Faster, more private, easier to read: My 2014 browser wishlist

Five features for developers users

Barbed wire surrounding communications tower

The web browser ceased to be a "browser" some time ago. These days browser is really the runtime of the web. As such, web browsers and browser makers seem to spend more time these days optimizing their runtimes for developers.

Every time you turn around there's a new JavaScript compiler, support for a still-not-actually-a-standard web "standard" or a new tool designed to make building web sites easier. As a web developer I love all this new stuff. Chrome especially has really been focusing on developers lately. Did you know you can point Chrome to a folder of Sass files, and then edit the Sass files *in Chrome* and see your changes reflected in real-time?

To someone who started developing for the web when Internet Explorer's view source tool handed off the source view to another app, Chrome's powers are nothing short of magical.

Like every developer though I also use a web browser to, well, browse the web. Unfortunately, it feels like browser makers have been devoting decidedly less energy to this side of the user experience.

It's great that web developers have all these cool new tools and can continue to build innovative and useful sites that can do all sorts of fancy things, but the user in me wants some of the same attention. Browser makers' focus seems to swing on a great pendulum; at the moment the pendulum has swung way out of web developer land. I have no doubt that eventually it will start to swing back and browsers will return some attention to more user-facing features.

With 2014 here and another round of browsers updates due, here's my list of things that would be nice as a web user to see alongside all the great new standards, faster JavaScript engines and awesome developer tools that we should expect.

Improved privacy controls

Privacy is a huge can of worms, but very simply I want a better way to manage the data that leaks out as I browse the web - especially on mobile.

The amount of privacy controls varies greatly between browsers, but none are ideal. Currently no browser defaults to protecting your data in any real way. Safari is probably the best of the bunch since it at least blocks third-party content out of the box.

But browsers' current so-called privacy tools all look like the half-hearted piles of c**p they are next to actually useful, third-party add-ons like Ghostery, DoNotTrackMe and NoScript.

To browser makers I say this: it's a cop-out to leave something as fundamental as privacy to third parties. It's time to start looking at the lack of privacy tools for what it is - a bug in your software. Especially you Firefox, for all your lip service to privacy, the actual tools in Firefox are as pathetically absent as they are in Chrome.

And please don't tell me about the Do Not Track proposal. Users don't want ineffectual hand wringing that seeks first and foremost to placate the advertising industry. Do Not Track is a bad joke and should be left where it belongs, in the dustbin of web history.

Real privacy looks like this: by default the browser blocks everything. The user decides how much they want to share with the sites they visit.

As part of the installation process the user chooses which of the dozen or so most trafficked sites they want to trust. For example, I might say OK to Twitter. Then all of Twitter's scripts, trackers and various beacons can load. If I don't do anything then everything gets blocked. And nothing from third-party ad companies is loaded, ever, period.

While having the user choose to allow some of the two dozen or so most frequently visited sites during installation seems workable, I admit the user interface for managing other sites gets a bit trickier. One idea would be to just pop up an overlay to ask the user if they trust a site. Do it the first time that site is requested and save the setting for future visits. That's more or less what all the third-party tools are already doing.

Preferred caching

This is a somewhat obscure technical detail, but implementing it will make the web feel faster for end users. And faster is almost always better.

This works off the same premise that makes adding sites to a privacy whitelist much simpler than it seems - we tend to visit the same sites over and over again. New sites are the anomaly, not the rule.

To increase the speed at which these frequently visited sites load, browsers should aggressively cache the resources associated with them. While this is useful in any browser, it's probably most useful on mobile devices where networks are constrained and data is often changed on a per-megabyte basis.

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