Getting rid of the browser

Last updated:
Apr 28, 2022
Web apps are dominating our modern toolkit. We write down our thoughts in Google docs, talk on Slack, and design in Figma. Even outside our tech bubble, people book their trips on Airbnb, order their food on Lieferando, and watch their favorite show on Netflix. While we do all these things inside native apps on our phones, they all happen inside web apps on our laptops.
And it seems to be only a matter of time until we’re editing videos and writing code on the web as well - it’s clearly the future, and the present, of desktop applications.
Yet, we still access them through the decades-old interface of the web browser that was designed to open simple webpages to read the news or check the weather - small, temporary activities - not to manage multiple heavy apps that you spent long periods of time in and constantly switch between throughout the day.

Browsers have become operating systems

Our real desktop operating systems, like macOS, have spent those same decades optimizing how users can open, manage, and switch between multiple native apps running at the same time.
You have frequently used ones readily available inside the dock and can have multiple desktops to organize all your apps, as well as jump easily between them using the task switcher.
It’s time to get rid of the browser UI we’ve gotten so used to, because the browser isn’t just one of many apps on our computers anymore; it has become the operating system itself, the environment in which all our apps run.
If I’m working on some brand assets in Illustrator and need to check the requirements inside our shared Google Doc, why do I have to first switch to Safari, and then to Google Docs? Why can’t I switch to Google Docs right away, just like any app that's installed on my computer?

Making web apps first class citizens

We need to merge the efficient way of todays desktop operating systems to manage multiple apps, and the web browsers access to all the tools we spent so much time in.
We could get rid of the browser as a separate app alltogether, and instead integrate it’s functionality into the operating system. Here's how I think it could work.
The main ways to open native applications on the Mac is by clicking on the apps icon in the dock, or searching for it in spotlight. That’s already very similar to the way we access web apps in the browser.
Imagine having the actual apps you use every day inside your dock, instead of Safari or Chrome.
We could slightly adapt the dock with one of the web browsers most important interface elements - the "+" button to open a new tab. Clicking that button would open a little search window, very similar to the Macs integrated search functionality. This searchfield would act like the url bar of traditional browsers. You could start entering a few letters, and you would instantly get results that match your query.
Once you’ve found the app you’re looking for - which could be any web app, not just the apps installed on your machine - it opens inside it’s own window, just like native apps do.
Since we’ve moved the url bar out of the browser window and integrated it into the operating system itself, the app would need very little window chrome. However, since web apps rely on the back and forward buttons of browsers for parts of their navigation, those would still be neccessary.
Once the app is running, its icon appears inside the dock, making it behave exactly like native apps. It would now also appear inside the task switcher, so you can easily switch between multiple running apps.
It would probably make sense to have multiple windows of the same domain, for example multiple Figma files, be merged into one window, divided by tabs, in order to make it easier to find the window you're looking for. Especially since people tend to have a million browser tabs open, having all of them as separate windows might get unorganised very quickly.
Some companies already offer their users to download “native” versions of their web apps, which are essentially windows running a single web page. However, downloading apps should be a thing of the past in the age of web apps.

Late to the party

If all this sounds familiar, it’s because I wasn’t the first one to think about such a concept (of course).
While writing this post, this whole idea of evolving the browser into the modern desktop operating system seemed so inevitable to me. I started wondering if others have tried, or are trying, to build something similar.
Weirdly enough, while projects like Chrome OS focus completely on web apps and let users access them through icons on their home screen, they still seem to make use of the same old browser interface to switch between them.
But as it turns out, folks like the browser company have indeed been talking about similar concepts for a few years now. They haven’t launched anything yet, but you can find interesting articles about what they’re trying to do.
Let’s hope they’re able to move things into the right direction.

What do you think? Let's discuss!

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Originally Published:
Jul 25, 2021