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By Dr. Philip Baczewski, Director of  Academic Computing and User Services

Long Live the Browser

Recently, Neil McAllister writing in InfoWorld Magazine posed the question, "Is the Browser Doomed?" He posits that small standalone web applications, such as those built using Adobe Air, will supplant web pages with their more stylized and focused functionality. These kinds of applications access the same web services, but present information in a more compact and directed manner. They remove the overhead of the browser user and presentation interface.  But would the proliferation of such standalone applications really represent an improvement on the concept of a single web browser?

To answer that question, we need to step into the wayback machine and return to the beginnings of the Internet. Before the web browser became synonymous with the Internet, there were numerous client applications which communicated with specialized servers across the Internet. Each client and server used their own special protocol, or message language, to format and exchange information over the Internet. Among these were Usenet news readers, Internet Relay Chat (IRC) clients, CU-SeeMe (video conferencing), WAIS, FTP, Gopher, Archie, Veronica, and a myriad more. Using the Internet meant that you had to have a collection of applications to perform the many tasks that could be accomplished, but it wasn't always easy or efficient.

The Gopher protocol was an early attempt to organize these many tasks in a single framework so that information and services could be presented in an organized fashion. Gopher still relied on other applications to do tasks like display images or initiate interactive sessions with remote services (like library card catalog systems.) Then along came an idea called the World Wide Web. The power of the Web lay in the concept of hypertext, which allowed the combination of text along with images and other media (like video and sound) within one display window. The Web protocol specified a way to present text and media within one display framework.

It took some software development to actually make the Web concept work for most people, and the result was Mosaic, a program developed at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. It didn't take a supercomputer to run Mosaic, but since the WWW project began as a way to share scientific data and information over the Internet, it was natural for a supercomputing center to take the cause of developing a Web client. The earliest version available to most non-scientific folks was written for the Macintosh operating system. Since then, almost every browser in use today, including Firefox and Internet Explorer, is based on that early Mosaic code. And the rest, as they say, is literally history.

The success of the browser has been precisely because of all the things you can access from one window. The fact that hypertext allows other resources to be seamlessly accessed within one application window is now such an intrinsic way of using Internet resources that we have come to take it for granted. So, when light-weight applications use web technology, it seems like a new and innovative idea. If you were around and on the Internet when it happened, you realize that the concept of hypertext within a single web browser was such a powerful idea that it changed the development of the Internet and revolutionized the way people received information and pursued commerce.

I think it's a bit premature to doom the browser. On the other hand, we are seeing some embedded uses of web technology working their way into the desktop mix. Several years ago, in version 10.4 (code-named Tiger) of Mac OS X, Apple introduce a feature called "Dashboard" as part of it's desktop OS. The Dashboard serves up widgets, which as Apple says, are "simply a web page that is displayed in the Dashboard rather than in a browser, such as Safari." The nice thing about widgets is that they have the pop-up dashboard to provide a framework for organization and management. They are still light-weight applications which provide a summary or quick access point to information, but also usually embed a link to a full-fledged browser page with more extensive information.

It should be remembered that at one time Sun's Java was heralded as the replacement for the browser. Since Java applications were supposed to "run anywhere", Internet applications written in Java were thought to be candidates to replace the traditional browser interface. The initial  poor performance of Java Virtual Machines required to run Java programs and extensive changes to Java operability between versions, among other things, inhibited its development as a common way to deliver Internet applications. The bottom line was that browsers were more accessible and dependable for most people.

The other thing to remember is that despite various squabbles over the past years,  it is the open standards of the Internet and the World Wide Web that have ensure the success of the browser as the entree to online information, applications, and commerce. The protocols used for Internet communication are open to all and not, despite some efforts, proprietary to any one company. That means that anyone with the resources, which these days may be as little as a desktop computer and Internet connection, can share information with anyone in the world. And anyone in the world can access that information as long as they have access to a browser and an Internet connection. That's a model doomed to success.

 


Originally published, May 2008 -- Please note that information published in Benchmarks Online is likely to degrade over time, especially links to various Websites. To make sure you have the most current information on a specific topic, it may be best to search the UNT Website - http://www.unt.edu . You can also search Benchmarks Online - http://www.unt.edu/benchmarks/archives/back.htm as well as consult the UNT Helpdesk - http://www.unt.edu/helpdesk/ Questions and comments should be directed to
benchmarks@unt.edu

 

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