Browse Minimally

Perhaps the problem with the modern web browser is that there’s just too much stuff. What if we cut things down to the bare minimum?

Today in Tedium: One of the more controversial pieces I’ve written over the past few years made an argument that seemed designed to annoy huge parts of the internet-browsing public. I told people that tabs didn’t matter that much, and that people should close them and rely on their history instead if they really needed something, basically ignoring the built-in tab-sorting process built into our browsers of choice, which broke some folks’ desire for order. But while I don’t think I’ve necessarily evolved on the whole closing-open-tabs thing (far from it), I wanted to add some thoughts on web browsing as a medium, as I’ve made some changes to my browsing strategy in recent months and weeks that I thought you might find interesting—including the recent addition of a new kind of browser, one that I think you should look at if you are at all trying to be super-productive online. Today’s Tedium ponders whether there’s room for more minimalism in modern web browsing. — Ernie @ Tedium

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“Now, before you start screaming at the screen, I know what you’re thinking: Safari is awful. And I don’t disagree with that. Being awful is a plus. I don’t want to be comfortable, I want my browser to behave badly which is why Safari, with all its weird and stupid bugs is perfect.”

— Web developer and writer Manuel Moreale, discussing his strategy of removing every bell and whistle from his web browser with the goal of minimizing mindless scrolling and clicking. Moreale aims for minimalism in his lifestyle, going as far to write a month-long blog series about the subject. “It’s hard to just stumble into a minimal way of living,” he wrote in his guide last year. “For the majority of people, it’s either a deliberate choice taken at a certain point in time or—like in my case—something they created through a long journey.”

Minimal Web Browser User

A stand-in for someone like me who uses a web browser. Nice impression, huh? (Glenn Carstens-Peters/Unsplash)

My recent web browser evolution, or why I fell out of love with Opera

For many years, Opera was my respite from bad browsing habits.

With my former faves, Firefox (which I rocked during much of the 2000s) and Chrome (my browser of choice until 2016 or so), I found that they were amazing and effective browsers but they got long in the tooth after performance issues began to sink in as the browsers inevitably got weighed down by time and age.

As a MacOS user, there was also the performance factor—these browsers certainly worked fine with normal use, but when a battery was added to the equation, things got very messy over time. First Firefox, then Chrome seemed to get more memory-addicted with every new version. And while I largely avoided Internet Explorer because of reliance on MacOS during much of the past two decades, it was hard to ignore its larger imprint on the broader internet as websites were poorly built around its quirks. As I wrote in 2015 in my piece discussing the anti-IE campaigns of the 1990s and 2000s:

Your browser says a lot about you. It highlights your socioeconomic class, your knowledge of computing, your inherent biases, and even the likelihood that you’re a failure at just about everything. For many people, using Internet Explorer was a sign that your relative or co-worker didn’t “get it,” and their resistance to changing browsers was a sign that they never would.

Personally, I’ve never had such resistance, even if I did have expectations for my surfing. And Chrome added a few features that I came to be obsessed with. The first was the idea of “tab pinning,” where I could always have every email account of mine always sitting in the corner, ready to click.

But the feature that killed Chrome for me, and made me look closely at Opera, was consumption of battery life. Chrome, famously, has a tendency to eat up as much RAM as possible, which Opera does as well because its engine is currently based on Chromium.

The thing that attracted me to Opera around 2016 or so, after it had moved away from its Presto engine, was the promise that it both worked like Chrome in its use of extensions but it also had ways to minimize battery life.

But over time, Opera the browser became increasingly harder to separate from Opera the company, which had evolved away from something that most web users should support.

The most obvious manifestation of this was the emergence of significant support issues. Obvious bugs frequently would emerge in the browser and would never get fixed, despite dozens or even hundreds of people complaining about the same problem. And when web browsers have repeated bugs, they’re hard to ignore, even if you try to.

Opera Web Browser

(Marco Verch/Flickr)

In my case, Opera would frequently add white space to the bottom of my window on the laptop version of my browser—a problem I was never able to solve. And more recently, the browser would automatically default to turning on an accessibility feature on certain websites, with no way to turn it off.

But if bugs were the only thing, I could have lived with it, as there were a lot of great features to make up for it. But using Opera increasingly felt sketchy. One thing that Opera did that weirded me out was add affiliate content to their default features such as their new tab window … but suddenly add them back once again a few weeks later after they were removed.

At one point, I noticed that they auto-redirected Amazon searches so they got the affiliate revenue … and you couldn’t turn it off.

Part of the reason for the sudden sketchiness was underlined by a firm called Hindenberg Research back in January. Essentially, the investor research firm found that the company, launched in Norway in 1995, had evolved into something increasingly questionable after it was purchased by a Chinese investor group in 2016.

The research group, which admitted to taking a “short” position in the company when publishing the article, noted that the firm, listed on Nasdaq, has increased its emphasis on fintech apps with a focus on high-interest short-term business loans offered through sketchy Android apps to what it calls “some of the world’s most vulnerable users in Africa and India.”

“Opera’s short-term loan business appears to be in open, flagrant violation of the Google Play Store’s policies on short-term and misleading lending apps,” the firm wrote. “Given that the vast majority of Opera’s loans are disbursed through Android apps, we think this entire line of business is at risk of disappearing or being severely curtailed when Google notices and ultimately takes corrective action.”

Not long after I read that article, I stopped using Opera—which lost the marketshare and the ethics game with that decision. Since then, I’ve moved to Vivaldi, which I like quite a lot due to its flexibility and modification capabilities (one key one—the ability to pin a tab with a keyboard command), and it carries the torch of pre-acquisition Opera thanks to the fact that its creators are former Opera folks.

(Although it would be nice if it had ways to save battery life.)

Of course, just like word processors and content management systems—basically anything I have to use for writing purposes—I’m never pleased, so I’ve kept digging around for ideas periodically. And that led me to some interesting discoveries even beyond Vivaldi.

Workona Browser Extension

The Workona extension. I personally use it to organize different browsing modes during my day.

Four really good Chrome extensions I recommend for people who like writing

  1. Gorgias Templates. This browser extension, which I have used for more than five years, comes in handy for a couple of use cases: One, for emails that are heavily templated, which are common if you’re working with editors, and for code snippets, which are common if you’re working in a CMS. I use a lot of shortcodes in my CMS, so it saves me a lot of time.
  2. Workona. For people who have to work on a lot of different types of projects, a tool like this is very useful as you can split off different tasks into different groups of tabs. In recent versions, it has added more office software functionality, though I have to be honest—I don’t really use it for any of that. Also, as I’ll describe below, there is a new browser that is pushing this general idea a lot further at the moment.
  3. PushBullet. You have a phone that you use for web browsing, too, and often you see something on it you want to look at on your desktop. This allows you to do so—and also can ship SMS messages to your laptop, iMessage-style, if you have an Android phone. One thing I like about this is that it is not tied to a specific web browser; Opera has a featured like this called Opera Flow, but it only works with Opera. PushBullet is agnostic.
  4. Tab Wrangler. This was the centerpiece of my 2018 piece on closing tabs, and remains a part of my toolkit to this day. According to Vivaldi, I’ve wrangled 10,544 tabs with the tool on my desktop alone.

Magic Trackpad 2

Apple’s Magic Trackpad 2 can do a lot of extra things that modern web browsers don’t take advantage of, but should. (Wikimedia Commons)

The trackpad needs to be used more tactically in web browsing

In recent years, trackpads have gotten incredibly good, moving beyond mere click mechanisms into sophisticated mediums for adding gestures as a form of input. The Magic Trackpad 2, with its sophisticated multitouch capabilities, is arguably the best product Apple sells.

That’s great and all, but when are web browsers going to do more to take advantage of them? Often, we use them to move around, to go back and forth, but little else. If we did take advantage of trackpads more, by using three, four, and five-finger multitouch to their fullest capabilities, it could help mitigate some of the tab overload problems many users run into.

The reason is that triaging a tab is too much work—it’s easier to hit Command-T or Control-T than to actually decide how to handle this piece of information that’s in your browser.

One way that I’ve come to mitigate this triage problem is with the use of BetterTouchTool on MacOS. (It’s a part of the SetApp subscription program, which I highly recommend and use myself.) BetterTouchTool allows you to apply different commands to different input gestures, and supports the Touch Bar, drawings, even the remote control that comes with the Apple TV. But I use it for two kinds of devices: My trackpads and my Wacom Intuos Pro drawing tablet.

(Why the drawing tablet? Well, beyond the obvious appeal of their pen capabilities, Wacom’s high-end tablets have multitouch capabilities, are quite large, and can have per-app controls set, making them particularly good as desktop trackpads if you’re willing to offer up the extra real estate. They’re not cheap—a small model goes for $249 these days—but they have a lot more functionality than a Magic Trackpad does, and are also much larger.)

Web browsers, which are increasingly sophisticated experiences, are begging for more gesture-based controls, along the lines of what we’re doing with our smartphones already. With more sophisticated gestures, there’s the potential for less stuff on the screen and a more minimal experience.

And a recent web browser I tried out made me realize what that could potentially look like—and has me excited for the possibility.

1992

The year that the Lynx web browser, a text-based browser that is generally run inside a terminal, was first created. (It was my first experience with a web browser, having run into it around 1993 or early 1994, before I had a chance to try Mosaic.) The browser is still actively developed today, with its most recent version coming out in February. If you like text, you’ll love Lynx.

Min Web Browser

Min, a minimalist web browser.

Why Min may be the future of the web browser, if anyone’s wondering

I’m as guilty as anyone of wanting too much out of my web browsers.

In many ways, it’s like the digital equivalent of an atlas or travel guide. Certainly some other company built the basis for that guide, but you add post-its and notes and other things to make it your own. I think for that reason, it’s why I like Vivaldi so much, because it caters to that instinct.

But what if the problem is that because of this desire to have more and better and faster, we’re encouraging the kinds of brain frazzling that prevent us from focusing? Where it becomes too easy to get dragged into Twitter or YouTube because you see a notification pop off?

And what about battery life? Do all those extra bells and whistles cost our laptop extra cycles?

I was thinking about these things when I downloaded the web browser Min recently. Around for a couple of years, this browser essentially takes out as much cruft as it possibly can from the experience.

Min Web Browser Task

An example of the Min task I used to write this article.

But I think the reason why the browser is so effective at its goal of minimalism is because of how it manages tab overload. Rather than simply letting tabs fill up, you’re encouraged to create “tasks” that let you divide different use cases up. As a writer, the way I’ve been using tasks has been to create a new one for every story I write and research, so that I can separate those ideas out without them getting in the way of everything else. (I can also hide the usual junk that sits in the pinned tabs in its own task.)

As far as I can tell, Min is good at doing this without having a ton of extra stuff floating in your memory, taking up processor resources in the process.

Min is a very effective browser that can be managed almost entirely with keyboard commands, but I find it also works very effectively with a trackpad if you use a third-party tool such as the aforementioned BetterTouchTool. I have mine set up like this:

  • Scroll left & right with two fingers: Go forward and back in page
  • Use a three-finger “tip-tap” motion (tap one finger while the other two remain stationary on the touchpad): Switch between tabs
  • Scroll left & right with four fingers: Switch between windows in MacOS
  • Double-tap with four fingers: Bring up task list
  • Scroll left & right with five fingers: Swap between tasks in Min
  • Scroll up & down with five fingers: Open new tab; close current tab

The result of this setup that I have a lot of navigation options at my fingertips whether I keep my hands just on the keyboard or on the trackpad. This is a total power-user move, but I could see this kind of navigation being useful for someone, so I’ll share it.

Other features that are cool include the ability to add bookmarks complete with tags, the ability to use user scripts, and even some basic tracker-blocking capabilities.

Despite my clear excitement for what it represents, Min has some weaknesses that may not make it the best choice for the average user just yet. For one thing, it does not support traditional Chrome browser extensions at this time, which may be a killer for many folks. (Certainly that has traditionally been a high requirement for me.) But I think that in some ways, this browser will be defined by what it does not add—and it might encourage the use of third-party tools in the operating system itself, such as my a couple of my Mac faves, Alfred and Rocket Typist. Pinned tabs would be nice; cloud sync would be the bee’s knees.

There are also ethical and technical issues that I could see keeping users away. The good news? It’s open-source, which puts it on less-shaky ground than some other browsers. However, its reliance on the Electron browser engine over pure Chromium means that it’s often a version or two behind the main version of Chromium, creating the risk of security issues. Some users who want to be unwedded to Google would likely prefer a switch to WebKit. (I personally have no qualms, in part because Google is simply too important to my gig as a history-focused writer.) And as it’s a young browser, I ran into strange bugs, particularly when trying to use Gmail.

It is not a daily driver just yet; it is a secondary tool.

But there are signs that it’s taking concerns seriously. Last month, the Linux YouTuber Derek Taylor, who runs the channel DistroTube, highlighted Min in a video featuring different types of minimal Linux web browsers, many even more lightweight than Min is, and designed for people who generally might be considered programmers or sysadmins. Taylor, who uses the extremely lightweight i3 window management interface, wanted something to work with that interface. In the clip, he called out the browser’s reliance on a menu bar in Linux, which he considered unnecessary. Shortly thereafter, the feature was made optional—impressively quick work.

Despite its faults right now as a young program, I think that Min is one of the most exciting web browsers I’ve run into in quite some time, and I think the reason is because it challenges so much about what we expect to get out of them.

By removing so much from the experience, it forces users to think tactically about what they expect to get from all their clicking. It buries the junk and encourages you to get to work.

The reason why it feels like the future is because it’s not so wedded to the past.

Over the years, the web browser, despite being one of the most fundamental tools on the web, has become more consolidated.

If it were not for Firefox, the browser would effectively be a monoculture minus a single fork. WebKit, the browser engine used by Apple’s Safari, is quite good, but Apple’s distribution model is both outdated (with updates not coming at an accelerated pace, as with Firefox and Chrome) and reflective of its monopoly on iOS, as no secondary browser engines have been allowed on the platform.

Opera’s move away from its own engine was understandable, as it was out-resourced by Google; Microsoft’s move to use Google’s Webkit-forked Blink, however, feels more like an admission of failure.

But maybe with browsers like Min, we’re seeing signs that there might be a path forward for the web browser, even if everyone is using the same two or three engines.

Just because Chrome is popular doesn’t make it the best way. Same with Firefox and Microsoft Edge. Now, I’m not saying the average user should have to decide between 30 browsers—honestly, that’s my job as a guy who thinks about stuff like user interfaces and productivity—but I do think that it would be helpful if they had more choice.

After all, something awesome like Min could be hiding out there and nobody would be any the wiser.

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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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