Next year is going to be a big year for web browsers. In 2010, we’ll hopefully see Firefox 4, Internet Explorer 9, Safari 5, and possibly even Chrome 5. This new batch of browsers will include several new features that have the potential to entirely change the way we interact with the Web.
What follows are five trends that we’ll be seeing in these new browser releases, and what they’ll mean to you. Some browsers may not see all of these upgrades, but you can bet that every developer in the browser field is paying close attention to what the competition is doing.
1. HTML 5 makes its mark
Anyone interested in the future of the Web should be paying close attention to the rise of HTML 5. It will to a large extent replace the need for Flash elements, but it’s so much more than that. HTML 5 is the first step toward more desktop-like web applications. It’s also replacing everything Google is doing with Gears, i.e. it will offer offline storage support, drag and drop file capabilities, and much more.
All of the upcoming browsers mentioned above will be paying particular attention to HTML 5 support, even though the specification won’t be finalized for several more years. It’s similar to how wireless router manufacturers began implementing draft versions of the 802.11n wireless spec well before it was finished. The 802.11n spec went through eleven drafts after the first was proposed in 2006, and it was only finalized recently on October 29, 2009. All the while, 802.11n routers were on the market.
2. Chrome rolls out Firefox-like extensions
2010 will also see increased focus on browser extensions. Google already offers extension support for developer Chrome builds, and it will be rolled out to the public with the release of Chrome 4. While it may just seem like Google is aping Firefox’s most unique feature, they’re also innovating by making their extensions much easier to build (they’re basically just web pages), more stable (they run in their own process), and easier to distribute (they’ll be immediately available on the Extensions Gallery after developers submit them).
After using Chrome’s extensions for a few hours, I immediately made it my primary web browser. I held off in the past because I was so dependent on many Firefox extensions – but when I realized that Chrome had pretty much all of the popular Firefox extensions, and that it was also much faster in other respects, the decision was practically made for me.
3. Firefox gets individual processes like Chrome
This is the beauty of competition (and the open source movement). While Chrome is mirroring a Firefox feature with their extensions, Mozilla is looking to implement separate processes for multiple tabs, plugins, extensions, and more. They’re calling this particular project Electrolysis – which is a fitting name since the goal is to separate these elements so a single unruly tab or extension won’t bring down the entire browser. Apparently, they’re even using the same open source code as Chrome for the project.
Electrolysis would not only make Firefox more stable, it would also help Mozilla tame the browser’s notorious memory management issues. While running many elements as individual processes does have the potential to eat up more RAM (as is true for Chrome), I find that it’s worth it to give up a bit more RAM for overall better memory management.
I also wouldn’t be surprised if individual processes make their way over to Safari, and also Internet Explorer at some point (although perhaps not in 2010).
4. Site specific browsers become even more useful
Chrome was the first browser to allow you to turn a web page into a simple desktop shortcut which, when launched, would give you a stripped down browser environment for that page. The proper term for this sort of application window is “site specific browser” (SSB for short). When you use this feature for a web application like Google Reader, it basically appears to be no different than a desktop application.
Mozilla actually launched a similar project, dubbed Prism, as a Firefox extension before Chrome was released. It accomplishes the same SSB task that Chrome’s application shortcut does, and it’s also being used in projects like Jolicloud, a netbook operating system.
As browsers get increasingly powerful, and web apps begin to approach the functionality of desktop applications, SSBs will become even more useful.
As I’ve written previously:
Microsoft is also working on a way to utilize hardware acceleration to speed up IE9’s text and graphics performance. Basically, it’s using your graphics hardware to give IE a bit of a speed boost. Microsoft says that this will be more useful than other hardware-accelerated browser technologies, and they may have a point about that.
Google’s “Native Client” technology allows developers to tap directly into your processor for certain web applications. Basically, it will allow web apps to perform about as fast as an application running directly off of your computer. Mozilla’s WebGL, on the other hand, allows for accelerated 3D within Firefox (and it’s coming to Safaria and Chrome as well). While both of these technologies are useful for certain instances, it doesn’t help with everyday webpage rendering.
Now that Microsoft is looking toward hardware-accelerated web page rendering, you can be sure that both Google and Mozilla will be working on it soon as well.
In short, 2010 is going to be a year of milestones for web browsers, and I honestly can’t wait to see what happens. The most interesting browser developments in 2009 were centered around Google Chrome, while both Firefox and Internet Explorer gave us fairly boring incremental releases.
Come 2010, it looks like everyone will be stepping up their game.