Why Browsers Don’t Matter

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You might have heard a company called RockMelt announced a browser last week, even calling it a “social browser.” The product got a lot of attention, thanks in part to its funding from Marc Andreessen’s VC firm funding it (even though that should never be the story).

Big deal. Browsers don’t matter anymore, and as I detail over at GigaOM Pro (subscription required), here’s why not.

Once They Coulda Been Contenders

Once upon a time, Microsoft invested a ton of effort to kill off Netscape Navigator because it represented the first legitimate threat to Windows as a “platform.” The magic of Windows was that it delivered Microsoft’s APIs — which let it “control” developers — in a UI that effectively locked in users. This combination, along with Microsoft’s distribution through OEMs, developer support, and programming tools created a network effect that increased the overall value of the ecosystem with winner-take-all marketshare for Microsoft.

Subsequent competing browsers offered the promise of a similar platform: An application that with the rise of web apps and media could act as a user’s primary UI.

Today’s platform delivery vehicle

But today’s platform is the web itself, as browsers and even operating systems have been rendered less important. Companies that deliver mass-market APIs for consumer apps, like Google, Facebook and Apple, don’t depend on specific browsers for distribution. Neither do enterprise suppliers like IBM, Oracle, SAP and Salesforce.com. Even Microsoft can’t depend on Internet Explorer to establish its standards or businesses. Silverlight and Bing underscore that fact. All that’s to say that the excitement about RockMelt arises from the potential of establishing a new browser, but it feels like that potential is based on an outdated model.

Where a new browser might matter

A new browser could use that powerful API/UI combination on new devices:

  • Mobile. Conceivably, a browser could relieve some of the OS fragmentation across mobile phones. The mobile platforms of Microsoft, Google, and Apple are OS-based, while Facebook is building its mobile platform without either a browser or a mobile OS.The mobile platforms of Microsoft, Google, and Apple are OS-based, while Facebook is building its mobile platform without either a browser or a mobile OS.
  • TV. Similarly, next-generation TV and gaming devices suffer from an OS fragmentation that’s slowing app development and deployment. This one feels like an OS war to me, as most of the middleware players are names that are unfamiliar to web or game developers.

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