2004: Beyond the Browser?

Happy New Year, everyone! I’d like to start the year off with an existential bang and pose one of those forward-thinking unanswerable questions that really make it feel like a brave new world:

Is this the year we finally move beyond the browser?

The Internet isn’t just the World Wide Web and isn’t accessed only through a Web browser. The Internet’s major application, aside from the Web, is email. It also has FTP, newsgroups, and a whole host of other protocols that allow data to be transferred over the TCP/UDP backbone we call the Internet.

The browser catapulted the Internet into mainstream use, and it seems to be the only way most people access the Internet. Many companies, however, would challenge that position, arguing the browser will be a thing of the past. They’ve been arguing that since the mid-’90s, and the browser is still our main navigation tool. Let’s look at some other ideas: some futuristic and some that don’t seem so far-fetched.

Fat Versus Thin

The Web browser was designed as a thin client, a small program needing little space on a local computer. Most of the data processing occurs on a remote server. This is opposed to a fat client, such as a service like AOL. A fat client does a lot of the processing on the client side, sending only minimal information over the Internet to its servers. The browser, as a thin client, leveled the e-commerce playing field.

To choose between barnesandnoble.com and Amazon.com, a user simply goes to one of their Web sites, using the same application (the browser). He can use both sites if desired and switch between them instantaneously. This can’t be easily done with a fat client. Choosing between WordPerfect and Word, for example, isn’t as simple as going to word.com or wordperfect.com and starting to type. The user must install an application locally. The browser made it easy to build “applications” that were all accessible through the browser. And the world was good.

That is, until companies decided they needed more presence on the desktop. After all, if the world sees the Internet through one browser and Microsoft makes that browser, then the world sees other companies through Microsoft lenses. That made many companies uncomfortable. Their own brands were not getting the same screen time Microsoft’s brand was getting.

Companies began to realize Internet applications didn’t have to be seen only through the browser. ICQ’s and AOL’s instant messenger services were standalone applications. Search engines such as Google and Yahoo created standalone applications (their toolbars) that put their interfaces on the desktop, not just in the browser. File-swapping programs and viral communities came in the form of applications, not just Web sites.

The fat client became a viable idea, as transfer speeds made download and installation times less of an entry barrier.

But Where Is E-Commerce?

I know what you’re thinking, “Thanks for the history lesson, but where do we make money?” E-commerce players tried to make fat clients that ran on mobile devices back in 1998, but not a lot of e-commerce was generated wirelessly. Why? In large part because no one really needs to buy a book while driving home. The other significant factor is the wireless demographic (at the time) was a subset of the desktop computer demographic. Those people already had a sufficient way to engage in e-commerce: through a browser on a PC.

Are things any different today? Definitely. Many people, especially outside the U.S., first access the Internet through mobile devices (usually phones). Equally as many young people first use the Internet by playing multiplayer games on Internet-enabled PlayStations or other game boxes.

I wouldn’t expect a company such as Amazon to create a downloadable, installable PC program that housed a new look-and-feel for its store (e.g., a 3-D browsable superstore). But imagine Amazon releasing “Amazon for the PlayStation.” A game disk allows the player to buy things from Amazon with a joystick, walking through a first-person simulation game that looks like a store rather than the set of Quake. There is a untapped market that doesn’t sit in front of computers, but in front of game consoles.

When I worked at barnesandnoble.com, at least eight 3-D-world companies pitched creating a virtual 3-D bookstore where customers could browse, walk around, interact with others, and purchase merchandise. In 1999 this made no sense. A 3-D store didn’t fit with the demographic that was using the Internet through a Web browser. Those people would rather just use the two-dimensional store. The browser was a two-dimensional medium. It still is.

But the world of gamers is generally 3-D. All of a sudden, a 3-D store for online browsers doesn’t seem like science fiction if the medium isn’t the browser and the hardware isn’t a PC.

A Brave New World?

The browser is actually getting fatter, too. Macromedia Flash is a fat-client answer to user interface development and animation. Java is a fat-client answer to client-side computational power.

When will totally encapsulated Flash applications take over the Web? You know, the ones that don’t appear within the browser, just within the Flash player. Is it time for e-commerce players to think about life outside the browser? Maybe having an Amazon application on my computer isn’t such a bad idea. It would allow much greater user interaction. It wouldn’t rely on browser conventions and could take advantage of a much more complicated client-side logic. Should game developers merge the game world more with the e-commerce world?

Is it already happening? Are there people breaking the confines of the browser successfully? Or should we all just be happy with the browser and the limited interactive abilities it gives us? Can you imagine a CRM system that works with a proprietary fat client instead of through the Web browser?

Let me know what you think! I’m eager to hear your ideas about where (beyond the browser) the coming year might take us.

Until next time…


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