Desktop Nirvana: The browser wars are back. Thank goodness.
My browser is a mess. When I’m working on my laptop, I usually have about 40 tabs open at a time: a dozen Google Docs, Twitter, a couple of forums, oodles of other research pages. Pretty soon my work slows to a crawl because I can’t refind the damn site I was just looking at.
That’s why I’ve become addicted to Vivaldi, an upstart browser launched in “technical preview” this year. Vivaldi has brilliant tab-management features, including a search box that lets you find an open tab by typing in keywords and a “tiling” view that lets you see several tabs side by side. I’d tried various Firefox and Chrome extensions to achieve this sort of tab nirvana before, but they were always clunky or crash-prone. Vivaldi, built with these goals specifically in mind, hums. “It’s for power users,” says Jon von Tetzchner, Vivaldi’s founder. “We’re building a browser for people who want to do more than just get into Facebook.”
Vivaldi isn’t alone. The Russian firm Yandex is developing a new browser, and Microsoft is releasing one called Edge, which will eventually replace Internet Explorer. All told, this ferment has created a curious moment: The desktop browser is once again hot.
At first glance, this makes no sense. Global growth in Internet usage is all mobile, right? So it seems counterproductive for any developer to cast their lot with the old-school, plodding, desktop browser. We’ve got Chrome, Firefox, Safari, Internet Explorer. Isn’t desktop web surfing solved?
It isn’t. One problem with the modern pantheon of browsers, from von Tetzchner’s perspective, is that they’ve become too mainstream and thus too cautious and conservative. They’ve focused on the vast majority of Internet users who, studies show, use only a handful of tabs at a time. This has for years left power users underserved. “I am salivating over Vivaldi,” says one of my fellow enthusiasts, a private investigator. (Opera, founded in the ’90s by von Tetzchner himself, was the lone browser that cultivated power users. But in 2011 he left the company and management killed off most of Opera’s hardcore features.) While early adopters may be a minority, they drive innovation. Cater to them and you’ll build things that occasionally electrify the mainstream too.
What’s more, desktop browsing isn’t as dead as you think. Sure, the number of mobile devices exceeds desktop ones—but “there’s actually more browsing going on through desktops than all those mobile phones put together,” says Roger Capriotti, a Microsoft marketing director who works on Edge. Desktops are where we get work done, and that work today is most often done in a browser. Indeed, Microsoft has found that Windows users spend more than 50 percent of their time in browsers. That’s where cloud services usually live, after all.
Which is precisely why we need a browser renaissance. These creaky old tools could adapt better to how we work today. Microsoft Edge and Vivaldi—having noticed the rise of screenshot culture—have features that let you snapshot and annotate a page. In Microsoft’s case you can use a touchscreen to doodle on an image, then email the result, a feature that makes Edge seem hilariously fine-tuned for generating 4chan-style viral images. But hey: That is what people often do online now, even for work.
One can imagine even more audacious modifications. What about building in peer-to-peer apps? Back in 2009, an experimental version of Opera let you host a website, chat rooms, and file-sharing—all directly from your browser, with no corporate server in the middle. In a post-Snowden world, features like that would find plenty of fans. After years of lying fallow, the browser can once again bloom.