Christian Heilmann

⚡️Browsers, Services and the OS – oh my…

Thursday, January 22nd, 2015 at 12:02 pm

Yesterday’s two hour Windows 10 briefing by Microsoft had some very interesting things in it (The Verge did a great job live blogging it). I was waiting for lots of information about the new browser, code name Spartan, but most was about Windows 10 itself. This is, of course, understandable and shows that I care about browsers maybe too much. There was interesting information about Windows 10 being a free upgrade, Cortana integration on all platforms, streaming games from xbox to Windows and vice versa. The big wow factor at the end of the brief was HoloLens, which makes interactivity like Iron Man had in his lab not that far-fetched any longer.

hololens working

For me, however, the whole thing was a bit of an epiphany about browsers. I’ve always seen browsers as my main playground and got frustrated by lack of standards support across them. I got annoyed by users not upgrading to new ones or companies making that hard. And I was disappointed by developers having their pet browsers to support and demand people to use the same. What I missed out on was how amazing browsers themselves have become as tools for end users.

For end users the browser is just another app. The web is not the thing alongside your computing interaction any longer, it is just a part of it. Just because I spend most of my day in the browser doesn’t make it the most important thing. In esssence, the interaction of the web and the hardware you have is what is the really interesting part.

A lot of innovation I have seen over the years that was controversial at that time or even highly improbable is now in phones and computers we use every day. And we don’t really appreciate it. Google Now, Siri and now Microsoft’s Cortana integration into the whole system is amazingly useful. Yes, it is also a bit creepy and there should be more granular insight into what gets crawled and what isn’t. But all in all isn’t it incredible that computers tell us about upcoming flights, traffic problems and remind us about things we didn’t even explicitly set as a reminder?

Spartan Demo screenshot by the verge

The short, 8 minute Spartan demo in the briefing showed some incredible functionality:

  • You can annotate web page with a stylus, mouse or add comments to any part of the text
  • You can then collect these, share them with friends or watch them offline later
  • Reading mode turns the web into a one-column, easy to read version. Safari, Mobile browsers like Firefox Mobile have this and third party services like Readability did that before.
  • Firefox’s awesome bar and Chrome’s Google Now integration also is in Windows with Cortana being available anywhere in the browser.

Frankly, not all of that is new, but I have never used these features. I was too bogged down into what browsers can not do instead of checking what is already possible for normal users.

I’ve mentioned this a few times in talks lately: a lot of the innovation of add-ons, apps and products is merging with our platforms. Where in the past it was a sensible idea to build a weather app and expect people to go there or even pay for it, we get this kind of functionality with our platforms. This is great for end users, but it means we have to be up to speed what user interfaces of the platforms look like these days instead of assuming we need to invent all the time.

Looking at this functionality made me remember a lot of things promised in the past but never really used (at least by me or my surroundings):

  • Back in 2001, Microsoft introduced Smart Tags, which caused quite a stir in the writing community as it allows third party commenting on your web content without notifying you. Many a web site added the MSSmartTagsPreventParsing to disallow this. The annotation feature of Spartan now is this on steroids. Thirdvoice (wayback machine archive) was a browser add-on that did the same, but got creepy very quickly by offering you things to buy. Weirdly enough Awesome Screenshot, an annotation plug-in also now gets very creepy by offering you price comparisons for your online shopping. This shows that a functionality like that doesn’t seem to be viable as a stand-alone business model, but very much makes sense as a feature of the platform.
  • Back in 2006, Ray Ozzie of Microsoft at eTech introduced the idea of the Live Clipboard. It was this:
    [Live Clipboard…] allows the copy and pasting of data, including dynamic, updating data, across and between web applications and desktop applications.
    The big thing about this was that it would have been an industrial size use case for Microformats and could have given that idea the boost it needed. However, despite me pestering Chris Wilson of – then – Microsoft at @media AJAX 2006 about it, this never took off. Until now, it seems – except that the clippings aren’t live.
  • When I worked in Yahoo, Browser Plus came out of a hackday, an extension to browsers that allows easier file uploads and drag and drop between browser and OS. It also gave you Desktop notifications. One of the use cases shown at the hack day was to drag and drop products from several online stores and then checkout in one step with all of them. This, still, is not possible. I’d wager to guess that legal problems and tax reasons are the main blocker there. Drag and Drop and uploads as well as Desktop notifications are now reality without add-ons. So we’re getting there.

This year will be very exciting. Not only does HTML5 and JavaScript get new features all the time. It seems to me that browsers become much, much smoother at integrating into our daily lives. This spells doom for a lot of apps. Why use an app when the functionality is already available with a simple click or voice command?

Of course, there are still many issues to fix, mainly offline and slow connection use cases. Privacy and security is another problem. Convenient as it is, there should be some way to know what is listening in on me right now and where the data goes. But, I for one am very interested about the current integration of services into the browser and the browser into the OS.

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