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Future Trends: Are Browsers Becoming a Thing of the Past?

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Let’s start by putting it right on the table: Browsers just might be an endangered species. There I said it ... and before you crank up the venomous comments below, hear me out because we are in for one seriously fun ride … if you choose to strap yourself in.

To start this piece I am going to start in the last place you would expect … on a street outside a university in Beijing, China. On this particular day about 5 years ago I saw something that was foreign to my Western experience. There, parked at the curb, was a horse cart and in the back was a middle-aged Chinese lady selling watermelons. There was quite a crowd around her and I stood there idly watching commerce in its purest form. When her customers had departed she moved to the seat at the front of the wagon. She reached under the seat and pulled out the coolest cell phone I had ever seen. I was transfixed watching her use it and when she glanced up and saw me staring at her she must have wondered, “What is this crazy Westerner doing?”

When I returned to Toronto I tore the cell phone stores apart looking for her device. It wasn’t until a couple of months later that I saw it. My beloved had dragged me out to a James Bond film and “M” handed him a phone. The camera zoomed in and I am sure everyone in the audience heard: “That’s the phone!” James Bond had the phone. A lady selling watermelons in Beijing had the phone. Me? Not available.

Let’s move ahead 5 years in time to this past November. I am back in Beijing . It is late, it is dark and I flag down a cab to get back to where I am staying. When the cab starts moving the back seat lights up and I am looking at an interactive application playing on a touch screen. I am transfixed because I hadn’t seen anything like this before. In fact I pulled out my Flip video recorder and recorded myself interacting with the screen.  I am sure the driver looked in the rear view mirror; saw me with a video recorder pointing at the screen and thought, “What is this crazy Westerner doing?”


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Becoming Unplugged

You are probably wondering what do a watermelon seller and a taxi have to do with the impending death of the browser?

In fact they have everything to do with it. Sometimes we are so close to the technology and the changes that we don’t step back to see how far we have come and … where we are heading. Sometimes a stark contrast is what we need to bring clarity to events.

What has happened is simple: We have become unplugged. Our work is not tethered to an Ethernet cable. In fact it hasn’t been for a while but it took the iPhone, Adobe and Google to weld the Ethernet port shut for all eternity.

The iPhone turned the device market inside out and rearranged its molecules. Adobe’s Flash Player 10.2 and AIR technologies finally removed the Interactive Tower of Babel that was mobile interactivity. Google’s Android OS gave the market a standard Open Source OS that, according to Google, will soon work seamlessly across all devices from smart phones to 46-inch Samsung TV’s. Though HTML 5 may be all the rage with the “cool kids” there is a simple fact of life that is being overlooked by these HTML 5 Fanboyz: There are a few hundred thousand apps out there that weren’t there when the Watermelon lady pulled her phone out from under her seat. In fact it was two years after I envied her phone, that Apple, on June 11 in 2007, announced it would allow third-party apps on the device.These apps, unlike HTML 5, don't,for example, require 3 different browsers and 3 video formats to play a simple video. They just work.

The other aspect of apps is how they condense the information into a very neat package. In the example, below you are looking at Bing Maps in the browser and, below it,the same app prepackaged in the Blackberry Playbook. Same information , just a different, more concise, presentation of the same information.

To me, this is exactly why apps are catching on. Starting with 500 apps , Apple now claims there are over 350,000 apps available … and counting.  That’s pretty good growth over four years.

On the other side of the fence, about the time the AppStore opened for business, Google, in November 2007, dropped the Android system on the market as an alternative to the Walled Garden that was Apple’s iOS. It wasn’t until the release of Froyo (V2.2) in May of 2010 and its inclusion of Flash technology that the platform really took off.

According to research2guidance which tracks this stuff, in May of this year the Apple AppStore will have 381,062 apps while the Android Marketplace will have 294,738 apps. They predict that by this August, if trends continue, Android will overtake Apple at the 425,00 mark then kick in the afterburners and grow to over 600,000 apps by the end of this year. Apple will continue its growth- they predict Apple will end this year with about 500,00 apps – but the curve for Android, as it gains broad acceptance, curves sharply upward while Apple’s curve looks more like a slope. Which means we started this year with around 300,000 apps out there in the cloud and finish it with over a million apps and not one of them needs a browser to operate … they need nothing more than a WiFi or 3G/4G connection to do whatever it is they do … even in the back seat of a Beijing taxi.

When you really think about it, an app is nothing more than a browser-less website and we can’t seem to get enough of them. According to this infographic from shoutem, 5 billion appswere downloaded last nyear. In 2013, they claim the number will be 21 billion . If that number plays out then every living human on the planet earth will own at least four apps.

mobile app world
Brought to you by ShoutEm – Mobile App Builder

Speaking from personal experience, that number makes sense. My wife is the least technological person I know.  Turning on a PC and using email, a browser and MS Word are about it for her. Anything else and I am hauled off the couch for a rather frustrating experience trying to explain the difference between RTF and Text in email. In fact she used the PC in her home office simply to do email and on line banking. This past February she casually mentioned she really liked the iPad. This was a first for me, and so I dutifully picked her up an iPad. Since then, she hasn’t turned on the PC. Our bank, CIBC, has an “app for that” and she hasn’t flamed up “Online Banking” since. In fact she donated the PC to our son in University. All that’s left of that PC is a blue Ethernet cable on the floor under her desk.

When you look at these two interfaces that do exactly the same thing you realize the app is actually intuitive, simpler to use and easily comprehended. It is not a "dumbed down" version of the web site. It asks exactly the question my wife is expecting: What do you want to do?

For me, the first app loaded onto my iPhone4, Motorola Xoom, Blackberry Playbook, Motorola Droid and my Blackberry Torch is a Twitter app. The only time I touch Twitter in a browser is when I use my MacBook Pro.Yet, when you look at the Browser version and the app version of Twitter , it becomes apparent it's the same app being delivered by the same network. The only difference is the absence of the browser and a reduction of clutter.

It's the Network, Stupid

What I find fascinating about apps is that by stripping out the browser, it is the network that becomes the medium. There was a time, not that long ago, when WiFi networks were a novelty and a big draw for coffee shop business. If you troll through Twitter and other forums you will find the usual complaints about devices but the most vehement ones are usually aimed at the speed and reliability of the network or bitching about the lack of WiFi connectivity.

Today, not being able to wirelessly connect is more of a an annoyance than anything else. Our devices- smartphones, tablets, TV's - have become extensions of ourselves and we simply assume we will always be able to access information at the time,place and through the device of our choosing. Even airlines are offering their passengers online access at 36,000 feet. In 2009, Quantcast sureveyed the mobile market and concluded that by 2013 mobile browsing will outstrip desktop browsing. Other findings included the fact that in 2009 U.S. mobile web usage grew by 110% and globally the number was even larger: 148%.

These numbers are may indicate trends. If you want to see it in action you have to head to China.

In preparing for my recent university lecture tour throughout China I stumbled across a rather fascinating look at the mobile market in that country. BBH Labs, which calls itself a Digital Marketing Skunkworks, produced a rather startling study of the Asian Mobile market which, here in the West, tends to lie below our radar. One of the major conclusions was :

"The Asian internet revolution is skipping a step, with many people accessing the web and web-powered utilities uniquely through mobile devices."

That revolution is mostly powered by the crew in the image below and they are, regardless of geographic location, a prime demographic.

If you ever get the chance to visit , you will see how true that observation really is. It is not uncommon to see people with two devices from separate carriers and the most common reason for two carriers is network speed. The other thing I noticed is that tablets, especially iPads, are increasingly visible on the street. When I was there in November of last year, the Samsung Galaxy Tab was about to be released and the vendors in Bainaohui Computer Mall in Beijing had signs for the device all over the building. I fully expected ,when I returned in May, to see Android devices and tablets.When I strode into the Lecture Halls and looked around there was not one tablet to be found. Tons of Smartphones but tablets were non existant. Yet, when I flamed up my Blackberry Playbook, Droid and Motorola Xoom during my lectures, the students were fascinated with them because it seemed to be the first time they had actually seen a tablet let alone took one out for test drive. I have bets with students all over China that by the time they graduate, 3-4 years from now, most of them will have tablets.

If you are a web design or mobile pro the numbers are astounding and point to serious business oppotunities for the astute marketer. For example there are 879,000,000 mobile subscribers (Keep in mind multiple carriers are common) in that country. To put that number in context, that number is 800 times larger than the population of my country- Canada- and 40% larger than the entire pouplation of North America. There are 303,000,000 mobile internet users in China and again, to put that number in context , that number is roughly 60% of all mobile and desktop internet users in Europe.

These users are not simplly texting eachother or browsing. . According to the BBH study, transactions onTaobao, the Chinese equivalent of eBay, totalled close to $60 billion U.S. In that same year eBay was feeling pretty good that it did $2 billion globally. What are they buying through the mobile app? According to Taobao , "The top 10 best-selling items on Taobao mobile shopping were, in descending order: mobile phone credit; women’s clothing; consumer electronics; men’s clothing; online gaming cards; skincare products; snacks and other dry food items; sports shoes and bags; car accessories; and books and magazines. These top 10 product categories made up 73 percent of all mobile shopping transactions."

All of this is taking place as the major Telcos in that country start improving the network speeds and upgrading to 4G.

In a country where mobile is huge and where apps are taking over, it was rather interesting to have the following conversation with a student studying Cloud Computing (The phrase is a "code word" for mobile app development) at Xiamen University's Software School. He started off by complaining about the fact that he had to learn new programming languages and design skills. When he finished he seemed rather surprised that I didn't answer him directly and, instead,asked,"Oh really? Does the client really care how you completed the project?"

The student thought about it for a second and replied, "I don't really think so."

"If that is the case", I asked, "then what is it that the client cares about?"

He pondered my question for a few seconds and replied with a response that is universal in this business. "I think",he said," they only care that it works."

As I said, "It's the network,stupid."

It's also the device !

As we become untethered our work is going to appear everywhere there is a screen. That is the essence of this multiscreen universe. The problem is, contrary to common wisdom and Adobe's claims otherwise, one does not design once and deploy everywhere. In fact the best advice I was ever given about this emerging technology was : "Design big." It is much easier to scale down than deal with the inevitable resolution issues of scaling up. This is sort of what Shaun Cronin was getting at in Death of the Fold and Connor Turnbull in The Shift.

Even though the CS5.5 versions of Flash (shown below) and Catalyst now have a a feature that allows you to scale content with the stage, moving from say a Smartphone to a Tablet or even GoogleTV is not a process the astute designer leaves to the vagaries of a mouse click.

The other aspect of these things that we, as designers, have to understand is the presentation layer- what the user sees- requires a design that conveys the same message we would use in a web page but in a very concise and focussed manner. There is no room for the clutter and flourishes we can add to web pages. In many respects it is much like the concept of the precis we wrote in High School English or Communication classes. Take a paragraph of a story and capture its meaning in one, short sentence. Come to think of it, there's an app for that. My friend Hugh Elliot out of Toronto has written an app for the PlayBook called Movies in Haiku. Enter a movie title andthe 2 hours of a movie's story are distilled down to 3 lines of Haiku.

When it comes to designing projects for connected devices, it is no longer sufficient to simply think tablets and smartphones. We, as designers, need to think a lot broader than that. A great example of this comes from none other than Samsung. They have created what they call a Smart TV which connects to the internet using WiFi. This not unsurprising. What may be surprising is the fact it is Flash-enabled ,has its own TV App store and had experienced over 2 million downloads by January of this year.

This is where the "fun" comes in.

I have been through this sort of thing before. I was the guy bringing the computers in the front door of print shops and scaring the pants off of pressmen,typesetters and strippers when desktop publishing was in its infancy. I was there when the internet evolved from the "information Superhighway" to full bore communications medium. I was there when Flash evolved from a wind up toy to today's media powerhouse. I was there the night Macromedia asked a bunch of us Director guys to try out a thing called Afterburner which created a file called a swf which got embedded into a web page. I was at the New York Macromedia User Group the night Hillman Curtis demoed how to get video to play in Flash ( He cheated by rotoscoping) .I am not telling you this to boast or otherwise impress but to simply make it clear I have had the great fortune of being around when a lot of the stuff we take for granted today was in its infancy. In all cases where a radical technological shift occured it took a good three to four years for industry to figure out how to use this stuff and another two for common industry best practices to develop and get accepted across the board.

Not this time.

My "spidey sense" is telling me Industry will need only two years to figure it out and one more to develop the best practices and industry standards. It took a lot longer than that for the standard banner ad sizes that many of us work with to emerge. So with this compressed timeline you may be asking where's the fun in that?

Don't overthink it. This is one of those interesting moments in the web design universe where we get the chance to "make it up" with everbody else and to participate in the emergence of best practices and standards. That's the fun part, Nobody really has a clue regarding what is going on which means we have a couple of years to "play" and learn along with the industry and our clients. Adobe's CS 5.5 release of Flash,Dreamweaver and InDesign are, in essence, Adobe's way of saying : "This is where we think this multiscreen thing is heading. Here's a bunch of tools we think you might need. Have fun."

For me, the coolest thing in the release is the ability to create fully interactive publications using InDesign. When Martha Stewart Living and Wired use this technology to create publications aimed squarely at tablets you can't help but get a tad excited. It's a magazine! No, it's an app. Whatever it is all you need is your current design skills, a coder with serious chops and a browserless network connection to create some pretty cool stuff. In the example below it is the same magazine but the presentation changes depending on whether you are reading with the iPad in a horizontal or vertical position.

In fact I am looking forward to seeing some of the cool stuff you will create . The issue,for you is, will I see it on my iPhone, iPad, Xoom, Playbook, Samsung TV, Motorola Atrix or other device? I don't have a clue ... and neither do you.

Fasten your seatbelts and let the browserless fun commence!.

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