File Under: Browsers, Web Basics

Bad Browser, No Donut

The Monkey is back from an extended vacation spent surveying the state of the internet around the world. I’m happy to report that things are, well, things are good, but far from perfect. Having spent the last eight weeks with unreliable, often very slow, internet connections we’d like to tell you about something we now consider evil — rapid release cycles for web browsers.

Why? What’s wrong with getting the latest and greatest out to users as fast as possible? When it comes to security, nothing. When it comes to so-called features there are two annoying things about the release cycle that both Google and Mozilla have adopted for the Chrome and Firefox web browsers.

First and foremost the web browser has turned into a version of Windows XP — constant updates continually sap your bandwidth. In Chrome’s case that means surreptitiously downloading new versions in the background. For most that’s no big deal, but when you’re on a tiny island in Indonesia, and have waited hours for the clouds to clear so the line of sight wifi link to the larger island works, it’s annoying to have your limited bandwidth choked further by an updating browser. You might even curse the local internet some more before you realize, oh, it’s just my browser choking my internet connection so it can update itself. Isn’t that helpful. I mean why would I want to access the web when I have this awesome web browser to play with?

So I ditched Chrome and moved on to Firefox. Firefox is slightly better behaved, at least asking if I wanted to download the latest update. But Mozilla plans to do away with that in future updates. And frankly they might as well, it gets annoying to have dialog boxes flying open every time you start up your web browser.

For most people the bandwidth concerns might not be a big deal, but I can assure you that outside the bandwidth-rich countries most of us call home, bandwidth constraints remain a very real problem. There’s nothing quite so annoying as waiting for your web browser to update so you can load a website, which is really the only reason you have a web browser.

The second major annoyance about the constant update model is that — particularly in the case of Firefox — it means constantly breaking add-ons. What’s doubly galling about this problem is that often the add-ons work just fine, they just haven’t updated the version string to match the latest Firefox release. The user is left with a choice — don’t update, don’t get whatever security fixes might accompany the flavor of the month UI redesign; or, update, but be left with a browser that can no longer do the things it did moments before (thanks to now disabled add-ons).

Imagine trying to build a house and your hammer decided to re-invent itself every couple of weeks, sometimes disabling your screw driver in the process and other times adding a pair of pliers you don’t need. That’s pretty much where web browsers are at today.

I was somewhat heartened to find, on my return to the States, that I’m not the only one to have grown thoroughly disenchanted with the new “let’s update every day” approach of browser makers.

Software development veteran Dave Winer calls Firefox’s new approach a form of corporate suicide, and neatly sums up what a web browser used to be, should be:

Browsers should be like the lens in my glasses. If you’re thinking about it, your attention is in the wrong place. You use a browser to look through, at other things.

Can I get an amen? Web browsers have, as Winer points out elsewhere in his post, approached where text editors were 10 years ago, namely, feature complete. Done. Nothing more to add.

What’s interesting on the web these days is not the browser, but the web. The browser is just a window into the web. It’s already feature complete — you can see the web. The browser doesn’t need new features, it needs to be faster and support new standards. What most of us want to do is look through the window at the web and interact with people inside the web. Unless you’re really into productivity porn you probably don’t care about yet another way to order and sort your tabs.

With decent HTML5 and CSS 3 support available in all the latest releases from the major browser makers, the browser is, at least for now, done. Will browser makers one day create some feature that blows us all away? Perhaps, but in the mean time could you please stop screwing with our window, we just want to see the web.

For the curious, I must report that somewhere in my travels I became a huge fan of Opera. Opera doesn’t want to update every time I open it, it has all the features I use regularly and, perhaps more importantly, Opera Turbo really does vastly improve browsing on a slow connection.

[No donut image by kabelphoto/Flickr/CC]

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