Web browser developers are failing their most important task

Web browsers haven't been just web browsers for awhile. Jack Wallen suggests web browser developers return to a simpler, more reliable time.

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I have a bone to pick with web browser developers. You know who you are--you help create and manage the likes of Firefox, Chrome, Safari, Vivaldi, Opera, Brave, and so many others. The beef I have with you is very simple: You have one job, and you're failing it.

Whatever could I possibly mean? Once upon a time, web browsers did one thing, and they did it well. What was this magical trick they had up their sleeves? They rendered websites, and that was pretty much it.

Then, browsers started adding a few tricks. First, it was the email client (remember Netscape Navigator?). Next, it was extensions, apps, panels, password managers, crypto wallets.

It's exhausting just trying to keep up with the features browser developers throw into the mix. With every new addition, the most important task of a web browser falls to the wayside.

That task? Rendering web pages.

SEE: Hiring Kit: Application engineer (TechRepublic Premium)

Keeping up with the browser wars

I get it: Browser X adds Feature Y, and Browser Z team feels like they need to copy Feature Y and then one-up Browser X to add Feature V. The vicious cycle doesn't end there. Browser A steps in and copies both Feature Y and V and then, in hopes of flipping the landscape on its ear, rolls in Feature W, which has nothing to do with the original purpose of the web browser.

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

The fun doesn't stop there. Web Browser B comes onto market with all of those bells and whistles, and adds--gasp--Feature 1. 

Chaos ensues. Cats and dogs are dining al fresco together... Linux and Windows users are throwing parties for the latest macOS release.

This is where we are now. Web browsers are no longer just web browsers, but frameworks for a collection of applications and features that do nothing more than bog down the primary task of the browser--to render websites.

They're all guilty

Make no mistake, every one of the popular web browsers are guilty of this. Since I left Firefox behind (for this reason and others), I've bounced from browser to browser, only to find each one seemed to make rendering websites a secondary feature. 

Each of these browsers can render pages (and do it pretty quickly), but there's zero consistency and, all too many times, the bloat gets in the way of simply using the tool for the task at hand. If the bloat isn't directly getting in the way, it's causing the browser itself to either be unstable, buggy, or slow. 

I understand why web browser developers are doing this: They want to draw market share away from the competition and the best way to do that is to finally add that one killer feature that no one can resist. 

But those "killer features" are killing the browser, or at least the browser experience.

A novel idea

Why don't web browser developers strip out all of these bells and whistles and make them add-ons? That way, users can start with the bare bones and customize their browser as needed. 

If you only want a web browser, don't add anything on. If you want a web browser with a built-in password manager, add it. If you want a kitchen sink browser, have at it and add everything the developers offer.

Give us that essential feature first and foremost. 

Of course, there are three features that most every browser will have to include by default:

  • Tab management

  • Privacy settings

  • Bookmark management

Beyond that, everything else could be an add-on. Upon first run of the browser, allow the user to select what they want included in their browser. Don't assume you know best, because you don't. You don't know what's most important for every user or every use case. You could take this even further and make those add-ons extensions developed by third parties. That way, you could focus on producing the absolute best website rendering application possible. It would be fast, reliable, secure, and incredibly easy to use.

You might think me crazy, but this can happen. It probably won't, but it can. However, there are already browsers out there proving 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 much stripped-down applications and serve one purpose--rendering websites. It's actually quite refreshing to work with those applications. Don't get me wrong, they aren't perfect, but they aren't applications, filled with bloat, trying to do more than they should. They are one thing and one thing only. 

When you opt to use such a browser, you are forgoing some of the conveniences offered by bigger 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 this is a pipe dream--the browser war is far too deep into the rabbit hole to ever return and that's fine. But as those browsers continue digging deeper, more and more users might wind up turning to alternatives that offer a faster and more reliable browsing experience.

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By Jack Wallen

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic, The New Stack, and Linux New Media. He's covered a variety of topics for over twenty years and is an avid promoter of open source. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen....