Tag: web

The future of the web browser

August 6th, 2009 — 12:19am

Internet ExplorerThe web browser, it is safe to say, has gone from humble origins to being the single most widely used piece of desktop software (based on my own usage, but I don’t think I’m untypical). This development continues today. The battles being fought and the tactical decisions being made here reach a very large audience and have a big impact.

When exactly did the web browser make the transition from being a hypertext viewer to an application platform? This transition seems in retrospect to have been a very fluid affair. Forms with buttons, combo boxes and lists were supported very early. Javascript came in not too long after. When the XmlHttpRequest was introduced it wasn’t long until AJAX took off, paving the way for today’s “rich” web browser applications.

A couple of years ago I had a personal project ongoing for some time. I had decided that web browsers weren’t designed for the kind of tasks they were being made to do (displaying applications), and I wanted to make a new kind of application platform for delivering applications over the web. Today I’m convinced that this would never have succeeded. Even if I had gotten the technology right (which I don’t think I was ever close to), I would have had no way of achieving mass adoption. Incremental developments of the web browser have, however, placed a new kind of application platform in the hands of the masses. Today the cutting edge seems to be browsers like Google’s Chrome, aggressively optimised for application delivery. But some new vegetables have been added to the browser soup.


Google’s GWT web toolkit has been available for some time. This framework makes it easier to develop AJAX applications. Some hardcore AJAX developers may consider it immature, but these frameworks are going to be increasingly popular since they bridge the differences between browsers very smoothly, I think. What’s interesting is that the same company is developing GWT and Chrome though. The two sides of the browser-application equation have a common creator. This helps both: GWT can become more popular if Chrome is a popular browser, and Chrome can become more popular if GWT is a popular framework. Google can make and has made GWT apps run very fast with the Chrome browser (I tested this personally with some things I’ve been hacking on). The sky is the limit here; they can easily add special native features in the browser that GWT alone can hook into.

Microsoft have something a little bit similar with their Silverlight, which while not playing quite the same role, has a co-beneficial relationship with Internet Explorer.


Everyone’s favorite browser, Firefox, recently passed 1 billion downloads. Firefox doesn’t really have a web development kit of their own as I understand it. It just tries to implement the standards well. Which is fair and good, but it demotes FF from the league of agenda setters to people who play catch up, in some sense. Though, it must be said, the rich variety of plugins available for FF might go a long way to remedy this.

All this, and I haven’t even touched on Google’s recent foray into the OS market with “Chrome OS”…

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Paper documents made searchable

July 15th, 2009 — 1:41pm

I use the tool Evernote on my iPhone and my desktop computers. It’s pretty nice. You can upload “notes” such as PDFs or images from your desk or from the phone, and the software makes them all searchable and syncs all data between all the different places where you use it. It OCRs photos, so if you take a photo of text, that text will be searchable. It can also show on a map where notes added from the phone were taken.

But this seems to be the icing on the cake: Pixily can scan your paper documents for you, supposedly even handwritten notes. (If they can do my handwriting, and I’m not sure they can, then they can surely decipher absolutely anything, even lost alphabets.) Apparently you send them all your stuff in boxes or envelopes, and they will OCR it into your Evernote account so it all becomes searchable. I would definitely do this if it were cheap, but I suspect shipping to and from Japan is too expensive for me to do this in bulk.

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Iran, Twitter and information control

June 26th, 2009 — 11:03am

Ahmadinejad protesters in Ebisu, Tokyo

We’ve now had just over a decade of truly mainstream access to and use of the internet. I think I personally took my first stumbling steps on the web around 1995-1996. At the time, it was a limited phenomenon, rife with poor design. It was hard to see what was eventually going to come out of that. And even today, it’s hard to see what today’s internet will eventually evolve into.

If it wasn’t clear before, the events of the past week have made it clear that the internet is a valuable tool for democracy. When everybody can broadcast to everybody else, as opposed to just a select few broadcasting, it’s difficult to control the information flow. Repressing select bits of information becomes hard – the repression just results in the information getting more attention. In the aftermath of Iran’s elections, it seems one of the most important communication channels for protesters was Twitter.  The situation is being likened to Tiananmen square. Together with everybody else, I could follow #IranElection as the events unfolded. It went to the point where the US State Department asked Twitter to delay upgrades in order to keep the service operative, supposedly because of Twitter’s importance in Iran.

I don’t know enough about the candidates to take sides in Iran, but I think one of our fundamental principles should be that nobody should seek to rule by repressing communication. Today, the Internet is a free communications device that anyone can use. How long will it stay this way? When legislators seek to clamp down on the Internet’s uncontrolled nature and regulate it for one reason or another, we should protest. Unrestricted mass communication for everyone is too important an invention to give up.

For those who read Swedish, Rasmus Fleischer has written a brilliant post on the events from a philosophical-historical perspective.

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Software roundup

June 21st, 2009 — 1:36am

I enjoy experimenting with new software  just to see what people come up with. There’s just so much unknown software to discover. I suspect most people find something they like and then stick with it until it doesn’t work anymore, but there’s something to be said for proactively replacing your software and searching for better things. Here are some things I’ve taken a liking to recently.

New iPhone OS: Apple released version 3.0 a few days ago. It’s been all positive so far. I get spotlight search for the phone, the keyboard feels more responsive, it finally has copy and paste, Youtube appears to have higher quality, and a slew of other features. (Also MMS which I don’t really need in Japan).

GWT: I started playing with the Google Web Toolkit just for fun. For those who don’t know, it’s an API for developing AJAX based web applications using pure Java, which is then compiled to client side Javascript and a Java servlet. It turns out I can be extremely productive with it – I found that it lets me develop fairly advanced web applications using my existing skills. There’s a very high reward/effort ratio that makes me excited. It feels like I don’t need to learn Ruby on Rails properly when I have GWT given that I’m very comfortable developing in Java.. but we’ll see.

Fluid.app: A web browser enhancement for the Mac that allows you to create separate “applications” from web sites you visit often. This means they will show up in the task bar and application switcher, have their own icon, and occupy less screen space. It sounds simple, but it’s a revelation. (And if you’re like me, you tend to have 15+ tabs open in your web browsers constantly, which is a poor way of managing windows).

Chandler: Like many others, I found out about this little calendar and note manager by reading Scott Rosenberg’s Dreaming in Code , which chronicled the misfortunes of an open source startup project. It went 1.0 last year after many years of development. The impression you get from the book is that the developers had a lot of bad luck despite setting out with the right ambitions. This is now an old debate, but the tool is actually usable today – I’ve been using it every day to manage myself for 3 months. Aside from slight bugs, it feels very smart sometimes, thanks to its unique user interface and features.

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“True Knowledge”: Another search engine

June 16th, 2009 — 12:16am

I previously commented on Wolfram Alpha and PowerSet. Fisheye Perspective now brings my attention to another “answer engine” as they are called these days: True Knowledge. You have to sign up for an account in order to test it, which I have yet to do, but one feature that’s immediately appealing is that users can add and edit content. This was apparently one of the main design principles. But is this then just an alternative to Wikipedia? Not necessarily, as it also has an inference system (it can deduce facts from other facts). And it has an API for programmatic access. I can think of many interesting uses for an online user-edited inference-enabled knowledge base, if they can get the details right. These things are still in their infancy (I hope, since I want them to be better).

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