Darin Fisher has built many web browsers. A batch of web browsers. He was a software engineer at Netscape early in his career, he worked on Navigator and then helped turn that application into Firefox with Mozilla. Then he went to Google and spent 16 years building Chrome and ChromeOS into blockbuster products. Last year, he left Google for Neeva, where he worked on ways to build a browser around the startup’s search engine. And now he is leaving Neeva to join The Browser Company and work on Bowone of the best new browsers on the market.
Arc, which has been in an invite-only beta for over a year, is trying to rethink the entire browser UI. It has a sidebar instead of a row of tabs, offers plenty of customization options, and is aimed at people who live their computing life in a browser (which is increasingly the majority of people). CEO Josh Miller also often talks about building “the Internet computer” and using the browser as a way to make the Internet more useful.
Fisher has been a consultant to The Browser Company for a while, but Monday is his first official day at the company as a software engineer. Before his new job, Fisher and I got a call to talk about why he thinks browsers need to reinvent themselves, and why he thinks a startup is the best place to do it.
The answer starts with the browser’s defining feature: tabs. Fisher doesn’t hate eyelashes; in fact, he helped popularize them. But he hates that using a modern browser means opening a million of them, not being able to find them again, and finally giving up and starting over. “I remember when tabbed browsing was new,” says Fisher, “and it helped people feel less cluttered because it didn’t have as many windows.” But now, “even when I use Chrome,” says Fisher, “I get a ton of clutter. At some point, I just say, ‘Forget it, I’m not even going to bother trying to classify all these tabs.’ I’ll open again.’” Browsers need better systems to help you manage tabs, not just open more of them.
Fisher’s position isn’t exactly controversial, and few would disagree with the idea that there are bound to be better ways to organize a browser. But it is very difficult to make changes to any application once it reaches a certain level of scale and maturity. Just look at Safari on iOS, Fisher says: When Apple moved the URL bar from the top of the screen to the bottom, users freaked out. “But why was [Apple] motivated to do that? Well, you’re on a phone and your thumbs are at the bottom, not the top. So you want to access the tabs, the URL bar – having all the controls at the bottom is much more convenient.” It was better, but it was different, and different is bad. Fisher’s team at Google once ran a test similar in Chrome, he says, for similar purposes.”It was hard to make that change because users had a hard time making that change.”
But the even more intractable problem, at least for the Chrome team, is that creating a great web browser isn’t Google’s only goal. Chrome exists in large part to put a search engine front and center, which Fisher describes to me as “a brick wall” for all sorts of browser innovation. “Anything we’ve done that helps you get back to what you were doing means you weren’t looking, right?” Fisher says. Better tab management means fewer searches; Sending you directly to the page you want means fewer search results and fewer ad impressions. Having you close your tabs and reopen them all the time isn’t just acceptable for Chrome; it’s a win Fisher and his team had a lot of UI ideas and new features, but “all these good ideas die on the floor.”
What the iPhone did for native apps, Arc hopes to do for web apps
Fisher ultimately decided that the best way to improve the browser is to start from scratch. Arc is full of new ideas for how web browsers can work: it combines bookmarks and tabs into an app switcher-like concept; makes it easy to search between open tabs; It has built-in tools for taking notes and creating mini sharing websites. The experience can be jarring because it’s so different, but Fisher says that’s part of what excites him. “This isn’t something that people haven’t talked about before,” he says, “but really putting it together and focusing it and thinking about small steps that go a long way, I think that’s where there’s a lot of opportunity.”
The last few years have been boom times for browser lovers in general. Some developers are getting bitter about building apps for every platform and returning to building web apps, while users are looking for new ways to manage their online lives across devices and platforms. As a result, various companies have been racing to replace Chrome and Safari with their own ideas. Brave doesn’t mess with the user interface, but it is trying to rethink the business and privacy models for browsers; Co-worker it’s turning the browser into an iPhone home screen-style app switcher; DuckDuckGo is creating a desktop browser to go along with its privacy-focused search engine. Most of these browsers are built on the same Chromium infrastructure that powers Chrome, meaning they can implement new ideas without breaking the web.
Fisher likes to compare a browser to an operating system, which matches The Browser Company’s idea that Arc isn’t just a browser, but an iOS-like system for the open web. “It has a task management UI, it has a UI for creating and starting a journey, but there’s a lot more in between,” he says. What the iPhone did with native apps, Arc hopes to do with web apps. Fisher says he’s interested in improving the way files move around the Internet, for example, finding a better way than the constant downloading and uploading we all do throughout the day. He likes that Arc has a picture-in-picture mode that works by default, pulling your YouTube video when you switch tabs. All of this makes the website feel more connected and cohesive rather than just a bunch of tabs in a horizontal line.
This is, by the way, another idea that is definitely not new. ChromeOS, which Fisher also helped create, was also an attempt to create a desktop operating system from the browser. “But what ChromeOS didn’t do,” he says, “is really reimagine how you experienced the web. It’s still just the Chrome browser.” He put a browser on the desktop without really considering how the two should interact. Another Google project, the Fuchsia OS, aimed much higher, combining Android and ChromeOS into a completely native and connected system, but it hasn’t paid off yet.
Mobile devices are another place where, according to Fisher, browsers have woefully neglected their users and can become an even more difficult problem to solve. “The experience of using a mobile device is like someone taking a Netscape browser and shrinking it down to a phone.” Managing tabs is even worse on mobile, and there’s virtually nothing in the way of tools that help people quickly move between things and find information.
In some ways, however, mobile devices represent an even more difficult surface on which to progress. Because Apple and Google control their operating systems so tightly, there is no way to build a Chromium browser and ship it to people’s smartphones. Both Android and iOS are so focused on native apps that they seem to have largely left the browser behind. But here too there is energy in the other direction. As Apple, in particular, continues to lock down the operating system and try to extract even more revenue from developers and users, the web is an increasingly useful solution. Microsoft created game streaming that works in Safari; you can pay for apps in a browser without giving Apple 30 percent.
There are a lot of big, thoughtful ideas in Fisher’s head about how to improve browsers and change the Internet in the process, but there’s also a lot of fruit to be had. On mobile devices, in particular, he says, “there are so many opportunities because the starting point is so archaic.” He’s vague on the details of his plans, and The Browser Company hasn’t started work on a mobile browser yet anyway, but he says it’s a big focus for him in the future.
More immediately, he says he’s eager to find simple ways to make the Internet work better for people. We have to be able to do better than windows full of tabs, right? Fisher uses the phrase “don’t boil the ocean” several times during our conversation as he explains many simple ways to make the Internet more useful: customize things to make your browser feel more like your own; improve synchronization so you can access all your stuff from anywhere; make things easier to find and move between them; adding more tools so you can take notes or save things without needing a completely separate app.
The Browser Company is already working on many of the things Fisher is interested in. That’s why he says he joined the company as a software engineer rather than a top executive. He wants to meddle in the codebase, building things himself as Arc grows from an invite-only Mac app to a cross-platform OS in the coming months. There are a lot of new ideas in the app, many of which are bad and some of which could change everything. That’s Fisher’s sweet spot. “There are a lot of challenges and obstacles to Arc being successful, and I’m looking forward to working through those issues,” he says.
Talking to Fisher, it’s clear he sees an opportunity to finally build the browser he’s wanted to build for years. Without the shackles of Chrome’s market share or Google’s business model and without the crunch that inevitably comes with decades of things working more or less the same way, he’s free to try new things in new ways. Some of which he has been thinking about for decades.