Browsers Reimagined

Browsers are the lens through which we see the web. And considering how much the content of the web has changed over the past few decades — from low-quality images to constant streaming video — it sometimes feels a little strange that the browser experience has remained more or less the same.

How might browsers change in the next five years? While there’s no way to definitively predict the course of the future, Here are a few ideas of some ways the web could continue to evolve in the near future.

Discovery on the web has room to grow.

In the web’s current state, there are many ways to discover content. But the current experience is saturated with algorithmically-generated feeds and search results tied to very particular keywords.

There are many users for whom the entire web is just what they can see through these methods. But they aren’t the only way to discover web content — and as time has passed, some of the more interesting ways to discover web content have fallen away from the core.

Search engines ideally function as a set of paths that can connect us to topically specific parts of the web. But today, many people are at the mercy of a single search engine, whose programming decides which search results are the “best” results, usually featuring paid content and ads at the top.

We’ve all had the experience of searching for something with specific keywords, and then having something else pop up. Even though keywords can help us find a wide range of options, some search terms yield pages of unrelated, ambiguous or inaccurate content. This is probably going to be even more noticeable as the web continues to expand.

Webrings were a solution for this on the early web. Webrings were community-built groups which would organize web content, in ways which let users explore themed sections of the web without having to dig through results from the entire thing.

Social media platforms like Facebook have proven to be an imperfect replacement for web rings. They allow us to discover a constant stream of content, but it’s all recommended by algorithm rather than human interaction — not to mention that it is filled with ads.

Facebook also suffers by trying to be a service for everybody. The human experience is not supposed to be about ‘one size fits all’ content or profiles.

Webrings were most effective when they would focus on particular communities or interests. But a service which tries to be all things for all users is more likely to gravitate towards content for “the average user” — so that most of what users end up discovering will feel impersonal and non-customizable.

The browsers of the future might get more mileage out of webring-like systems instead of just using algorithm-driven search engines. This would help bring the human element back into the exploration of the web, while helping filter out unrelated search results. Webrings are already coming back through services like Neocities.

Rather than trying to build the perfect algorithm which can find the “best” content for the most people, why not let people recommend content to each other themselves?

Stumbleupon was a website and a browser button that allowed anyone to surf interesting websites and categories of content in a single click.

Remember StumbleUpon? Anyone could click on a button and be taken to a surprise website, either from a set of all interesting websites, or within a favorite category. Imagine a service like StumbleUpon built into the browser itself, allowing people to discover new content by category instead of keywords.

This kind of social platform would encourage its community to compile and share in a browser-supported context, allowing a more vibrant experience than one built around re-posting algorithm-approved links.

Bookmarking systems like Delicious helped educators compile and organize information from coursework. The website and bookmarklet took was beloved by many information-gathering communities.

Bookmarks are amazing helpers for keeping track of content on the web. At their best, bookmarks let us save content to explore later — and this system of re-discovery can be just as important as finding something for the first time.

Unfortunately, the default bookmark experience in browsers is kind of a mess. Bookmarks often feel more like a giant filing cabinet full of forgotten content than an endless library which is fun to dive back into. There aren’t easy ways to categorize or collect bookmarks, either.

A more customizable bookmark system would help different users match their browsing experience to their needs.

Someone writing a research paper might want a bookmark system which can mark key places in long articles. A visual artist might benefit from a focus on visual previews and color-coded bookmark grouping. Some people might appreciate the ability to randomly explore their own bookmarks, while others might prefer something tightly structured or easy to rearrange.

The best part about bookmarks is that they can affect a lot more than just the look and feel of the browser — they could even be used to form communities. For example, bookmarks could easily form the backbone for a webring-esqu platform of user-shared links like the one hinted at in the previous section

When you bookmark something, you could also have the option to make it part of a ring, to help others to discover it as well. After submitting enough bookmarks, you could be voted in by community members as a trusted node in the network, preventing spam submissions and improving overall quality.

Different networks could exist for education, research, art, current events, and smaller, more niche categories. Rather than trying to serve everyone with the same omnipresent Google-like service, these sub-networks would acknowledge that the web is different for everyone, and try to give the best possible exploration tools to each of its diverse audiences.

Delicious was a popular bookmarking service in the early 2000s, which allowed users to share marked sites with each other and the rest of the web. After being acquired by Yahoo in 2005, Delicious was mismanaged and eventually sold to smaller companies with even less ideas about what to do with it.

The Delicious homepage in 2007.

If a tool like Delicious were built into a browser in place of its standard single-user bookmarks, we could see it evolve in a very different direction. The exploration of the web could once again be a social experience, allowing users to build and discover huge link libraries in a social setting.

The average browser supports a whole lot of third-party plugins which can dramatically alter the web experience. Some of the most popular examples are ad-blockers, which protect from intrusive and untrustworthy product placement, and VPNs, which allow users to have a lot more access to the “world wide” elements which have been missing from the current web.

Currently, working with plugins can be confusing (with many different alternatives offering the same service) and even dangerous, with some plugins having security issues. When a plugin is removed from the marketplace, users who have installed it aren’t notified — meaning that users may have unsupported plugins (including some with security issues) active for years after the fact.

Future browsers might take a more hands-on approach to extensions. Some of the more helpful ones could be built in, and easily turned off or on when needed.

A trusted source for plugins could go a long way towards providing safe and secure options for people looking to customize their browsing experience. For example, a browser could provide a list of trusted VPNs with integrated payment plans, rather than leaving users to sample from dozens of services which might not be what they need.

Extensions mean the way we use browsers is inherently different from how we use most other software. The functionality changes as new third-party features are added, so one person’s experience might be completely different from the next.

Future browsers could lean into this — presenting themselves as customizable services with unique functions for certain audiences. The same browser application could be available in different pre-packaged flavors — with included plugins optimizing the experience for research, content creation, or monetization.

Before the year 2000, the concept of buying products online was either unknown, bizarre or uncomfortable to most people. On top of that, entirely digital content was more or less unthinkable, and the idea of making money online was still fairly abstract.

But in the decades since, this has turned around completely — online sales are now a huge part of the web’s lifeblood, and the music and film industries have had to pivot from physical media, to downloadable files, and eventually the streaming, subscription based services we have now.

We now have web-dependent forms of currency, and various systems which aim to provide financial compensation for web traffic. The economy of the web is constantly evolving, and rapidly becoming a bigger part of our offline life as well.

And yet, our browsers still don’t have built in tools to help us manage these subscriptions, or to send and receive money to our peers. Third-party apps like Venmo and browser extensions have filled this niche to some degree, but there’s still a lot of ideas here which haven’t been explored.

With emerging concepts like web monetization, NFTs, and cryptocurrencies providing new options for the web economy, it seems like only a matter of time before browsers come with built-in support for integrated wallets.

There might be a few ways to integrate this kind of feature. While some browsers might try to make their own wallets, this may not be the best idea for several reasons. First, it would limit people’s ability to use their preferred wallet across several different browsers. It would also require browsers to be both experts at building and maintaining wallets on top of the standard browser capabilities they are known for.

Instead, browsers could come with built in support for already existing top wallets. Just as we can access email services in any browser, we should be able to use our preferred wallet in whichever browser is most convenient.

This might lead to some new responsibilities for browser developers. In addition to providing guidelines for wallet developers (ensuring only the smartest, safest wallets get official support), they could communicate to users which wallets are verified, and which are more experimental.

Rather than having users set up wallets themselves, browsers could link to a page explaining the most popular wallets, and help individual users find the best fit for what they want to do. This would also allow the selection of wallets to evolve over time, adapting to changes which haven’t happened yet.

It’s likely that in the future, web wallets will be just as universal a service as email is now. Recognizing them as an essential service, and not an optional plug-in, is going to be an important step towards the future.

Security, safety and privacy have opportunities to be more transparent and informative on the web.

During the first decade of the web, there was a fair bit of paranoia about personal data being stolen by hackers.

The version of the web we’ve ended up with is in many ways worse — with many of the largest and most ubiquitous services openly collecting our personal data, selling it to outside parties, and using it to fill the web with eerily personalized ads.

These practices have transformed the web into something very impersonal, where users are just treated as raw data by most of the important sites and apps. The developers of the future have the option of taking a different route — and browser developers have a lot of potential power to create a more transparent, user-friendly web.

One idea would be for a browser to display a different color scheme for sites which are collecting data every time they are visited. The current system treats all sites as the same, rather than letting users know when typing or clicking is being collected, and telling them who exactly is collecting it.

We’ve all seen the disclaimer “this site uses cookies,” but there’s almost never any information as to what those cookies are doing and who benefits from them. Users should be able to see how their data is shared across the web, select levels of privacy and restrict certain types of services from gathering info.

It isn’t just a matter of protecting personal info — data harvesting can really transform how we use the web itself.

A writer doing research should be able to gather data on a sensitive topic, without having ads for that topic become part of their search history. Teachers and other presenters should be able to screen share without showing sensitive data or exposing their audience to ads.

After a few decades of living intimately with the web, users have a better understanding of how online privacy works, and the sacrifices we’ve been expected to make. But there’s no reason the future web has to be so invasive, and there are plenty of ways which browsers could be designed with our privacy in mind.

The devices we most frequently use to interface with the web are completely different from the boxy desktop computers of the 1990s. Mobile browsers aim to emulate the traditional browser experience in some ways, but are inherently different in terms of window size and touch-based control system.

Phones will likely continue as the main method by which we interact with the web — and the tools we use to do so are likely to evolve as well. In particular, the tools we use to build websites have already started to become more intuitive and visually based, and are going to evolve more in the next few years.

There are currently few options for building sites entirely on a mobile device. This limits the ability for mobile-focused web users to create on the fly. In a couple of discussions with low income communities, access to developer tools on mobile was cited as one of the limitations of people being able to adopt more web monetization and other creator-centric opportunities.

https://mmm.page/ is a great tool for building mobile-first websites directly on the phone.

mmmpage is one example of a more mobile-first tool for building websites. It’s simple, playful design focuses on avoiding the cookie-cutter templates which have become ubiquitous over the past few decades, while allowing developers to work on-the-go.

Wordpress — probably the largest web-building resource in the world — has been exploring mobile tools as well. Linktree also has great support, from helping people build a simple landing page to a tree of links for social media profiles like Instagram.

There’s a greater opportunity for people to build more exciting and easier ways for people to code and organize mobile-first pages right from their phones. I’m really looking forward to seeing how people innovate as the web shifts even further towards mobile content.

The original web was built with small sites in mind — the original web builders had no little concept of enormous, all-purpose destinations like Google or Amazon. Once upon a time, the idea was that everyone would have their own personal website, discoverable by community-based resources like web rings and message boards.

Of course, that isn’t the version of the web we have now. Rather than having our own private real estate, we’re given identical, personality-free profiles on the same massive corporate sites as everyone else.

It’s been this way for so long now, that a lot of people have kind of accepted that this is just how the web is. But that wasn’t how it was in the early days, and there’s no reason it has to stay that way in the future — especially if users are getting tired of their traffic being limited to the same handful of big sites.

Maybe the future alternative to Amazon is more of a directory, which uses its search features to connect web traffic to individual store pages. Each page might use payment systems and wallet support supported by the browser, but they could create a more robust economy by directing traffic to countless small sites instead of one big one.

Maybe the next video upload service would let users embed videos with their own aesthetic choices — rather than being forced to use Youtube’s familiar interface. Uploaders could share their videos so that the rest of the page would match the mood of the video, instead of being forced to include a side-panel of algorithm-generated content.

Of course, the browser developers themselves probably won’t provide these services — but can certainly do a lot to encourage development in that direction. For example, providing alternative browsers with built-in web development tools could lead to a boom in independent site innovation.

Useful tools like analytics, tutorials, and a breakdown of a site’s carbon footprint would be a lot more accessible if they were baked into the browser. Browser-supported guides to accessibility, readability, and how the site works across different platforms, could have a massive impact on how many independent-minded developers are able to design and manage new sites and services.

Providing more resources for people that run their own websites could encourage more startup services which try to do what the big sites are doing now, only on a more realistic scale. It’s important to think about the dominant sites of the day not as permanent fixtures of the web, but as parts of its current history which will eventually be replaced by newer alternatives.

CLOSING

These ideas aren’t predictions as much as suggestions. The web of the future is going to branch out in many different directions — some of them will be forward thinking and community focused, while others might continue down the current path of commercialized commodification.

Here’s a little recap of some features which could improve future browsers:

Regardless of which direction the next phase of the web takes, I think that we all will prefer a streamlined, hassle-free experience to one which constantly advertises to or misleads us.

If we keep our ideal future version of the web in our minds, we can hopefully steer development in a more responsible direction. We can take inspiration from the things that worked in the early web, and apply them to course-correct the missteps we see in its current iteration.

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Amber Case

Design advocate, speaker and author of Calm Technology. Former Research Fellow at MIT Media Lab and Harvard BKC. Co-founder DAO DAO.