Developer

Is the web dying? No, the browser's best days are still to come

Warnings that the web has had its day ignore the significant improvements to the browser that are in the offing.

"The web is dead." Four words repeated with alarming regularity.

This time the web's impending demise has been diagnosed by commentators based on observations that smartphone users spend overwhelmingly more time using native apps than a browser.

Those warning of a moribund web seem to believe it is set on a path of terminal decline, with apps gradually eroding more and more of what was once the preserve of the browser.

But to presume the shift is irreversible is to assume the web platform is fixed - when it most certainly is not. What's more, much of the time spent in these native apps is devoted to viewing web content via an in-app browser, for example browsing links in Facebook's iPhone app.

The web has moved a long way from serving static documents and as it continues to evolve an increasing number of applications that were once the domain of native software now run in the browser.

The most recent demonstration of the web's growing capabilities was Microsoft's pledge to offer Skype in the browser, built around Microsoft's Object RTC spec.

And that's not the only major advance. Today entire 3D game engines are capable of running in the Firefox browser, a product of work to port existing C and C++-based applications to the web.

And Firefox OS - for all its early limitations - shows it is now possible to build an entire OS based only on web technologies, a reflection of how mature the web platform is becoming.

Browsers are on the cusp of implementing many more standards that will help bring new native features to the web.

WebRTC will allow browser-to-browser video chat and data swapping. Web Components will make it simpler to build sophisticated user interfaces by allowing developers to share usable components. Service Workers will make it easier to build web apps that are offline first, where everything the app needs to function, at least in its most basic form, is stored on the device and it only needs to connect to the network to pull in new data. Meanwhile browsers are also introducing support for design features that make it easier for apps to scale from handheld phones to 40-inch TV screens.

These technologies aren't years away. All these standards are either supported or in the process of being implemented in most major browsers and are only a selection of the far wider range of technologies being introduced to the web.

And web technologies have an advantage over native apps, as once they are established in major browsers they generally will be based on the same standards, guaranteeing compatibility between disparate web services. No more worrying about Apple FaceTime not being able to talk to Skype. That ease of use will always be a big win in the eyes of the end user.

Alongside the capabilities of the web platform being broadened, developer bugbears about the shortcomings of JavaScript - the de facto language of the browser - are slowly being addressed, with the introduction of more powerful features and aids for debugging large code bases.

The web's shrinking sphere of influence is often characterised as death by 1,000 cuts, with each new app nibbling away at a service that used to be provided in the browser.

But just as apps can erode the web, so browsers are more than capable of snatching responsibilities from apps. Look at how Gmail in the browser has replaced the email client for many.

And, to an extent, casting the web and native apps as opposing forces bent on each other's destruction is wrongheaded. Without the web, native apps would lose much of the linked content that gives them their appeal in the first place. Rather than characterise their relationship as antagonistic, you could just as easily see it as symbiotic.

The web is about to become a lot more capable. While you might be right to harbour doubts about the prospects for today's web, you shouldn't discount tomorrow's.


About Nick Heath

Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic. He writes about the technology that IT decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

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