Recently, I read about RockMelt, an upcoming new browser that is apparently "endorsed" by the guy who started Netscape. The description of RockMelt made me start thinking about how every browser sucks, and why this new one doesn't appear to be trying to buck the trend of suck. But first, a brief, slightly egocentric history of the suck.
In Review: A History of Suck
In the early 90s, it was all about Netscape Navigator and its little ship helm logo. Anybody who was
in junior high in the 90s should have seen it. Then, while Netscape basked in its glory, doing nothing
to improve itself, along came IE and the little blue E that we've all come to know and
love despise with the wrath of a thousand suns. Netscape pretty much disappeared, largely due
to the fact that the early IEs were much, much better, and also because everyone started using Windows,
which of course shipped with IE (since it was made by Microsoft).
The pinnacle of browser beauty culminated in the advent of Internet Explorer 6 in the late 90s, and pretty much spelled the doom for Netscape, which hadn't been significantly improved for 6 years. You could look at futhermucking PNGs with IE! How could Netscape possibly compete with that!?
Anyway, IE and Microsoft enjoyed its reign as king of browsers, until Netscape realized they had no hope of ever competing because they were ugly and lazy and stupid. So they sold their souls to the Mozilla corporation, which took out all of the good stuff in Netscape (the Gecko engine), and left the suck to rot in versions 8 and 9. They created Firefox, which hipsters and linux geeks the world over have heralded as the second coming of Christ. Firefox basically was just a way for nerds to assert their superiority over other nerds by name-dropping it. Because everyone knows that if you haven't heard of Firefox, you can haz a n00b. Kind of like what I did with RockMelt several paragraphs ago. Try to keep up.
Meanwhile, a bunch of Norwegians, in true viking style, started their own browser called "Opera". I can only assume they named it something so lame because of the language barrier. Opera began being used by an even smaller clique of nerd know-it-alls than Firefox. They are even more annoying than their Firefox counterparts, albeit less vocal. Opera proclaimed a love for standards-compliant (an admirable goal), lightweight, portable browsers, and they pretty much succeeded. Unfortunately, nobody gives a crap, because it looks hideous.
Back at Microsoft, the genius engineers behind IE6 were enjoying their throngs of groupie women, failing to realize that in the last 10 years things have actually happened! Say what!? IE6 is a horrible, horrible abomination? I thought we could just build an application and then let it stagnate for a decade and it would still be awesome! How did we miss this!?
Microsoft scrambled to alleviate the most vocal of the complaints against IE6 ("no tabbed browsing!? what is this, the 12th century? Firefox is safer LOLZ"). IE7 came out, to no buzz whatsoever. Since all the people who knew how to use the web were already using Firefox (all 20 of them), and most people turn off automatic Windows updates as soon as they plugin their computers, IE7 was pretty much not adopted by anyone. All it really did was give web developers one more browser to test. Granted, in terms of standards compliance, it was far better than IE6 (transparent PNGs gasp!), but it was still worse than Firefox 1.5. And Opera. So nobody was converted, but frankly, that wasn't really the goal of IE7 anyway, because IE still had 95% of the market share anyway. They were still sitting pretty, until...
Mozilla Add-Ons, or How Firefox Lessened the Suck
This was Mozilla's most brilliant breakthrough, and frankly, it's the only thing that's currently keeping people from switching to a browser that doesn't require 300MB of memory to sit idly. Mozilla created this thing called XUL, but didn't put it to good use until they created the addons site, and people actually started using it. Suddenly, the browser wasn't just an application, it was a way of life. The Firefox bigots finally had a solid reason why their browser was better: it was customizable. In a way in which pretty much no other desktop application was. It really was and is still a remarkable amount of genius. Firebug is the only only that reason I still use Firefox. It's bloated, slow, resource-intensive, ugly, and its users are among the most annoying on the internet, but it's the only way I can actually debug anything on the web.
Meanwhile, in Microsoft Land, IE7 was stagnating (surprise). Business managers are mostly Nazis (Godwin's law) and don't want anyone browsing anything besides their intranet and/or SharePoint, so they had no reason to allow their underlings to upgrade their browser to IE7. That hideous rite still rages on today. In Norway, Opera was developing rapidly to the tune of CSS3 and standards compliance, but nobody cares about that besides web developers, and they weren't about to leave Firebug behind. Not to mention the fact that they were still verifying that their websites are IE4+ compatible, so any technology more recent than an animated gif was not used anyway. In version 9.5/6, Opera released Dragonfly, their own version of Firebug, which was a giant step forward, but still much worse than Firebug. Nobody was converted. The market share had shifted slightly in favor of Firefox, but IE still held a commanding 4:1 lead.
Google Starts Sucking, Too
Then, suddenly, a new player emerges! Google enters the fray with Chrome, a brand new browser!... Except that there wasn't anything new or innovative about it. The one nice feature that Chrome had was that each tab was its own process, which meant that while Flash was busy crashing in one tab, the other tabs would independently and cheerfully continue to load.... Until they eventually crashed as well. Chrome captured approximately 2% of the market, which is actually pretty impressive for a browser that has nothing to offer, besides the coolness of its brand. That figure is even more impressive when you factor in how it was only available on Windows for over 6 months.
And here we are, in 2009, with about three browsers to choose from, all with huge, gaping flaws. You'll
notice that I left Safari out of this little anecdote. That's because it was an egocentric
history of browsers, and I've never used Safari except for testing, and marveling at how incredibly difficult
defaults write com.apple.Safari IncludeDebugMenu 1:
are you freaking kidding me!?).
A Full Circle
So, why did I go through all the trouble of outlining this? My negativity towards browsers is universal, as I've sampled all of the major ones and a few of the minor ones, and they all have one thing in common: sucking. The world of technology is evolving. Even though the open source community is strong, all of those people have day jobs because they can't make a living by writing awesome software. They write awesome software on the side while they support their families by implementing SOA through REST visa vis SaaS. The software industry is a wave of fads and trends that executives latch onto to try and be the next Google, despite the fact that companies like Google never employed such empty things like SOA. Well, maybe they did indirectly, but that was never their strategy. Every developer who has a job now is a slave to these trends, even when they'd rather not be. Money and greed rule the day; in any industry, really. It's the one downside of capitalism: it always seems to morph into pure greed.
So, allow me to come full circle on how the the browser wars are similar to the trials and tribulations of the software industry. The new waves of browsers are very similar to how non-techie executives would mandate that a software application would develop.
New features in Firefox 3.5 include one-click bookmarking, an improved address bar (awesome bar), something about tabs, better memory management and session restore. Useful features, sure, but where's support for CSS3, or improved stability of Flash, or a faster rendering engine, or more standards-compliant HTML rendering? Besides improving the memory management, they were clearly more focused on improving the user experience than improving the actual software.
Not that improving the user experience is bad, but when a YouTube video causes Firefox to lock up for 30 seconds, that seems like something that should be fixed before, say, a more convenient way to bookmark pages. I mean, who even uses bookmarks anyway? I have like four bookmarks (all to login pages for paying my bills online). There's only about 10 sites that I visit on a regular basis, and I don't have trouble remembering the fully qualified domain names of 10 sites.
Unite the Suck
I'm Feeling Sucky
Google recently announced that their new operating system will be available in 2010 sometime, which is basically a wrapper around their browser. A novel idea, but why I would leave my current operating system for one that's based around a browser that I don't use? Maybe their idea will work, but I don't think people are quite ready to turn their computers into a giant, fancy web browser. More importantly, I don't think the web is ready for it. Connections are too slow, servers are too easily assaulted, and web applications are too unusable (compared with desktop apps) that being as productive on the web as you are on the desktop is still 10 years away.
This guy says it pretty well, with some MSPaint-inspired graphics to help you learn. Because learning is fun!
The next generation of browsers need to focus on delivering content in the easiest, fastest and least painful way possible. I would happily give up 90% of the features in Firefox if the application never crashed. Firefox crashes so often that it has its own built-in crash reporter. I might use Chrome exclusively if flash didn't crash the browser 10% of the time. I might use Opera if Dragonfly was slightly usable. I might use Safari if... well, I'll never use Safari. I might use IE if Microsoft didn't insist on deviating from every known web standard.
RockMelt, like Chrome, seems to be focusing on bridging the gap between desktop and web. Why don't they just focus on fixing the problems with all the other browsers? What if they made an easily debuggable, solid, secure, fast, easy-to-use, lightweight browser (that's really easy, right? Bueller?)? Instead, we're probably going to get another Opera Unite, with the absolute latest in bookmarking technology. We'll be able to bookmark everything! Our lives will never be the same!
I appeal to the browser makers: stop giving me new features, and fix the stuff that is already broken. Right now, nobody is winning. Let the users win the browser wars.