Browser developers are failing at their most important task

Image: iStockphoto/Yumi mini

I have a bone to choose with web browser developers. You know who you are – help build and manage Firefox, Chrome, Safari, Vivaldi, Opera, Brave and more. The problem I have with you is very simple: you have a job and you fail.

What could I possibly mean? Once upon a time, web browsers did one thing, and they did it well. What was that magic trick they had up their sleeve? They rendered websites, and that was about it.

Then browsers started adding some tricks. First was the mail client (remember Netscape Navigator?). Then there are extensions, apps, panels, password managers, crypto wallets.

It’s exhausting trying to keep up with the features that browser developers add to the mix. With each new addition, a web browser‘s most important task falls by the wayside.

This task ? Rendering web pages.

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Keeping up with the browser wars

I get it: browser X adds functionality Y, and the browser Z team feels like they have to copy functionality Y, then browser X to add functionality V. The vicious circle doesn’t stop there . Browser A steps in and copies both Y and V functionality, then, hoping to flip the landscape on its ear, rolls into W functionality, which has nothing to do with the browser’s original purpose website.

At this point, every web browser has V, W, and Y functionality.

The fun doesn’t stop there. Web browser B hits the market with all those bells and whistles, and adds – blast – feature 1.

Chaos ensues. Cats and dogs dine together outdoors… Linux and Windows users throw parties for the latest version of macOS.

This is where we are now. Web browsers are no longer just web browsers, but frameworks for a set of apps and features that do nothing more than bog down the browser’s main job of rendering websites.

They are all guilty

Make no mistake, every popular web browser is guilty of this. Since leaving Firefox behind (for this and other reasons), I’ve bounced back and forth between browsers, only to find that each seemed to make website rendering a secondary feature.

Each of these browsers can render pages (and do so fairly quickly), but there’s no consistency, and all too often the bloat simply prevents the tool from being used for the task at hand. If the bloat doesn’t directly interfere, it makes the browser itself unstable, buggy, or slow.

I get why web browser developers do this: they want to steal market share from the competition and the best way to do that is to finally add that killer feature that no one can resist.

But these “killer features” kill the browser, or at least the browser experience.

An original idea

Why don’t web browser developers remove all those bells and whistles and make them add-ons? This way, users can start with the bare bones and customize their browser to their needs.

If you only want a web browser, don’t add anything. If you want a web browser with a built-in password manager, add it. If you want a kitchen sink browser, go ahead and add whatever the developers come up with.

Give us this essential feature first.

Of course, there are three features that most browsers will need to include by default:

  • Tab management

  • Privacy settings

  • Bookmark management

Beyond that, everything else could be an addition. When the browser first runs, allow the user to select what they want to include in their browser. Don’t assume you know better, because you don’t. You don’t know what’s most important for each user or each use case. You can go even further and make these add-ons extensions developed by third parties. This way, you can focus on producing the best website rendering application possible. It would be fast, reliable, secure, and incredibly easy to use.

You might think I’m crazy, but it can happen. It probably won’t, but it is possible. However, there are already browsers proving that something very similar to what I describe can be delivered. Some of the lesser known open source web browsers (such as GNOME Web) are very simplified applications and serve only one purpose: rendering websites. It’s actually quite refreshing to work with these apps. Don’t get me wrong, they’re not perfect, but they’re not apps, filled with bloat, trying to do more than they should. They are one thing and one thing only.

When you choose to use such a browser, you forego some of the conveniences offered by larger browsers such as password managers, incognito mode, etc. But, what you gain is speed, reliability, and simplicity, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

I realize that’s a pipe dream – the browser wars are way too deep down the rabbit hole to ever return and that’s fine. But as these browsers continue to dig deeper, more and more users might turn to alternatives that offer a faster and more reliable browsing experience.

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