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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 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.

Read the full post here.

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9 Responses to “Why Browsers Don’t Matter”

  1. Browsers are quickly becoming like text editors are: each one has one primary purpose (browse the web) and different addons that make that experience more user friendly or powerful. The fact that people are using the web for various applications is more important than how they got to that site, but the application they use to browse to that site matters greatly to the end user.

    Some people prefer heavy duty browsers with a suite of options built in, others prefer minimalist efforts, others prefer different bookmarking tools. Rather than browsers becoming huge programs in hopes of pleasing everyone, I hope we see more RockMelts that are built upon a solid core and specialize in different areas – maybe have a Meebo bar built in or a Dropbox features at the ready constantly.

  2. Two comments:
    1) if the “web is the platform” we need to make darn sure the greedy slime-balls at Comcast, Time Warner, etc. don’t strangle the baby. We need net neutrality
    2) Apple wins the browser wars. The iPhone will dominate the mobile experience for many years to come– no serious competition (unless you count Android, which goes away when ATT exclusivity does). So, Safari basically wins.

  3. The interface through which people interact with this new medium is also extremely important. For some, having one browser may be similar to adding a mouse to an otherwise keyboard-only computer interface. Other browsers limit how much the interfere and interact with your web experience because they realize the web is where all the action is right now. Google has been the biggest in this front.

  4. At this point it hardly matters which browser you use on your desktop/laptop as long as it is the latest version of that browser.

    The windows through which you view the web have very little difference so yes, they don’t really matter BUT you can differentiate and draw a decent market share because of that differentiation.

    You are however right that tools that run on the web are far more important.

  5. Right idea, but I think you’re looking in the wrong direction.

    Fragmentation isn’t just a development problem. Its a user experience problem. Yes, we’ll get more fragmented in the short and medium term, as every company/product pitches its own user experience and they seem cool.

    However, anyone who has used one browser can pretty much use any. Not so with apps. When a few things are different, they are cool. When everything is different, it sucks. Customizable web browsers and web portals may dip in popularity, but will never be replaced by disparate apps.

  6. Amusing that there’s a Chrome advert below. I thought Google was quite savvy at the whole internet ad business…

    Anyway, can’t say I agree with your premise. The lens through which people view the web is very important and will be for a while to come.