The web has grown up, but browsers haven’t. It’s time for a reboot

How many tabs do you have open in your web browser right now? Be honest. A dozen? Two dozen? It’s okay, I’m no better. If you’re like me, you blame yourself for your horrible habit of leaving tabs open forever.

But what if the problem isn’t really our habits? Perhaps the problem is the tool we use – the web browser. It hasn’t changed much over the years, and yet it’s the application we rely on most when using a computer.

Imagine if your browser encouraged good habits instead of bad ones. Either we can all agree to try harder, or it’s time we rethought how a web browser works — and luckily for us, several visionary futurists are doing just that.

The web has changed, and so have we

People feel strongly about web browsers. You’ll find staunch advocates for every option. Microsoft fans have Edge, Apple enthusiasts have Safari, privacy-minded folk have Brave or Firefox, and everyone else defaults to Google Chrome. Yet despite the appearance of a variety of choices, these browsers all function on a shared set of flawed assumptions about how we want to browse the web.

No one knows that better than Opera, an alternative browser that’s pioneered many innovations. Over the years it’s developed hallmark features of the modern browser. Tabs? Invented by Opera. The unified search bar? Yup, that too.

Despite being responsible for many of these big-name features, Opera began to realize it had painted web browsers into a corner. In 2014, the company decided to take a long, hard look at what browsers had become. Jan Standal, Opera’s VP of Marketing Communication, told me they’d realized modern web browsers had become thoroughly outdated.

“We started getting a feeling the browsers weren’t really doing what they were supposed to be doing,” said Standal. “Maybe some of the actors — and maybe even ourselves — we hadn’t really been paying enough attention to what people were doing at that point. Many of the concepts hadn’t been changed for fifteen years, at that point.”

Standal has a point. While web browsers themselves have stood still, the web has experienced a radical sea change. Google Search and Craigslist are relics of an older time, when sites were mostly text documents with an occasional hyperlink or image. Today’s web is something far more complex: Many websites act like applications that are every bit as powerful as their native counterparts. Slack, Spotify, Netflix, and Evernote are popular examples. The prevalence of these web-accessible applications is the reason for the existence of Google’s Chromebooks, which function as a web browser attached to a keyboard.

“We started getting a feeling the browsers weren’t really doing what they were supposed to be doing.”

Despite this, web browsers still treat websites like pieces of paper in a filing cabinet. You flip through them one-by-one, and when you’re done, you place each back in the cabinet. Want to see a site you’ve closed? That means opening the cabinet up and finding it all over again.

“Even though we made tabs in the first place, it didn’t feel right,” Standal admitted. “It didn’t feel like an experience that was focused on how users should actually navigate the web. It was just the way it was, and no one challenged that. What if we built the concept car for the browser? What if we thought about what the browser should be in the future? And then we can see what we learn from that and start moving in that direction.”

As creator of the tab, Opera takes some blame for the state of the web browser, and some responsibility for fixing the problem. And it has a solution: An experimental project called Opera Neon.

Neon, lighting the way

Neon was released to the world over two years ago, but it still feels revolutionary in its approach. Bookmarks now float happily in the middle of the screen, and access to tools is no longer hidden away in menus. What it does with tabs is the highlight: Open windows are displayed vertically, more like a line of icons on a desktop than files in a folder. Their bubbly icons help with the feeling, too.

When you close a tab in a typical web browser, it disappears forever until you visit and load the website again. In Neon, the site minimizes into an icon lined vertically down the right side of the screen. You don’t need to leave a tab open because you might need it later. Instead, websites are treated like the applications they are.

web browsers are broken opera neon browser 2
Opera

“The browser today is built on metaphors of pages being like documents,” Standal told Digital Trends. “The web today doesn’t exist of documents anymore. It’s applications. It’s content. We wanted to give you the feeling you are interacting with applications and content from those applications instead of documents.”

Neon does more than just reimagine tabs. It acts like its own small, self-contained operating system. There’s no need for other windows or applications. You can just open Neon and treat it as its own functioning environment. Neon even pulls in the wallpaper from your desktop and uses it for your home page.

You don’t need to leave a tab open because you might need it later. Instead, websites are treated like the applications they are.

“A lot of it has to do with the feeling you have as you browse,” said Standal. “If you look at Neon, there’s functional aspects of it and there are more emotional aspects. For example, the browser feels extremely light when you start it up. It will automatically pick up the wallpaper on your desktop, which gives you the feeling that the product is semi-transparent. Almost like it’s built of air.”

Opera is still pulling from Neon, plucking a feature here or there to integrate into its mainstream browsers. The best example is its new mobile browser, Opera Touch, which takes inspiration from Neon in how it handles tabs and switching between them.

But that’s a long shot from what the standard Opera browser looks like today. The engineers and designers know more than anyone how people rely on browsers day to day. Changing something as fundamental as tabs can mean alienating users, and that limits how quickly Opera can progress. Fortunately, other web browser futurists have less at stake.

The browser refresh is coming

A bit south of Norway, where Opera is based, two college students in Germany noticed the same pain points. Piles of tabs, bookmarks that were never used, and a general feeling browsers are stodgy and stuck in their ways.

“I thought that maybe I just don’t have any discipline,” Julius Gehrig, one of the two designers of the project, told me. “Maybe that’s why I didn’t use bookmarking systems or something like that. Then you start reading or talking to other people. Either we all are wrong, or the browsers are wrong.”

The student’s answer was an experimental browser designed specifically for the iPad called Refresh. While Opera Neon throws out familiar browser elements entirely, Refresh takes a more elegant approach focused on just one feature. Spaces.

The term is lifted from MacOS, but in Refresh it’s a way of grouping together tabs and bookmarks rather than windows. Websites and applications can be compiled into workspaces for different parts of your life. If you’re writing a research paper, this would be a dream come true. It doesn’t erase the idea of tabs altogether, but instead transforms them into a more useful interface.

Rather than just change how we interact with the new web, Refresh changes how it is viewed entirely.

Like Opera Neon, Refresh realizes how imperative it is that modern browsers consider the way the web has evolved. But instead of changing how we interact with the new web, Refresh alters how it is viewed.

“I had this really raw idea of reinventing the idea of the internet or browsing in general,” said Julius Sohn, second of Refresh’s two student designers. “In the very beginning, I had this idea of unifying the whole web. Getting all the bits of information from the internet and displaying it in a unified way, which is ridiculous when you think about it. But it became this idea of contextualization.”

Sohn used the popular ‘reading mode’ as an example. It’s a feature already available in browsers like Chrome and Safari, stripping away distracting elements from articles, so you can focus solely on the text. It’s a way browsers can make a more cohesive experience of browsing the internet.

Project Refresh takes that familiar idea and push it even further. In the same way that reading mode might make an article look like an ebook, Refresh could make a Soundcloud account look like an album in iTunes. Or consider online forms, which are often quite a mess to navigate through on mobile. In Refresh, they are presented in a standardized visual template. These were the only media types Refresh has addressed so far, but it’s not hard to see how smarter, more contextual browsers would result in a fuller, more unified experience of the web.

Contextualization could even help websites work better on mobile. The designers described the awful experience of using a site on a mobile device that hadn’t yet been optimized for it. But if the browser did the work for you, it would create an open playing field for developers and website owners, all while ensuring we never ran across a desktop site on a mobile device.

So what’s taking so long?

Taking a step back from today’s familiar web browsers to examine them with fresh eyes isn’t easy. The Refresh duo spent half their school year focused solely on research and experimentation, determined to avoid the familiar traps of other browsers.

“It’s kind of like car companies or train companies,” said Gehrig. “We have an image in our head of what a car or a train looks like, and everybody has come to expect more or less the same things from those. No one is going to just start doing a car with five wheels.”

That real roadblock is the fight between operating systems and browsers.

Even I found it jarring to use Opera Neon as my only tool for browsing the web. The learning curve is tough, and it’s not even the largest hurdle. That real roadblock is the fight between operating systems and browsers. According to Standal, conflict is at the root of the relationship between web browsers and operating system makers, and it’s stalling progress.

“Why did Internet Explorer not have tabs? Because, of course, windows,” he told me. “You were supposed to manage windows. But then browsers, led by Opera, introduced tabs. Just stay in this one window, which is your browser window — and you interact with these different tabs. It’s a better concept for you than the window management.”

Internet Explorer did finally get tabs, but it took years for Microsoft to cave in. That stubborness hasn’t disappeared. Microsoft and Apple seem unwilling to give up space in the operating system to make room for a more cohesive web experience. Google is a bit more open to web integration, but sometimes even Chrome OS treats content in a web browser like it comes from a different planet.

The web browser’s revolution faces an uphill battle. But who knows? Maybe one of these companies will hear our cries and reverse course. Until then, download Opera Neon or Refresh and give alternative browsing a chance. You just might love what you see.

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