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The Evolution Of The Browser

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Editor’s note: Karl Mattson is vice president of international at Maxthon.

The browser wars have always been cyclical, moving from periods of monoculture dominated by one or two browsers to periods of comparative competition characterized by multiple, strong, second-tier browsers and a growing list of niche browsers. We’re midway through the latter, as is evident by the release of several new browsers, including Microsoft’s Project Spartan and Vivaldi, helmed by ex-Opera CEO Jon Stephenson von Tetzchner.

While Spartan and Vivaldi are the most widely written about new browsers, many additional, niche browsers have recently launched or are under development, including Torch (BitTorrent) Epic (privacy), Nitro (speed) and Slim (fast startup) and Lightspeed (minimalist, search-oriented). Then, there are the many browsers with large followings in China — 360 Safe for PC, Baidu, Sougou, UC Web and Cheetah.

These niche periods tend to last approximately four years, which would put us at another peak niche point in approximately 18 to 24 months. Then, we’ll head into another period of deep monoculture, dominated by Chrome and Firefox and colored by a long tail of simple, Chromium-based “mom and pop” browsers that do one thing well for a narrowly defined constituency.

To understand why things will play out this way, we need to look at the two drivers of the browser business that have changed considerably from the early years to now: cost to develop and the business model of the browser.

The first browser war

In the first browser war, building web browsers was time-intensive and expensive (you had to create your own rendering engine, for example), making the barrier to entry quite high. The Internet Explorer and Netscape/Firefox monoculture dominated the period from 1998 to 2004, limiting browser innovation to activities like skinning IE and Mozilla. But things changed with the creation and release of the open source rendering engine WebKit (originally an open-source project that was picked up by Apple, Nokia and Google), the V8 JavaScript engine and Android.

Irony upon ironies, this consolidation owes its existence to the open source movement. Google’s 2013 decision to fork Webkit into its own open source rendering engine Blink is accelerating this consolidation.

Architecturally, Blink is a better rendering engine; and, because its codebase no longer has to support multiple, different architectures (as WebKit does), it’s easier and faster to innovate within it. The obvious downside is that Blink moves web browsers another step deeper into a technology monoculture controlled by one company – Google.

For example, very little could be done to prevent the Blink team from developing deeper, required hooks and preferences within Blink that favor Google’s larger product ecosystem. Unfortunately, developing your own rendering engine is a costly and timely process that most companies can’t afford to take on. Ironic to consider how this open source project is functioning as the vanguard of browser technology monopoly.

Webkit + V8 + your design/simple features = new browser! The release of Android and Chrome initially leveled the playing field as it made it possible for even a small team to build a new browser that was fast, stable and supported all major web standards. Webkit and V8 have spawned a proliferation of desktop and mobile browsers that owe their lives to Google’s commitment to open-source technology. This has led to more niche browsers built on Chromium and, ultimately, less real competition for the monoculture (FlockRockMeltDolphin, UC Web).

The thinking is that it makes no sense to even attempt to stay current with the investment Google is making WebKit and V8 the best engines for web browsers. Opera concluded as much in 2013 when it announced it was moving its entire browser product line to Webkit, which left the browser business as an oligopoly of two or three and a smattering of niche browsers fighting for less than 5 percent of the global market. Irony upon ironies, this consolidation owes its existence to the open-source movement.

The other change is a tightening of the traditional business model for the browser, which requires browser companies to take a fresh look at how they can monetize their user base beyond search referrals. From approximately 2005 to 2012, web browsers had it easy:

  • Step 1: Build/skin a browser
  • Step 2: Get some traction
  • Step 3: Do a search deal
  • Step 4: Print money from all of the search queries your browser users are driving to your search partners

This is now changing. The behemoths are tightening payouts for query referrals (and the geos/markets where they will actually pay). Some are no longer doing search deals with third-party web browsers – because they’ve gotten so big, their own products can drive the search queries they need and allow them to avoid the conflict of interest inherent when providing the revenue that feeds and grows competing products.

The only way to address this dynamic of the browser business will be to raise browser-user LTV through new embedded content, services, e-commerce and gaming opportunities. In other words, the browser will shift more from its minimalist form to a richer web client. It will be similar to the pre-browser war days of early web clients like AOL and CompuServe, which were essentially browsers loaded with native content, community and commerce.

The next 18 months

So, where does all of this leave us in the future, say July of 2016? More browsers will be serving smaller niches — browsers with multi-channel revenue strategies. There will be fewer second-tier general purpose browsers. Chromium becomes the de facto browser platform. The monoculture will be in full bloom. Depending on your perspective, that may seem like a grim, borderline Orwellian prediction. Fret not!

There are two massive variables that can upset this prediction: first is the Internet of Things and second is the impact of emerging markets on software market share. The IoT solidifies the web browser’s role as the one platform that unites all forms of web access through HTML, CSS and JavaScript. The Internet of Things will drive the browser to be an invisible entity that functions more as a platform that facilitates web apps more so than the gateway to the Internet as it has been in the past. In this context, the future of the browser looks more like an operating system. But it’s really a platform.

Finally, no one can accurately predict how well (or poorly) the browser monoculture is going to work in markets like India and Indonesia. Just look at China. There are currently at least five major Windows PC browsers that are, collectively, serving the Internet to upwards of 500 million people.

And, while the U.S. behemoths are on that list, they’re the little guys. Or look at India, where UC Web has gained massive market share for its excellent Android mobile browser. This is why I love the web. The opportunity to disrupt is always present.

Featured Image: JMiks/Shutterstock