14 Sep 2015

The new browsers

To us, web developers, the web browser is a very complex application which implements countless protocols and specs to display content from an incredible amount of different websites. Its very nature is to be decoupled from the content it displays… and that’s the main reason why the web is so wide.

Now, to most people, the browser is barely the gateway to the web. It’s the icon that displays the Google search box. Don’t take my word for it, here’s proof:

I should probably have warned you: this video is from 2009. I’d be really curious to see what people say these days. At the time, Chrome had recently been introduced and my initial reaction was that Google was trying to secure its supply of internet users. Today Chrome is the dominant web browser, but I don’t think it matters as much as Google expected.

A couple days ago, Peter Rojas wrote this:

Because Facebook has become the primary interface for hundreds of millions of people for experiencing the web.

And this

We don’t usually think of it in this way, but the News Feed breaks that direct relationship between websites and readers by unbundling sites into their individual components (i.e. articles and videos) and then re-aggregating them into a largely undifferentiated stream that’s algorithmically customized for each user.

To me, this means that Facebook is now the new browser. Actually, when going a little further, it’s a time-based version of what the browser is to space. Facebook let’s you view a reverse-chonological timeline of content from the web. The content is more and more diverse and comes from more and more sources. Thanks to Instant Articles, it’s also less and less links to the outside-of-facebook-web and more and more content which can be consumed inside Facebook.

Facebook is not the only new browser. Flipboard has been playing this game for a couple years, Apple and its News application may also be headed in a similar direction. They are also going one step forward by actually killing the browsers from their watches and TVs. Twitter is also trying to stay relevant by leveraging its timeline. My friend Ben also wrote about how commerce is also being timelined.

For content providers, it’s now crucial to both embrace the movement but not pick a winner. There’s no doubt that the distribution and performance provided by these new browsers is now greater than the traffic from search engines. It will probably keep growing as their penetration increases. At the same time, these content publishers should also remember that the hand which feeds them can suddenly charge them or alter their algorithm to make them irrelevant as quickly as they rose.

Decoupling remains the only insurance for content providers that their content can flow on each of these new browsers and their incumbents.

Note: Do you speak Chinese? Zhang Wei translated this post.

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