The Browser Is Dead — Long Live the Browser

[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.

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