Advertising and the Next Wave of Browsers

On April 22, 1993, Marc Andreessen released the 1.0 version of NCSA Mosaic onto the Internet, forever changing the face of common communication. 1993. Wow. That was so long ago, that the software, originally written to run under Unix was ported for use on Commodore Amiga. Pundits of the time predicted that Mosaic would not only challenge AOL but also CompuServe and Prodigy.

The story of Mosaic is a good one, not so much for what happened to the software initiative itself (development by the NCSA was stopped about a decade ago) but for the revolution that it sparked in communications and in the ongoing challenge of creating the best way to browse the Web.

There have been scores of followers in Mosaic’s path, from Internet Explorer by behemoth Microsoft to Opera, a favorite of the fringe. But the race for browser supremacy is far from over. I give as evidence the last two weeks, where we saw a major release by Google and a quiet (but important) release by Mozilla.

Both releases bring fresh thinking to the Internet as to what a browser is and what it does, and both have serious implications for advertising.

Google Finally Shows Its Browser Cards

The big announcement in the browser wars came from Google. It released Chrome, a browser of its own making. Google has been on the sidelines for most of this fight, which seems to make sense. It makes all of its money from the ads it serves around search results and content. It makes no money from software downloads. In fact, it has a track record of buying software that does sell for money and giving it away for free (Google Earth, Google Analytics, and Picasa to name a few). As long as a browser can show an ad, why should it care?

It should care because it sees a different kind of future for the Web. Today, we visit sites. Tomorrow (or, maybe a year or so from tomorrow), we’ll load applications. The line between a site and an app is blurring rapidly, and Google is sitting in the middle of that space with its mail and document offerings.

The browser it’s concocted is a browser for the next generation of the Web. Mosaic was built to display content marked up in HTML. Chrome is a platform built to process code. It’s very nature — from the way users can create desktop and taskbar shortcuts to Web apps to the underlying structure that process complex pages more efficiently — is all about execution, not display.

I asked my network what effect this would have on online advertising and got several good responses. The best came from Gunther Sonnenfeld, SVP of digital and social media at DEI. He said, “Its significantly increased speed will optimize content delivery, particularly among video platforms. Just think about how annotations, interstitials, as well as pre- and post-roll will fare in this new environment.”

I agree. The increased use of video and deep interactivity within ads requires a different computing architecture than can be afforded by the current generation of browsers. Chrome takes us closer to allowing the creative teams to think even more deeply about the experiences they can create.

The big message, then, for advertisers in light of the Chrome release is, essentially: game on.

Mozilla Ubiquity

Much quieter was the release of a plug-in for Firefox, called Ubiquity. This bit of functionality that you can add to your browser enables you to call up a window and type in a command. I know, it sounds pretty low tech. But you can actually do some pretty fantastic things with Ubiquity. For example, if you are in Gmail and want to tell someone to meet you at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, you can highlight the location in your e-mail, pull up the window, and type “map this.” A map is pulled up and easily dropped into the e-mail.

Anyone can add commands to the Ubiquity service, and it actually doesn’t take a lot of coding. Users can then subscribe to those commands and use them anywhere on the Web (if this is all a bit confusing, visit the link and watch the video).

This brings up a really interesting question. Right now, you can highlight a word and type “wiki this” in the Ubiquity box; the result is the Wikipedia page for whatever you’ve highlighted. Imagine if Amazon introduced the command “buy this” or Shopping.com created the command “compare this.” Someone could be reading a review of a book and buy it directly in the first example. In the second, someone could be looking at a new camcorder and immediately find prices and shops to buy it.

More and Deeper

The bottom line on all of this is that we’ve taken a fundamental step in the browser wars with these two introductions. Where previous browser releases seemed to focus on loading up on functionality or trying to make incremental increases in speed, we’ve got two new methods of using the Web that reflect the Web’s changing nature. That means that there are new opportunities to use the Web for advertising a bit differently as well.

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