Home Browster Is Gone, But Are Web Previews Here To Stay?

Browster Is Gone, But Are Web Previews Here To Stay?

Written by Alex Iskold and edited by Richard MacManus

Last week it was
that Browster, one of the first
companies to deliver previews of web pages, is done. Browster drew a lot of attention in
2005 and was backed by a 6M first round from Advanced Technology Ventures, Vanguard
Ventures, First Round Capital, and individual investors.

Browster delivered previews of web pages (before clicking on a link) via a browser
plug-in. Cooliris and Snap are companies doing similar things. But the question
of whether previews are actually a good – and viable – idea is still up in the air.
Therefore in this post we look at various kinds of Web previews and decide if the concept
is here to stay, or will it go down with the Browster ship.

What is a value of a preview?

The basic idea behind previews is simple: they save you a click. Instead of clicking
on a link to see the content, you can get a preview of the page using a gesture –
typically a mouseover. Assuming you can decide if the page is interesting or not based on
the preview, you can save a click and more importantly the page load.

The big assumption is that
the preview is useful, which is not always the case. For instance a thumbnail preview may
be useful if you already know the look and feel of the site, but otherwise you can’t
really tell what you are looking at. This is because scaling the snapshot of a page down
to a thumbnail results in a substantial loss of information. As we will see below,
Cooliris and Snap are using different techniques to avoid this problem.

Netflix solves the problem in a different way.
Instead of showing you a scaled version of the page, Netflix shows you a synopsis of the
movie when you mouse over its link. For movies, this works really well – and it would
work well for many other things, like books, music albums and electronics. So it’s too
bad that other sites do not do this.

Netflix preview

Cooliris – the preview extension for Firefox

Cooliris, one of the Firefox recommended
extensions, offers great quality previews. It works by popping up a little blue square when
a user moves their mouse over a link. If the user clicks on the square, a preview of the
link comes up. The secret of Cooliris is its simplicity. Firstly, the previews shown
are almost the size of the actual page. Secondly, the previews are not images, but actual
pages loaded into an iframe and overlayed on top of the current page. While this
seemingly would be the same as loading the page in another tab, it definitely feels
lighter. What helps is that we do not need to close the tab, because once we click away
the preview disappears.

Snap – preview technology for web sites and blogs

The makers of the Snap search engine recently
released a site preview technology that allows bloggers and webmasters to turn on
previews for any link on their site. Unlike Cooliris, Snap’s technology is powered by
JavaScript that sits inside the page. To activate it, bloggers and webmasters need to
paste a small chunk of code into their pages. Also unlike Cooliris, Snap shows a smaller
preview when the user moves the mouse over any link. TechCrunch recently added Snap previews and we saw
quite a few readers complain about it getting in the way. Personally, I like the Cooloris
solution better – since it requires an additional gesture to get the preview.

Sphere – blog search previews on steroids

TechCrunch also features a completely different kind of preview – dynamic blog search
results from the blog search engine called Sphere[Ed: this is coming soon to R/WW too]. What Sphere does is very impressive, but
perhaps what’s even more impressive is how it presents the results. In a way, Sphere’s
solution is similar to Netflix because it only shows a subset of information. This
strategy allows Sphere to generate an intelligent preview of the search results. A
combination of speed and excellent visualization makes this type of preview very

Monetizing previews

Since quite a few companies are doing previews, we need to understand their benefit.
It seems that current preview makers fall into three major categories:

  • Deliver advertising with previews (Browster)
  • Use previews to drive traffic to the site (Snap, Sphere)
  • Enhance user experience on the site (Netflix)

The companies listed under the second and third bullets do not concern themselves with
monetization via preview, since they make money in a different way. For the companies
that choose the preview to be their core business, some form of advertising must be in

What Browster used to do in the past was replace the advertisements from the pages
with their own. This made some publishers very
. Altering the content of web pages is certainly a risky business and spells
lawsuits. Augmenting the previews with context sensitive ads, outside the preview frame,
seems to be cleaner – but it requires a heavier back-end engine and could cause delays,
which would be deadly.

Since Browster is out of the game now, it does not need to address this problem. Their
competitor Cooliris looks to be a university project and so far they do not show any
concern about making money. If they become serious about monetizing this technology, it
will be interesting to see what route they will take.


So in the end we have to ask: Are previews a good idea? We think the answer
is: Yes! If done right (and this is a big if), then previews can greatly enhance our
online experience and save us a lot of time over the long run. Saving one click at a time will make us
more productive and will save us minutes every day. And since there are incentives for
companies to deliver preview technologies, we expect to see more developments in the near

So: Browster is dead, long live previews. But let us know what you think about
previews and tell us your favorite ones.

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The ReadWrite Editorial policy involves closely monitoring the tech industry for major developments, new product launches, AI breakthroughs, video game releases and other newsworthy events. Editors assign relevant stories to staff writers or freelance contributors with expertise in each particular topic area. Before publication, articles go through a rigorous round of editing for accuracy, clarity, and to ensure adherence to ReadWrite's style guidelines.

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