You can tell we've really begun to understand the web in the last five years, because while browsers have got more powerful, their user interfaces are now simpler and clearer.
This isn't always the case; think back to the office suite wars in the 1990s, when Microsoft and others added endless cluttered options, menus and functions to every release of their word processors and spreadsheets.
See the screenshots below of IE4 versus IE7 - the later release is much more streamlined.
The next version of Firefox, v3.0, is simplifying even further by merging History and Bookmarks into a much more powerful, unified interface: Places.
How far can this go?
Even further! I've listed some ideas below which would simplify and extend whole areas of browser design:
- Show the current time in the browser bar. When clicked, it opens your pre-defined calendar site (e.g. google calendar), and you can also drag text onto the clock from a webpage (e.g. "meet in Canary Wharf tonight at 7pm") to add events to your calendar.
- For devices with GPS. Show the current location in the browser bar (e.g. "Canary Wharf"). When clicked, it opens your pre-defined map site (e.g. google maps), and you can also drag text onto it from a webpage (e.g. "Canary Wharf") to view that place in a map.
- Subscribe to an external CSS stylesheet to control default and override settings like font name, font size, link underline, and audio volume. The stylesheet is cached locally and can be edited in a user-friendly manner via the subscribed website. Mozilla could set up their own stylesheet site as a start.
- Page Analysis
- Display page file size, security information, "view source", "view HTTP headers", error messages, and spelling or grammer checks. This could be done by posting the page to a subscribed analysis website, if security allows.
- Tabs and Windows
- Drag hyperlinks onto the tab bar to open them in a new tab, or drag them outside the browser window to open them in new window.
The goal is to reduce the browser interface down to a very few, powerful functions.
There's a common theme with the ideas above: functionality that used to be part of the browser - e.g. default fonts, page information - is now provided by a website. You enter the website details in the browser, and the browser hands over the appropriate information.
Websites are likely to be much better than the browser at certain tasks, because of the speed of application development and deployment on the web, the power of HTML and mashups, and the funding of Silicon Valley. It also allows browser makers to concentrate on page rendering, their core competency.
Of course, the problem with handing features over to websites is security.
The most obvious example is browsing history - this would be much more powerful if it was integrated with your search engine. The problem is, uploading personal information to a web server is arguably even more insecure than storing it on your local computer.
Until privacy is improved on the internet, browsers will have to retain certain functions, like browsing history.
Experience has taught me that a few, simple, deep principles are always far better than many shallow ones. When I see something very complicated, I know it's just as likely to be a weakness in the design as in my understanding.
So it's great that browser makers are able to simplify their products, while extending their features.