      I also see mobile and devices becoming the dominant web platform. Frankly, most information relevant to say finding a restaurant is not online. Does your favorite restaurant have a site? Is it maintained? DOes it have specials? Probably not. But, devices can play a significant role in such scenarios. Imagine that the cash register provides specials information. Is a browser used?

      Lots of opportunity here…

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      1. >Frankly, most information relevant to say finding a restaurant is not online. Does your favorite restaurant have a site?
        With apps like google maps, yelp, and all the others out there, every restaurant now has some kind of visibility online. It may not be their menu and daily specials, but it will be their address, phone number, and reviews by customers. I personally use the internet to find practically everything now.

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  10. Mixed reactions on this.
    Yes, there are apps (and widgets) that can do custom internet access. But the claim of “5.5 million apps being downloaded every day…” is misleading in the sense that there are no 5.5 million apps – there are no more than a few apps, but they are downloaded thousands of (or as claimed, 5.5 million) times…

    Apart from this, the browser is still well and truly the one single killer app on a PC/netbook. You might accumulate a handful of handy other apps, but I’m still tempted to label these apps as “side kicks” of the browser. Individual users visit no more than a few dozen sites regularly – and that is why browsers have a favorite list. I’d rather have 1 app taking me wherever I want instead of a hundred dedicated ones that can, at best, claim to be only marginally efficient than the browser, while denying me the freedom I so much love. Moreover, resident apps are not easy to upgrade. So, if were a developer, I would think twice about making resident / downloadable apps.

    Having said this, small cutie apps and widgets have their place under the sun, rubbing shoulders with the all powerful browser, in peaceful coexistence. I dont see them as competing for my attention. I would use a cycle and a car for different purposes – they don’t compete.

    The notion of a browser being the killer app should make way to the notion that the browser becomes (a fundamental part of) the OS, offering infrastructural support for apps, in exactly the same way that a file system did years ago. At the risk of triggering antitrust lobbyists, I would rather go on to say that the good old OS is dead (or will be soon), and the browser is the new OS.

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