What Exactly Is A Browser?…

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If I asked you to define exactly what a Browser is, could you?

At first blush, this may seem like a dumb question. Browsers have been around since Netscape Navigator introduced the concept well over a decade ago, and most technical people can rattle off the names of popular browsers like “Internet Explorer”, “Safari”, “Firefox” and “Chrome” without hesitating. But while it may be easy for people to provide this kind of ‘definition by example’, I would argue that getting people to offer a definition based on more specific criteria would end up being a much bigger challenge.

Let me assert that this isn’t simply an academic question that I’m asking as some intellectual exercise. It has actually become a very important issue that will need to be resolved – both legally as well as in the ethos of the web. To understand why, consider the recent tussle between the NY Times and the young developers of the successful iPad RSS reader called PULSE.

PULSE was one of the applications profiled during Steve Job’s WWDC keynote. It’s a popular application that marries the traditional RSS reader with an innovative browsing interface, creating something really unique. Shortly after that keynote, Apple received a letter from the New York Times demanding that PULSE be removed from the App Store. Here is a clip taken directly from the legal take down notice Apple received:

The Pulse News Reader app, makes commercial use of the NYTimes.com and Boston.com RSS feeds, in violation of their Terms of Use*. Thus, the use of our content is unlicensed. The app also frames the NYTimes.com and Boston.com websites in violation of their respective Terms of Use.

Though there’s a long discussion I could have on the commercial use clause in the above quote, for this post consider the line I called out that talks about “framing” sites. Historically, “framing” was the practice where one website would use an HTML ‘<frame>’ command to embed the contents of another web site into it’s display. This was predominantly used by unsavory sorts on the web as a way for them to “capture” the value of another site instead of investing directly in creating value of their own. In response to this, most quality websites started including Terms of Use that specifically banned people from framing them in this way. If nothing else, it gave a site the legal basis to going after any other site that tried to do it to them. In those early days of the web, recognizing this practice was pretty clear and straight forward.

Fast forward to today…

There have been two significant threads of web evolution that have made things far more complicated and less clear. One is that ‘browsers’ have continued to add features and functions that make them much more than simple utilities for browsing web pages. The other is that an increasing number of applications being built today include some form of integrated web browsing as a native component of their functionality.

What this has done is blur the line between browsers and other internet savvy applications, blending code based features with HTML rendered options to enhance the web experience. To get a better sense of this, consider some of the capabilities that are now available within modern browsers.

  • TABS: Perhaps the most basic extension that is now a part of every significant browser is the TAB bar sitting above the browser display:

    Tabs allow multiple web pages to remain open at the same time, simplifying switching between multiple sites. What TABS end up doing, effectively, is framing individual sites and showing only one of them at a time based on which ‘TAB’ is selected. It isn’t using HTML FRAMING, but it uses code to achieve the same result. It is also core to the way most people browse the web today. While this type of function may seem trivial, it is actually one of the issues PULSE came under fire for.

  • REFORMATTING: Some browsers are starting to go a step further and actually reformat the content displayed on a web page. Consider this snapshot I took of the new READER feature in the latest version of Apple’s Safari browser:

    READER lets a person take any web page with a single article on it and view it in an easy to read window without any images, ads, or other distracting ‘web noise’. Though this capability is built in to Apple’s latest version of this browser, I think it clearly falls outside any traditional definition of “web browsing”. In many ways, it does something even worse than ‘page framing’. READER creates a denatured version of the page, removing any branding or advertising the creators of the content originally packaged with it. You can even mail it or print it in this reduced form.

  • PLUG-IN’s: Beyond the capabilities offered by browsers natively, most modern browsers also provide ways for their feature sets to be extended through Plug-ins. Plug-ins are lightweight applications that ‘plug in’ to the back-end functionality of a browser to extend it in some way. Plug-ins can leverage a browser to do things like communicate with hosted services across the internet, direct the browser to open different web pages, analyze the content being displayed on a page, or even augment it with outside content. Consider this screen shot of a plug-in called GLUE. In this case, the plug-in has been activated by someone looking at a specific book on the Barnes & Noble web site:

    One of the features ‘GLUE’ adds to a browser is the ability to analyze what is being shown on a page, find specific items that are being mentioned there, and give people additional options for interacting with those items. In this case it has recognized the book and, among other choices, has given them the option to buy the book – on Amazon. I have no doubt that B&N would much prefer that choice not to be a simple left mouse click away on their site.

In all of these cases, the browsers are providing functionality that goes beyond simple browsing. In some of them, the functionally is either passively or actively at odds with what the site providers would like to have done with their content. At this point in time, all of these capabilities – since they are happening within mainstream browsers – have become accepted practice on the web.

Compared to what some of these browsers can end up doing to web pages, what PULSE did to tick off the NY Times is almost trivial. Safari can let people browse through their RSS feeds (another built-in ‘browser’ feature) and open any interesting articles they find using the ‘READER’ interface show above. However, because PULSE is “an application”, the same basic type of functionality falls afoul of the NY Time’s terms of use – a distinction in form but not in function.

It’s clear that the way many web sites (and possibly even the law) view this distinction is out of touch with where the technology has progressed. Drawing a clearly defined line between browsers and applications would be a fruitless exercise. In fact, given the shift to the mobile web, I would expect browsing to start happening a lot more via application embedded browsers. Our underlying norms of ‘browsing’ may actually be changing at this point.

I have no doubt that finding common ground here between content publishers and consumers won’t be easy – but this is an area that needs to be debated and discussed. A compromise of some kind will need to be reached and a new “cultural standard” established in this area.

The great thing about the web community is that it still has the capacity to do that.

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