📝 CSS-Tricks 273: Weird Browsers

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[Robin]: “Perhaps for what we’re losing in browser engine diversity, we’ll gain in browser UI/UX diversity” Chris quipped the other day in a post all about Bonsai. It’s an interesting little browser that’s pretty different from the browsers that we’re most familiar with today, mostly because it’s designed to do just one thing really well: research. A hotkey makes the app appear as a tiny floating window on your screen and you can organize “tabs” into workspaces, which certainly looks neat and certainly helps clean up all those messy tabs.

But I agree with Chris here—it feels like there’s something in the air when it comes to browsers. Folks are starting to think about them differently and that’s exciting. And although in the front-end world we’re constantly bemoaning the convergence of browsers towards Chrome and WebKit—and for good reason, too (ideally we’d have both browser engine and UI diversity). But I think that this can sometimes be a little short-sighted because UI diversity is just as important, perhaps.

For example! The other day I stumbled upon Opera GX, “a browser for gamers” that tells you when certain video games are about to be released and adds CPU, RAM, and Network limiters. That’s certainly cool and weird.

Then there’s The Browser Company which hopes to reinvent tabs and how we navigate around websites. Or Brave, who’s trying to position itself as a faster and more secure alternative to Chrome that also lets you tip writers (heck yeah!). Then there’s Sidekick, which is trying to be one of those omni-app things that lets you quickly get into Gmail, Notion, Slack, etc. Synth looks like something similar, except that it lets you quickly make Jira tasks and lets you jump into Zoom meetings and whatnot real quick. Mighty, on the other hand, lets you search across all your Google docs from within the browser which saves you having to bookmark a million things. There are just so many of them!

These variations on a theme make me realize that, at this point, I don’t know what a browser is. Sure, it can take a URL and show you a bunch of information, and lets you search for stuff. But beyond that, boy, I’m not so sure. Should a web browser have bookmarks? Should it have the latest and greatest CSS features? I can imagine a browser without CSS Grid and Flexbox. I can imagine a browser that says eff you entirely to CSS itself. And what about a browser without tabs? Or a browser without color? What about a browser with no UI or a browser designed only for this one, tiny community?

My point here is this: what we think browsers are today are not what they’ll be in the future. And because of that, I’m excited about browsers for the first time in a real long time.

This makes me wonder if Progressive Web Apps are going to make a comeback in the future once we move away from this Chrome UI world. The way we use browsers and operating systems today don’t really encourage us to use them at all but perhaps in the near term future, as these weirder browsers take hold, maybe that’s when PWA usage will explode.

It also makes me wonder what’s the difference between an operating system and a web browser? At one point or another, the line starts to blur for me.

And how will this play out with CSS? What new tools will we need if our websites become more app-like, more front-and-center on people’s devices? And what new tricks will we be talking about here?

These are exciting times indeed.

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