The Big Browser You Haven’t Heard of Yet

When you think of “big” web browsers, a few key names come to mind. There’s Mozilla’s Firefox, Microsoft’s Edge (inheriting the mantle from the veneravble Internet Explorer), Apple’s Safari (based on Webkit) and Google’s Chrome (based on Blink, which Google forked from Webkit in 2014). Historically, NCSA Mosaic was one of the first widely-distributed browsers which spawned both Netscape (which became Mozilla) and IE. The Opera browser also has played a seminal role in the evolution of the Web and continues to do so, even after changing engines from their home-grown Presto engine to Blink (Chromium). Yandex browser, a relatively new entrant, has also gone the route of building on top of Chromium. When you think of the big browsers these days, you tend to think of browsers that have large market share (number of people using them) and that are pushing evolution of the web forward in some respect.

One of the projects I’ve been working on recently has been with a relatively new browser that I think is about to become big. The browser team at Samsung have been quietly building and evolving their own Chromium-based browser and I think it is about to play a big role in the evolution of the web.

Why? First of all, this is the browser that is going to ship with all new Samsung Android devices – and there are a hell of a lot of those out there. Secondly, it’s got a few key features inherited from Chromium, such as the new ServiceWorker API, save-to-homescreen using W3C manifest file and push notifications, that are key for building progressive web apps.

Samsung has generally been known for hardware. However they have been deeply involved in the development of web technologies. Take a look at the list of editors for the service workers spec: along side Google’s Alex Russell and Jake Archibald, you’ll find Samsung’s Jungkee Song, a key member of the browser team. Samsung have been a key contributor to this and to other W3C specs and have had teams contributing to Webkit and Blink for a number of years. In 2013 I shared the stage with Jungkee and Mozilla’s Jonas Sicking at W3C’s annual TPAC meeting to demonstrate interoperability of manifest-driven save-to-homescreen (a key element of progressive webapps).

The web devices people use these days — tablets and phones — have biometric sensors on them, primarily fingerprint sensors. The use of biometric identification, while not a replacement for passwords, can be a significant aid to getting things done on mobile devices, where one-handed operation is essential. The Samsung browser has already pioneered the use of the use of the fingerprint sensor to authenticate password-keeping.

By the way, with the Fido Alliance’s member submission to W3C, the story of use of biometrics in web authentication scenarios is about to get much more interesting. Watch this space.

Another leap the web is about to take is in the field of 3D graphics and virtual environments. The purchase of Oculus by Facebook in 2014 was only one data point that virual reality is about to get big. But what does this mean for the web? Again, the Samsung browser team has been at the forefront here, developing a special browser “beta” for the (Oculus-powered) Gear VR. Unless you’ve been living under a rock this past week you probably saw some news out of CES about the Gear VR. The special Gear VR browser, among other things, lets you stream 3D and 360° movies from Internet services. Now imagine putting this together with other advanced web technologies such as WebGL or even WebRTC.

As people incorporate the web more and more into their daily lives, web privacy and security are getting ever more important. Besides using fingerprint securiry for password keeping, this browser is also helping users take control of their personal data and make a decision when and when not to be tracked as they move around the web. An extensions API that can support content filtering, including ad and tracking network filtering, will be one welcome addition. And an addition of a “secret mode” for off-the-books browsing will be another.

Finally, one hallmark of modern browsers has become automatic updates and the ability to support a wide range of devices (not just the most modern devices). This new browser will also be supporting regular app upgrade through public app market and will be coming out for older devices as well.

When you combine all of the above features with the fact that this browser will be pre-installed across many many devices, I think this is going to have a big impact. The web is continuing to evolve and the existence of multiple interoperable browsers is a key element of that evolution.