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Browse This, Browse That
Aug 26, 1996 :: Michael Sippey

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 toaster.

Don't laugh.

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 web-enabled wristwatch?

  • 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 voice you hear are digitized to begin with. Heck, why even have a real phone? Just make calls on the 'net.

  • 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 prognositcating 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 neighbor's shoes.

"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.



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