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May the Web Browser Rest in Peace

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It's been 20 years since Marc Andreessen brought Mosaic from the ivory tower of X Windows and UNIX to the gritty streets of Windows and Macinosh. Marc was the Mark Zuckerberg of his day, a college kid on fire, who broke all the rules and then some. Marc built on the work of others with so much force and vision that the web browser became his creation and fame and fortune soon followed. Marc's Mosaic brought the World Wide Web into my home on a dial-up modem connection in 1993. After that my minutes on AOL began to decline as Mosaic became Netscape Navigator and over the years its source code directly inspired Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Mozilla's FireFox.

In the original Mosaic we have almost all the basic features of the modern web browsing experience: URLs and hyperlinks, forward and backward navigation and a browsing history, bookmarks, sound and video, online forms, and cross-platform compatibility. All that Apple and Google have added to the web browser with Safari and Chrome have been footnotes to the original ideas present in Mosaic in 1993. Javascript, Ajax, CSS, HTML5, plug-in components, and online advertising are all wonderful features but they are optimizations.

I, for one, would like to see something new and better than 20-year-old hacked together ideas with which to browse the massive, unstructured, and nearly endless ocean of content that is our contemporary World Wide Web. The web browser and its core feature set have become a straight jacket on innovation and is holding us back. I was inspired by Ted Nelson's Literary Machines in 1982, but it feels to me like we haven't gotten past chapter two.

What's wrong with our beloved web browsers, used by billions of people every hour of every day?

Web browsing is still pretty hard to do. URLs and domain names are awkward and unfriendly to ordinary humans: Whitehouse.gov is where you go to see what the president is up to. Whitehouse.com is where you go for single "Czech ladies." While it might make great political poetry there is simply no way to know where a ".com" or a ".net" is going to lead you.

Creating a website or a web application has never been more difficult, in spite of all the tools and WYSIWYG editors available today. Sure, you can get a blog post up in minutes but you're stuck with the layouts, fonts, and styles that your webmaster has prepackaged into a template. And if you learn some HTML and CSS and stray from the template your site or app isn't going to work on mobile phones and pads without more effort than you can imagine. The HuffPost Tech team, like every other technology team in the world, spends 50 percent of its time writing the code and 50 percent making sure it works across all the devices and browsers that show web pages.

Web links and bookmarks have random, invisible expiration dates. I don't bookmark pages anymore, I screen capture them. The link has become as unreliable has my first car: a used 1978 Chevy Camaro. I loved that car but I had no idea if it would start up in the morning. Here's a fun exercise: Go through your old bookmarks and count up how many result in unhelpful re-directs, Google Oops, or 404 pages (be sure to visit HuffPost's 404 page, it's a cult classic). I bet most of your old bookmarks are useless.

Last year I was hopeful that a new web was dawning, the app web. Instead of a general purpose web browser I would have easy to use apps providing me with all the best services and info the web contains. After living in the app web for while I discovered it has its own class of problems. I have Spotify for music, Facebook for social, and Newegg for computer parts and there are still tons of web content that I'm missing. I simply don't have enough room on my phone for all the apps needed to replace the web browser and its open access to everything.

Still, I want a new and better web browser. One where URLs are replaced by human friendly sentences, where website and web apps can be created by anyone, and one where links last forever.

In 1993 I was speaking with one of Apple's chief technologists. I was very excited by Mosaic but he put me in my place. "The web browser," he said," is a lousy user experience and will never replace applications for storing and managing data." Unfortunately I took his advice seriously and didn't get back to the web until 1998, a bit late for the dot com boom but in plenty of time for the dot com bust.

I don't need a new web, I need a new web browser. A web browser as radical as Mosaic was in 1993. A web browser that establishes new interactions and new metaphors. There's a long list of attempts a build a new web browser: Axis, RockMelt, Pogo, and Flock to name just a few. But they all have back buttons. The web browser for the next 20 years won't need old ideas like back buttons!

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