Browse This, Browse That
August 26, 1996
Last week either Netscape announced, or news was leaked (is there a
difference?) that they've got a "secret" team of between 30 to 50 people
that are working on porting their browser software to consumer and
hand-held electronic devices. Soon you'll be able to run Navigator on
your personal organizer, your cell phone, your pager and probably your
There's been a long standing goal in Silicon Valley and points north of
"ubiquitous computing." Cell phones, pagers, laptops...all are helping
millions of knowledge workers keep in touch with managers, employees,
customers, suppliers, family and friends. Heck, Java started out as Oak
-- an operating system for hand held devices. But the utopian dream
world of ubiquitous computing goes way beyond the simple tools we have
now. Why stop with connecting every PC to the net? Why not connect every
fax machine, every telephone, every refrigerator, every microwave oven,
every VCR and every camcorder as well?
Long relegated to the ghetto of department stores and suburban malls
("Can I help you?" "No thanks, I'm just browsing.") The web has given
new life to the verb "to browse." Browsing now means much more than
"just looking." It now means "looking and clicking." Just think, in a
few short years, you'll be able to...
Browse your favorite web sites. "Wait," you say. "I can already do
that." Sure you can, you're doing it now. But can you do it from your
pager? From your cell phone? From the back of a airline seat? From a
Browse your television. Not only will you be able to browse using
your television, but you'll be able to browse content as well. How do
you think they're going to have you navigate all 500 channels of
pay-per-view boxing? Think "pulsating N in the upper right hand corner"
and you're on the right track. Heck, why stop at the television? Why not
browse (and program) your VCR, right from your PC at work?
Browse your phone. Need to pick up your voice messages? Why not
browse your voice mail system? All those voices you hear are digitized
to begin with. Heck, why even have a real phone? Just make calls on the
Browse your kitchen. Need to see what's for dinner? Browse the
content of your refrigerator. Sure, there are cameras connected to the
web, but that's primitive. Why not have your refrigerator scan the
barcodes of each and every product that moves in and out, and
continuously update a database? That way, in the afternoon when your
stomach starts rumbling at a client site you surf over to your
refrigerator and browse the shelves for anything edible. Got milk? No?
Order some online and have it delivered.
Browse your neighbor's shoes. For about three years now, Nicholas
Negroponte of the MIT Media Lab has prognositcated that shoes will
become carriers of digital information. They're incredibly portable (you
don't have to carry them around), and they have a renewable energy
source (the pounding of your feet on the pavement). He says they'll
carry digital calling cards, which will be automatically communicated to
other people's shoes when we shake hands at a cocktail party. But why
even shake hands? Why not use the Netscape browser in your PDA, and
automatically scan the room for interesting shoe profiles? Imagine the
ad banner possibilities for Nike and Reebok...
What the net has given us is a common platform (TCP/IP) for
communication, and a common metaphor (browsing) for doing it. I don't
have a problem with connecting more and more computers or devices to the
net. The market will decide which connections are useful, and which
connections are frivolous.
My problem is with the metaphor of browsing. For all the hype about the
"interactive" nature of the web, browsing is a very passive activity.
Click, wait, read. Click, wait, read. Click, wait, read. This is not how
I want to interact with my computer, much less my refrigerator or my
"Browsing," aside from its obvious connotations of shopping (see above),
leaves the viewer in a state of passive acceptance of the information
that they're, well, browsing. There is no challenge and response. There
is no questioning of validity, no feedback loop.
Plainly put, when you're browsing, you can't talk back.
Next Monday: The Fall Reading List