What is a Web Browser?

In response to my previous post about Apple and their use of site-specific browsers, Joe Clark replied with the following:

They aren’t “browsers” because they aren’t browsing the Web. In specific, the iTunes (Music) Store is not HTML.

Unless of course you are advocating an expansion of the meaning of the term.

Rather than advocating an expansion of meaning, I’d suggest that the term has been wrongly narrowly categorized. Allow me to explain…

To begin, I’ll paraphrase the first sentence of Wikipedia’s entry on Web browser:

A web browser is a software application that enables a user to display and interact with text, images, videos, music and other information located on a network.

A typical web browser (including Internet Explorer, Safari, and Firefox), relies on three primary technologies: HTTP, HTML, and URLs.

A URL is simply an address to a resource that is available on a network. When a URL is entered into a web browser, HTTP is used to allow the web browser and a web server to communicate with one another. The server sends the browser a document marked up using HTML, which the browser is able to display on screen.

What makes the web interesting is the concept of a hyperlink.

A hyperlink is a way to point to other resources on the network. For example, links to my site can be constructed with the following HTML:

<a href="http://www.backdrifter.com/">Backdrifter</a>

The browser understands that markup and displays it as a link to my weblog. If the link is clicked, the browser will load my site. The act of browsing is simply a matter of clicking a series of links, thus loading a sequence of URLs.

Unfortunately, people tend to associate hyperlinks directly with HTML, even though their use is not limited to HTML. The Architecture of the World Wide Web describes how to apply the concept of links to non-HTML data formats.

However, I suspect the bigger objection is the use of the term “browser” for applications that don’t leave the original website. This situation occurs naturally when a server only serves links that point back to itself. It’s important to realize, though, that a subset of the web is still the web.

Returning to the original definition and the architecture guidelines published by the W3C, it is my contention that the term “web browser” makes no particular restriction on the use of transport protocol or document format. It is simply an application that allows a person to display and interact with resources represented by URLs.


Backdrifter: Web vs. App Confusion
December 8, 2010 at 1:14 PM

[...] remind ourselves that people don’t know what a browser is, and that specific technologies don’t matter. The web encompasses everything, and it is very much [...]

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