A new kind of web browser

This was originally written in 2013 and has some interesting concepts that still make sense, even though the entire web landscape has changed drastically since. No surprise there — five years is for all practical purposes, an eternity.

I suddenly realised the user interface of Spotify could serve as the prototype for a new kind of web browser, codenamed Cloverfield. Where Spotify handles songs and playlists, Cloverfield would instead handle links, bookmarks, and link lists. First, have a look at this screenshot from Spotify if you are not familiar with its interface or need to refresh your memory:

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Spotify user interface.

Keep that image in mind while reading on; this is how I envision a web browser based on similar layout and functionality:

The top toolbar contains the navigation buttons you would expect: back/forward, home, reload, an address field, and a search field. More of a novelty in the browser world, it would also have a notification button and a user profile button.

The notification button displays a number badge when there are new notifications, such as someone sent you a link, or a link list you follow has new links. When clicked, the notification button displays a popup menu listing recent notifications.

The user profile button displays the user you are currently logged in as, and when clicked sends you to your own profile page. Logging in to the web browser is something already available in, for example, Google Chrome, but would in Cloverfield have a more visible place.

The main browser view stretches from the top toolbar to the very bottom of the window, much like in any web browser available today. However, to the left of the browser view is a sidebar, which is where the really interesting things about Cloverfield live. Clicking an item in the left sidebar displays its content in the main browser view, and the sidebar can easily be collapsed to make more space for the browser view.

The What’s New view is a feed reader, showing any new content based on your subscriptions through RSS/Atom/etc. (This simple but powerful technology is not going away, despite what Google thinks.)

The Follow view displays the people you follow and who follow you, and some recommendations on who to follow based on your existing friends.

The Inbox item is a list of all links you have been sent by others. It has columns for the title of the link, who sent it, and the time and date when it was sent to you. When sending a link to someone, you can also add a comment to it, which will show up in the inbox as a chat bubble icon. As in any list, you can also star links directly.

The Devices item has any connected devices listed, so you can access their media quickly, for example uploading a photo straight from your phone to an image hosting service, or sending a text note from your tablet to your online idea collection.

The Apps section can contain any web apps, as defined by a standard such as Open Web Apps by Mozilla. Cloverfield should support as many web app formats as possible, not tying the user to one market or ecosystem. Apps can be added to this section by installing them from a website, or by finding them in the App Finder service available in the Apps section. The App Finder lists web apps from a few trusted default sources such as the Firefox Marketplace. But additional sources can be added, much like you would add sources to a Linux package manager, on top of the default ones.

The built-in Top Lists app has various lists of the most popular links in the past time, all-time, in different geographic areas, and so on. This view may also contain top links among the people you follow.

A replacement for the Radio app in Spotify would be a Discover app in Cloverfield. Starting from a link you choose, it will display other links that you might like. You can click a thumbs up on them or skip to the next link, and the app will adapt to your taste over time. It works much like StumbleUpon when you want to discover new websites.

The Collection section has everything related to your links. The Library item is similar to current browsers’ bookmarks view, containing all links you have saved, either by starring them or by adding them to a link list. This is your own personal collection of links, which can be shared, organised into new link lists, and so on. Link lists can also be organised into folders, nested to any level.

Local Files may mostly be of use to developers. It contains any local websites you are working on, or have available offline for other reasons.

The Starred view lists all links you have starred, with info on when you starred them.

Clicking New Link List will make a new link list, prompting you for a title for the list. You can also write a short description and/or add an image for it, both of which will be displayed at the top of the view when someone else is visiting your link list.

The rest of the Collection section is all your link lists. These can be of three types: regular, published, or collaborative. A regular link list is only viewable and editable by you. You can add, remove, and reorder links at any time. If you choose to share one of your link lists, it is considered published. Anyone with the unique and unguessable URL for the link list can visit it and, if desired, follow it. When following a link list, you will get notifications whenever links are added to it. You can also make a list collaborative, meaning that others can edit it too. Unlike Spotify, Cloverfield has much more useful access control on lists, meaning that you can make them viewable or editable only to certain users.

Just a few last words on Cloverfield. After catching this thought on what Spotify would be if it handled links instead, everything just seemed to fit in perfectly. People already make lists of links, bookmark them, star them, and share them. Cloverfield has all of this built-in. People already send each other links, follow blogs and websites, and comment on these. Cloverfield has all of this built-in too and is an inherently social web browser. And the whole web app thing is just starting to happen (in projects like Firefox OS) and could be a very important move for the web as a whole. Cloverfield has a natural structure for incorporating web apps that is much more straightforward than any desktop web app implementations I’ve seen so far.

And on a very important end note: Cloverfield should use open standards and technologies as far as possible. We don’t want the lock-in of Google, Spotify, or Apple. We want subscriptions through RSS, website login through something like Persona, and messages through encrypted email. There is obviously need for a sync service in Cloverfield, but we should have the choice to use any such service, not just a single one. And the whole thing should be built on open technologies, with web apps you can install from anywhere if they are not dangerous; the security model of Firefox OS is a really good idea.

This is what I’ve thought of so far, but I’m sure others can come up with brilliant ways to expand on this idea for a new kind of web browser. I encourage you to use Spotify for a few minutes while keeping Cloverfield in mind. You will hopefully recognise the potential of such an application. It would be a really interesting browser experience.

Someone with the means ought to build it.

Written by

Film scholar and technologist with an MA in Cinema Studies. Wrote thesis on cyborgs in film. 15+ years in the computer industry. Science fiction cinema host.

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