Home On Mozilla and The Evolution of the Browser

On Mozilla and The Evolution of the Browser

Interesting posts recently from two people who have an important role in defining the future of the browser. Firstly, I missed it while I was in transit in the US, but Mozilla developer Alex Faaborg posted the slides of his presentation at the recent Web 2.0 Expo. They are fascinating and show clearly where Mozilla is headed with Firefox 3. The slide below is Alex’s representation of the evolution so far: from the browser as book (finding information) in the 90’s, to browser as radio in 2005 (subscribe to info), to a vision of the browser as switchboard in 2008 (move information around).

Alex noted in his presentation that at each stage the Web browser has been trying to keep up with the evolution of the Web – e.g. the somewhat messy transition to subscribing to RSS feeds (remember the page full of XML code you used to be confronted with every time you clicked an RSS button, or worse, clicked on a button labeled “XML”). Alex says the same thing is happening now for other types of structured data – and he gave the common example of calendaring information, which varies across Outlook, Apple iCal, Google and other formats. According to Alex, microformats are the answer to this issue – but which ones will Firefox natively support? Alex outlined 3 fundamental types: identity (hCard), geo (geo, adr), and calendar (hCalendar).

So to the question of what a microformat-aware Web browser looks like? Here’s a demo that Alex showed at Web 2.0 Expo, showing microformats support in the URL bar:

There were other design options presented (e.g. in the toolbar, or little icons in the main content area), but the above design fits in well with the current Firefox 2 design. So just as Firefox 2 currently automatically recognizes a webpage with an RSS feed on it, in the URL bar, so to will Firefox 3 recognize microformats support in a webpage. It will display a drop-down list of options, based on the microformats in the page – e.g. add an event to your chosen calendar application. This is what is meant by Firefox 3 being an “information broker”, which you’ll recall we wrote about at the beginning of this year.

There is still the small matter of how publishers enter microformats into their content, but the general consensus is that blog platforms (like WordPress and MovableType) will integrate that into their tools.

Overall, an excellent presentation by Alex and I for one applaud what Mozilla is doing to evolve the web browser into an information broker. I know that others are heading in this direction too, for example Maxthon, so this is indeed looking like the next stage in the evolution of browsers.

Chris Messina’s call for Mozilla to better support the Open Web

But wait, there’s more! Ex-Flock hybrid designer Chris Messina has just published a lengthy vlog post outlining his thoughts on Mozilla’s future. He’s really talking about way beyond Firefox 3 though, as he wants Mozilla to become a true open source platform company – and essentially compete with the proprietary “run anywhere” frameworks of Microsoft, Adobe and Sun (with their Silverlight, Apollo and JavaFX technologies respectively). Chris wants Mozilla to build tools around open source technologies like XUL (XML User Interface Language). Essentially he sees Mozilla as the savior of the Open Web. Somewhat surprisingly, he cites Google as a good role model for Mozilla – but perhaps he was just referring to Google’s ability to move things forward. Near the end of his accompanying blog post, Chris notes that “firefox is NOT an information broker!” – but I didn’t hear anything to back that statement up in the video (did I miss that part?).

Also Anne Zelenka has some great thoughts on the future of Mozilla.

I agree with much of what Chris said, but on the other hand it is quite high level and focused on developers and the open source community. Personally I like where Mozilla is headed with Firefox 3, because the “information broker” concept is actually useful to everyday people – Joe Six Pack, as Chris called them. Firefox 3 is aiming to take the hassle out of web tasks that are a pain to deal with in 2007, like adding an event I come across on a webpage to my calendar of choice. I’m sure Chris agrees with me on this, it’s just that he’s looking at it from the point of view of an Open Web proponent. He wants Mozilla to become a much better open source platform for developers, which is certainly a great ideal to aspire to.

For now though, I’m looking forward to Firefox 3 and for that matter where other browser startups like Flock and Maxthon are headed. The browser is not dead – it’s just a question of how it continues to evolve. Chris is right that Mozilla needs to prepare itself for the future, as Microsoft and Adobe are doing, but being an information broker is a step in the right direction. And you watch, IE8 will surely follow with the same concept in 2008 – after Firefox 3 comes out with it first.

What do others think? Is the browser dead? What’s its future?

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