Menu Search
Jump to the content X X
Smashing Conf San Francisco

We use ad-blockers as well, you know. We gotta keep those servers running though. Did you know that we publish useful books and run friendly conferences — crafted for pros like yourself? E.g. upcoming SmashingConf San Francisco, dedicated to smart front-end techniques and design patterns.

Holistic Web Browsing: Trends Of The Future

The future of the Web is everywhere. The future of the Web is not at your desk. It’s not necessarily in your pocket, either. It’s everywhere. With each new technological innovation, we continue to become more and more immersed in the Web, connecting the ever-growing layer of information in the virtual world to the real one around us. But rather than get starry-eyed with utopian wonder about this bright future ahead, we should soberly anticipate the massive amount of planning and design work it will require of designers, developers and others.


The gap between technological innovation and its integration in our daily lives is shrinking at a rate much faster than we can keep pace with—consider the number of unique Web applications you signed up for in the past year alone. This has resulted in a very fragmented experience of the Web. While running several different browsers, with all sorts of plug-ins, you might also be running multiple standalone applications to manage feeds, social media accounts and music playlists.

Even though we may be adept at switching from one tab or window to another, we should be working towards a more holistic Web experience, one that seamlessly integrates all of the functionality we need in the simplest and most contextual way. With this in mind, let’s review four trends that designers and developers would be wise to observe and integrate into their work so as to pave the way for a more holistic Web browsing experience:

  1. The browser as operating system,
  2. Functionally-limited mobile applications,
  3. Web-enhanced devices,
  4. Personalization.

1. The Browser As Operating System Link

Thanks to the massive growth of Web productivity applications, creative tools and entertainment options, we are spending more time in the browser than ever before. The more time we spend there, the less we make use of the many tools in the larger operating system that actually runs the browser. As a result, we’re beginning to expect the same high level of reliability and sophistication in our Web experience that we get from our operating system.

For the most part, our expectations have been met by such innovations as Google’s Gmail, Talk, Calendar and Docs applications, which all offer varying degrees of integration with one another, and online image editing tools like Picnik and Adobe’s online version of Photoshop. And those expectations will continue to be met by upcoming releases, such as the Chrome operating system—we’re already thinking of our browsers as operating systems. Doing everything on the Web was once a pipe dream, but now it’s a reality.

Ubiquity Link

The one limitation of Web browsers that becomes more and more obvious as we make greater use of applications in the cloud is the lack of usable connections between open tabs. Most users have grown accustomed to keeping many tabs open, switching back and forth rapidly between Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Docs and various social media tools. But this switching from tab to tab is indicative of broken connections between applications that really ought to be integrated.

Mozilla is attempting to functionally connect tools that we use in the browser in a more intuitive and rich way with Ubiquity. While it’s definitely a step in the right direction, the command-line approach may be a barrier to entry for those unable to let go of the mouse. In the screenshot below, you can see how Ubiquity allows you to quickly map a location shown on a Web page without having to open Google Maps in another tab. This is one example of integrated functionality without which you would be required to copy and paste text from one tab to another. Ubiquity’s core capability, which is creating a holistic browsing experience by understanding basic commands and executing them using appropriate Web applications, is certainly the direction in which the browser is heading.

This approach, wedded to voice-recognition software, may be how we all navigate the Web in the next decade, or sooner: hands-free.


Tracemonkey and Ogg Link

Meanwhile, smaller, quieter releases have been paving the way to holistic browsing. This past summer, Firefox released an update to its software that includes a brand new JavaScript engine called TraceMonkey1. This engine delivers a significant boost in speed and image-editing functionality, as well as the ability to play videos without third-party software or codecs.

Aside from the speed advances, which are always welcome, the image and video capabilities are perfect examples of how the browser is encroaching on the operating system’s territory. Being able to edit images in the browser could replace the need for local image-editing software on your machine, and potentially for separate applications such as Picnik. At this point, it’s not certain how sophisticated this functionality can be, and so designers and ordinary users will probably continue to run local copies of Photoshop for some time to come.

The new video functionality, which relies on an open-source codec called Ogg2, opens up many possibilities, the first one being for developers who do not want to license codecs. Currently, developers are required to license a codec if they want their videos to be playable in proprietary software such as Adobe Flash. Ogg allows video to be played back in Firefox itself.

What excites many, though, is that the new version of Firefox enables interactivity between multiple applications on the same page. One potential application of this technology, as illustrated in the image above, is allowing users to click objects in a video to get additional information about them while the video is playing.

2. Functionally-Limited Mobile Applications Link

So far, our look at a holistic Web experience has been limited to the traditional browser. But we’re also interacting with the Web more and more on mobile devices. Right now, casual surfing on a mobile device is not a very sophisticated experiences and therefore probably not the main draw for users. The combination of small screens, inconsistent input options, slow connections and lack of content optimized for mobile browsers makes this a pretty clumsy, unpredictable and frustrating experience, especially if you’re not on an iPhone.

However, applications written specifically for mobile environments and that deal with particular, limited sets of data—such as Google’s mobile apps, device-specific applications for Twitter and Facebook and the millions of applications in the iPhone App Store—look more like the future of mobile Web use. Because the mobile browsing experience is in its infancy, here is some advice on designing mobile experiences: rather than squeezing full-sized Web applications (i.e. ones optimized for desktops and laptops) into the pocket, designers and developers should become proficient at identifying and executing limited functionality sets for mobile applications.

Amazon Mobile Link


A great example of a functionally-limited mobile application is Amazon’s interface for the iPhone (screenshot above). Amazon has reduced the massive scale of its website to the most essential functions: search, shopping cart and lists. And it has optimized the layout specifically for the iPhone’s smaller screen.

Facebook for iPhone Link


Facebook continues to improve its mobile version3. The latest version includes a simplified landing screen, with an icon for every major function of the website in order of priority of use. While information has been reduced and segmented, the scope of the website has not been significantly altered. Each new update brings the app closer to replicating the full experience in a way that feels quite natural.

Gmail for iPhone Link


Finally, Gmail’s iPhone application4 is also impressive. Google has introduced a floating bar to the interface that allows users to batch process emails, so that they don’t have to open each email in order to deal with it.

3. Web-Enhanced Devices Link

Mobile devices will proliferate faster than anything the computer industry has seen before, thereby exploding entry points to the Web. But the Web will vastly expand not solely through personal mobile devices but through completely new Web-enhanced interfaces in transportation vehicles, homes, clothing and other products.

In some cases, Web enhancement may lend itself to marketing initiatives and advertising; in other cases, connecting certain devices to the Web will make them more useful and efficient. Here are three examples of Web-enhanced products or services that we may all be using in the coming years:

Web-Enhanced Grocery Shopping Link


Web-connected grocery store “VIP” cards may track customer spending as they do today: every time you scan your customer card, your purchases are added to a massive database that grocery stores use to guide their stocking choices. In exchange for your data, the stores offer you discounts on selected products. Soon with Web-enhanced shopping, stores will be able to offer you specific promotions based on your particular purchasing history, and in real time (as illustrated above). This will give shoppers more incentive to sign up for VIP programs and give retailers more flexibility and variety with discounts, sales and other promotions.

Web-Enhanced Utilities Link


One example of a Web-enhanced device we may all see in our homes soon enough is a smart thermostat (illustrated above), which will allow users not only to monitor their power usage using Google PowerMeter but to see their current charges when it matters to them (e.g. when they’re turning up the heater, not sitting in front of a computer).

Web-Enhanced Personal Banking Link


Another useful Web enhancement would be a display of your current bank account balance directly on your debit or credit card (as shown above). This data would, of course, be protected and displayed only after you clear a biometric security system that reads your fingerprint directly on the card. Admittedly, this idea is rife with privacy and security implications, but something like this will nevertheless likely exist in the not-too-distant future.

4. Personalization Link

Thanks to the rapid adoption of social networking websites, people have become comfortable with more personalized experiences online. Being greeted by name and offered content or search results based on their browsing history not only is common now but makes the Web more appealing to many. The next step is to increase the user’s control of their personal information and to offer more tools that deliver new information tailored to them.

Centralized Profiles Link

If you’re like most people, you probably maintain somewhere between two to six active profiles on various social networks. Each profile contains a set of information about you, and the overlap varies. You probably have unique usernames and passwords for each one, too, though using a single sign-on service to gain access to multiple accounts is becoming more common. But why shouldn’t the information you submit to these accounts follow the same approach? In the coming years, what you tell people about yourself online will be more and more under your control. This process starts with centralizing your data in one profile, which will then share bits of it with other profiles. This way, if your information changes, you’ll have to update your profile only once.

Data Ownership Link

The question of who owns the data that you share online is fuzzy. In many cases, it even remains unaddressed. However, as privacy settings on social networks become more and more complex, users are becoming increasingly concerned about data ownership. In particular, the question of who owns the images, video and messages created by users becomes significant when a user wants to remove their profile. To put it in perspective, Royal Pingdom, in its Internet 2009 in Numbers5 report, found that 2.5 billion photos were uploaded to Facebook each month in 2009! The more this number grows, the more users will be concerned about what happens to the content they transfer from their machines to servers in the cloud.


While it may seem like a step backward, a movement to restore user data storage to personal machines, which would then intelligently share that data with various social networks and other websites, will likely spring up in response to growing privacy concerns. A system like this would allow individuals to assign meta data to files on their computers, such as video clips and photos; this meta data would specify the files’ availability to social network profiles and other websites. Rather than uploading a copy of an image from your computer to Flickr, you would give Flickr access to certain files that remain on your machine. Organizations such as the Data Portability Project6 are introducing this kind of thinking accross the Web today.

Recommendation Engines Link

Search engines—and the whole concept of search itself—will remain in flux as personalization becomes more commonplace. Currently, the major search engines are adapting to this by offering different takes on personalized search results, based on user-specific browsing history. If you are signed in to your Google account and search for a pizza parlor, you will more likely see local results. With its social search7 experiment, Google also hopes to leverage your social network connections to deliver results from people you already know. Rounding those out with real-time search results gives users a more personal search experience that is a much more realistic representation of the rapid proliferation of new information on the Web. And because the results are filtered based on your behavior and preferences, the search engine will continue to “learn” more about you in order to provide the most useful information.

Another new search engine is attempting to get to the heart of personalized results. Hunch8 provides customized recommendations of information based on users’ answers to a set of questions for each query. The more you use it, the better the engine gets at recommending information. As long as you maintain a profile with Hunch, you will get increasingly satisfactory answers to general questions like, “Where should I go on vacation?”

The trend of personalization will have significant impact on the way individual websites and applications are designed. Today, consumer websites routinely alter their landing pages based on the location of the user. Tomorrow, websites might do similar interface customizations for individual users. Designers and developers will need to plan for such visual and structural versatility to stay on the cutting edge.

Conclusion Link

Each of these trends—browser operating systems, mobile, Web-enhanced devices and personalization—provides a foundation for the other. First, traditional browsers will continue to expand their functional scope to meet our demands, ideally in a way that simplifies the user experience rather than just by adding more tabs or toolbars. But our demands will ultimately drive mobile innovation as well, expanding points of entry to the Web far beyond our desks.

As people grow accustomed to being able to access the Web from anywhere, the next logical step will be to create unique entry points, specific to context and purpose and crafted especially for us. This final stage will be truly transformative, imbuing our daily lives with a rich layer of uniquely targeted information that will make us more efficient and effective in what we do. But reaching every step along the way will fully depend on the vision of designers and developers to refine existing interfaces and create completely new ones.

To Sum Up Link

  1. Web browsers will continue to be refined and expanded to include new functionality that will approach an operating system’s level of sophistication.
  2. Designers and developers need to become proficient at identifying and executing functionally limited sets for mobile applications.
  3. Previously unconnected objects will be enhanced with filters to send and receive contextual data across the Web. The design of these objects will change as a result of new interface attributes.
  4. Personalization trends will give users more control over their information and bring new, relevant information to them.

Further Resources Link


Footnotes Link

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5
  6. 6
  7. 7
  8. 8
  9. 9
  10. 10
  11. 11
  12. 12
  13. 13
  14. 14
  15. 15
  16. 16

↑ Back to top Tweet itShare on Facebook


Christopher Butler is the Chief Operating Officer at Newfangled, a Web development firm specializing in agency partnerships. He has written articles on the the current and future state of the web for Print and HOW magazines,, and is the author of The Strategic Web Designer. You can follow him on Twitter @chrbutler.

  1. 1

    Interesting thoughts in this article. Like the idea of web-enhanced devices, I like it, but the enhancement has to be functional only, otherwise it is only annoying.

    • 2

      Fantastic article, great read, very thought provoking.

      One of the subjects that I find myself continually interested in is the future of the Internet. Technology advances occur so rapidly that it’s tough but intriguing to guess about where we will be in ten years, twenty years.

      For my part, I wonder what this Web 3.0, or Third Iteration of the Internet, will bode for competition. With greater use of the browser as OS, what will happen to companies that don’t create browsers? Google, Mozilla, Microsoft, Apple, all will be able to provide a total and controlled experience reliant upon their browsers. Won’t they be able to effectually oligopolize the Internet experience?

      As the move towards greater integration of technology continues, I think it’s important to continue to support multiple versions of a technology (ie multiple browsers) so that innovation through competition can continue to push the Internet towards its natural, intelligent conclusion.

      I know we shouldn’t link, but this one is relevant, as the Third Iteration of the Internet and web culture is what I blog about. If you’re interested, you can read me at

      Again, a great article, and thank you very much for writing it.

      • 3

        Christopher Butler

        April 12, 2010 12:46 pm

        @thePwner I think you’re right that one of the most critical issues still very much at play is whether platforms for web development should be as open/general as possible or diverse and proprietary. Our firm has decided to only develop for the WebKit platform when it comes to mobile, which gives us the broadest scope we can hope to design and develop for without sacrificing quality–and covers iPhone, Droid and NexusOne phones. Thanks for the link, too. I’ll check out your blog.

        • 4

          “Our firm has decided to only develop for the WebKit platform when it comes to mobile, which gives us the broadest scope we can hope to design and develop for without sacrificing quality”

          Mh? And what is with the leading mobile browser Opera? Which is reinstalled by the most mobile phones?

  2. 5

    David Thorpe

    April 10, 2010 4:40 am

    What pisses me off is that a lot of developers fail to recognise that iPhones aren’t the only smart-phone, web enabled, mobile OS’s out there. Facebook for Android is absolutely terrible to use.

    • 6

      John Roescher

      April 10, 2010 1:40 pm

      You sound like one of those people who move next to the airport and then complain about the noise.

      If you want beautifully designed apps RIGHT NOW then get on an iPhone.

      • 7


        You sound like one of those people that move to the suburbs, then complain about the decaying city.

        If you want a healthy marketplace, get out of the garden.

    • 8

      Christopher Butler

      April 12, 2010 12:52 pm

      @DavidThorpe Agreed..sort of. See my comment above.

  3. 9

    Web based applications are great and provide us with some handy tools. But consider having an OS is something that freightens me. Hackers are still out there and our privacy is still under attack every day. And saying something like “If you don’t have something to hide, you shouldn’t be worried”… Well what about your healthcare for instance! Do you wan’t the world to know that you visited a shrink or just had an abortion? I don’t think so. But it’s all on the net these days…

    • 10

      Christopher Butler

      April 12, 2010 1:02 pm

      @Le Marquis You’re bringing up a serious point, one which I definitely did not want to diminish in my post. Privacy is one of the most critical concerns (in my opinion) to the future of the web. If you follow the link to my homepage in my bio above, you can find the article I wrote last July (the second part in my series on the future of the web) on privacy and data ownership issues. Having “nothing to hide” is only one way to look at this, and as you suggest, probably a myopic one. We often don’t know what we want (or have to lose) until we’ve already lost it.

  4. 11

    OS is the core, I think.

  5. 12

    Gouri Shankar

    April 10, 2010 5:21 am

    Nice thoughts. Regarding the browsers, It is true. They are evolving fast.

  6. 13

    Very nice read.

  7. 14

    Jeffrey A. Haines

    April 10, 2010 5:54 am

    I believe that .ogg, as currently supported by Firefox, is just a container, not a codec. The video codec usually inside .ogg is Vorbis, although there is a codec for .ogg currently in development that will have “ogg” in its name.

    Currently, if you want to play .flv or .mp4 video in the h.264 codec in a Flash player on your site, you do not have to worry about licensing issues. h.264 delivers superior quality to Vorbis, but since it is proprietary, it is likely that licensing fees will eventually be attached to hosting files in that format.

    • 15

      No, Vorbis is an audio codec. Theora is the video codec that you’re talking about.

  8. 16

    Nice read. Thanks :)

  9. 17


    April 10, 2010 8:24 am

    Long story short: shit is about to get way too complicated. *lol*

  10. 18

    Once I wrote a fantasy about having browsers able to shape-shift. Of course that wouldn’t happen until we have come out of our rectangle fetish; both technically and otherwise. But I would like to see circle and pentagon shaped websites in future, if anybody’s listening.

  11. 20

    i believe that opera is one of the most close to the os concept.

    as for mobile browsing, i read smashing from an opera 10 nokia 5800 powered mobile. Apart for a few display bugs (minor) the experience is awesome.

  12. 21

    Simple Question

    Quote: “we should be working towards a more holistic Web experience, one that seamlessly integrates all of the functionality we need in the simplest and most contextual way.”

    Why should we?

    • 22

      Christopher Butler

      April 12, 2010 1:08 pm

      @Matthew V Fair Enough. I suppose my quickest answer would be because we’d all be much more productive if we eliminated some of the unnecessary technological barriers to simplicity. Most of the pages I (and most people I know and work with) keep open in tabs are actually different applications. Yet, the browser itself consolidates the “individual app” perception into one “uber app” — especially the more accustomed one gets to toggling betwen tabs. For me, this is much more intuitive than maintaining multiple windows, which I’d have to use my computer’s operating system to toggle between. Another thing that I keep in mind is that research into parallel computing is seeking to make the human-computer interaction even more simple. Imagine being able to simply converse with your machine rather than having to use navigation tools to operate it. In any case, for me, the answer is simplicity.

      • 23

        Sounds like your speaking of a Kinect enabled PC. Which is already in the works… (also includes gesture/touch)

        How we interact with these interfaces is also changing rapidly. Its not just the screen size, or which browser, but what parts of our body actually control the interface. I think simplicity is the best solution for most web interfaces. Gone are they days of small and complicated content elements.

  13. 24

    jml web design

    April 10, 2010 12:14 pm

    A lot of interesting points in this article. Things are about to get really hectic. Looking forward to hearing more on this.

  14. 25

    Thiago Silva

    April 10, 2010 3:41 pm

    Trends of the Past. This is nothing but us trying to get out of this mess we’ve put ourselves into. Just calling it “holistic” doesn’t make this new. The problems the browser and the Web have created didn’t exist in older older systems (think Lisp Genera, Smalltalk, Self, etc) which appear to incorporate nicer (and far deeper) approaches to the aforementioned problems, and also seem much more prepared for “the future”, whatever form it might take. But I’m hardly saying the Web suck; simply arguing what has been said and documented elsewhere: that the developers of the browsers, HTML, and protocols seem to have ignored prior art and a few things about system evolution in the ’90s, when the WWW was conceived.

    • 26

      Christopher Butler

      April 12, 2010 1:33 pm

      @Thiago Silva Sure, much of the foundation we’ve built for the web as we know it today was pretty myopic. Even Tim Berners-Lee has said in interviews that he wished that the domain name convention had been reversed (so that the extension came first, rather than the name, and that the “www” was not necessary). But, we have to steer this massive ship of the web slowly in the right direction. Also, read my comment above–the parallel computing angle is a serious one, and I think one of the more important technological advances between us and the truly simple human-computer interaction paradigm we desire.

  15. 27

    To sum up, if you don’t have Internet connection, you’re screwed.

  16. 28

    Hopefully in the future people will start making more of a focus on design and usability as well! Well us geeky crowd are moving into the future, I feel like other industries are being left behind and not focusing on the same world as we are.

    We’ve created a usability tool at to try and make it easier for people to solve this problem, and there are other people out there with similar sites and ideas, but it really takes time for information on good design and usability to flow down from the web design community to the world in general.

    Hopefully people start to realise the value of a better, more usable design and this kind of web can move forward!

  17. 29

    Jimmy Hankins

    April 10, 2010 9:24 pm

    The iPad is also the wrong direction and reaction. The display and keypad do need to be larger at times, but wireless docking can take care of that. Soon, the smartphone will be everything else, including the network. The Internet should evolve into anynet within range of the largest distributed network ever built. Just how far away are you from another person carrying a wireless device at all times now?

  18. 30

    Tristan Da Cunha

    April 11, 2010 12:40 am

    The graphic depicting ‘search interface’ in the glasses is pretty cool. But you havent mentioned how and where the input to the search box will come from. Will it come from thinking? The eyes dont have fingers to input texts into the textboxes.

    • 31

      Christopher Butler

      April 12, 2010 1:35 pm

      @Tristan Da Cunha I actually didn’t intend for that illustration to be taken literally. I was trying to create a metaphoric illustration that captured the ideas behind the article in general, one that would captivate the audience and draw in interest. I doubt that something like it would actually be produced, or helpful to users either.

  19. 32

    regarding personalization: is a new approach to personalized news and keeping informed. It’s a centralized web experience that delivers news-for-you from thousands of online sources, including Smashing.

  20. 33

    the kind of article one expects from SM.. an interesting read.


↑ Back to top