Surfing Upstream

In an era when hundreds of free web browsers exist, Orion Browser has a novel idea: It wants to charge money. Why’s that? Simple: It wants to fix the paradigm.

By Ernie Smith

Today in Tedium: It’s often been suggested that the web browser is at real risk of becoming a monoculture, all thanks to the browser engine behind most of our clicks. Chromium and its forked-off predecessor WebKit are everywhere, defining the frame through which we access the internet. (Not helping is the fact that Firefox, the internet’s third rail, occasionally has a show-stopping problem, like the issue with HTTP/3 that made it briefly unusable last week.) The concerns about the market becoming driven by just one or two browsers is a key reason why the browser market appears to be evolving in a way probably not seen in quite some time; a lot of new browsers are in the works these days! Sure, there are some quite-good options that are fairly established at this point, like the power-user-focused Vivaldi, that appear to be focused on more specific niches, but the mainstream seems like something of a lost cause. So what makes someone want to reinvent the wheel and make a mainstream play on one of the most common things in all of tech? Well, I asked someone who’s working on a hot new browser. (Perhaps you’ve heard of it? It’s called Orion.) Today’s Tedium talks browsers, ad-tracking, and shifting paradigms. — Ernie @ Tedium

⬇️ Be sure to check out today’s sponsor, Revival, below. ⬇️

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$49

The amount that Netscape charged for version 3.0 of its Navigator software, which at the time was competing against version 3.0 of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, which was available for free. (It was, admittedly, something of a leaky-faucet business model, akin to shareware.) In a 1996 review in Fast Company, reviewer John R. Quain made the case that Netscape was a better deal despite the significant cost difference by saying this: “When did you hear of Bill Gates giving away for free something you’d want? Bottom line: cough up the $49 for Navigator.” Most people did not heed this advice, and within a few years, Netscape’s 80 percent market share was basically gone, in favor of a free (and dominant) Microsoft browser.

Internet In a Box

(Computer History Museum)

The crossroads between web browsers and monetization

I remember the days when you could walk into a Best Buy and you could buy a web browser off of a shelf. It was not a particularly heralded period in internet history, but it was a period that happened. One of the early versions of this idea, SPRY’s “Internet In a Box,” attempted to sell the idea of just making it simple to get online. Netscape tried to make the browser closer to a professional application suite.

But quickly, that changed, and the browser became a commodity that had to be paid for, somehow.

And in that light, it changed the experience significantly, because it changed the paradigm of control. In the early internet era, you generally had full control of this result. A terminal screen could be tweaked and prodded as needed to produce a desirable result.

But with the rise of the graphical web browser, we ended up ceding some of that control to (1) the people that made the browser and (2) the people that made the web page.

In some ways, users giving up a little of that control was good; it ensured, for example, that browser makers could continue to innovate and improve the underlying technologies of the internet, and that websites would be able to do things like, you know, brand and design themselves.

But it has never been a completely perfect trade-off, in part because of how we chose to pay for the thing in front of us. Pop-ups and adware made it a bad deal early on, and trackers have been a fact of life on the web for decades, with no sign that they’re going away anytime soon.

In many ways, once the other side of the connection got its claws into our usage habits, it kept taking. There was no motivation to get them to stop, after all—they had to monetize somehow, right?

(And recently, at least one big company went for the kill: Axel Springer, the German owners of Business Insider and Morning Brew, attempted to sue in their home country to prevent HTML code from being modified by the end user on copyright grounds, an end-run to stop ad blockers. Fortunately for the end user, they lost.)

With all that in mind, the concerns about monoculture taking things over make a lot of sense. If the motivations driving the browser you use are being led by monetization, that means the consumer is at risk of losing control over the experience.

Vladimir Prelovac

Vladimir Prelovac, the creator of the buzzed-about Orion Browser.

And that’s the point that Vladimir Prelovac, a longtime tech executive and serial startup founder, is really worried about.

“Currently every single mainstream browser out there is either directly or indirectly relying on either data or ads for monetization and this is bad both for the users and for the web,” he said in an email interview.

The onetime GoDaddy executive, who is perhaps best known for launching the WordPress management tool ManageWP, has been aiming a bit bigger with his most recent project—a combination of web browser and search engine that aims to right the focus of both technologies, and he’s taking aim at the hierarchy of advertising and tracking in the process, starting with the browser.

“I think that ad/data-based monetization of browsers as a business model had a good run, but it is time to reconsider,” he adds. “The implications of ad-supported technologies to user privacy, user experience and the web itself are simply too dire to be tolerated by humanity in the future.”

This is not an uncommon concern among browser-makers—just ask fans of Brave, for example—and when I talked to Vivaldi’s Jon von Tetzchner a year ago, he brought up similar concerns.

But in some ways, Prelovac wants to take this discussion further, by going back to the thing that Netscape tried to do more than a quarter century ago: Charge for the browser the old-fashioned way. The browser he’s building, called Orion Browser, aims to make money through a more direct funding model. As explained in the company’s FAQ:

Our Pro version will allow users to support Orion’s development. Will it generate revenue? That’s up to you. Regardless, all funding for Orion will come from its users rather than ads, tracking, data monetization or any other indirect way.

That this is an experimental thing to charge $5 a month or $50 a year for a web browser, as Orion (currently in an invite-only beta) will do. But it might be the foundation of a more normalized experience with an application many of us lean heavily upon.

“Obviously, in order for someone to voluntarily pay for a browser in a day and age where so many free alternatives are available, the browser itself has to be exceptional,” Prelovac said.

100+

The number of web browsers that Prelovac, the primary developer of Orion Browser, has collected in his research of the browser market. All of them are Mac-based, as Orion is starting with MacOS. “Most people have usually heard of the top 4-5, maybe 10, but there is so much diversity and innovation happening in the browser market,” he said. “It is actually very exciting!”

Orion Browser

Yes, I used my own website in this screenshot. Let me have this.

Meet Orion, the power-user browser that even your Grandma could potentially love

With the first stab at Orion, one of the first things you’ll likely notice is how lightweight it is. In some ways, it comes across as a more efficient version of Safari, a browser that has seen some fairly controversial changes in recent months.

That is actually a major tell as to its roots—it’s a WebKit-based browser, which is actually a little refreshing, given how many browsers lean heavily on Chromium. Love or hate the move to bring everything into WebKit or Chromium, but the truth of the matter is, building a new web browser engine from scratch is difficult and time-consuming.

(One company, the embedded systems firm Ekloh, is attempting to do this right now with its clean-room browser Flow, and it’s taken them quite some time to do things that many browser users take for granted, like support Google Docs.)

Web Browsers

Some of the many web browsers Prelovac researched when building Orion.

In the case of Orion, though, it reflects an effort to emphasize performance and user flexibility over all else. At this time, Orion is arguably the most performant browser on the Mac, essentially getting all of the speed benefits you might see from using Apple’s native Safari as your primary browser, while not leaving out many of the things that ultimately lead many users to rely on Chrome instead. It’s the opposite of a RAM hog, and it could extend your battery life just a little bit further as a result.

Essentially, the result reflects all that research that Prelovac did into web browsers, which hit on some of the major cues I’ve found in my own web browsing. (And he’s definitely trying to better understand this market, too. When I mentioned to him, for example, that I was a big fan of the keyboard-centric “flow” that the low-resources web browser Min offers, he took the time to listen to why I found this flow useful.)

Plus, he knows his history—the Mac, famously, is the home of numerous browser experiments over the years, some of which hold substantial historic roles with the operating system.

“Orion is a fully native app, respecting the decades-old Mac heritage in design and implementation, as well as the great line of Mac browsers such as OmniWeb and Shiira,” Prelovac says.

One thing that Orion pledges to do that gives it a significant advantage over you garden-variety Safari, however, could make it an interesting alternative to those who find Safari’s limited access to browser extensions a turn-off. Simply put, it tries to support everything, including both modern Chrome and Firefox extensions.

The support for this potentially ground-breaking feature is a little spotty at this time, alas—for example, my favorite extension, Briskine, installs and works in both its Mozilla and Chrome Store variants, but cannot log in, meaning that I can’t access my stored data through the extension, limiting its value to me. But at the same time, this is something the browser actively warns you about, and as the browser matures, this will likely become less of an issue.

One standout feature that you’ll notice if you go into the Mac’s native full-screen mode is that the browser chrome (that is, the bar and tab interface) automatically hides itself, giving you a more immersive experience with your content. The only thing you see on the screen is the page itself. It’s minimalist, but a different kind of minimalist from some of the other browsers I’ve looked into over the years.

Orion Settings

Want to turn off web fonts? The option is right there. Not even The New York Times can stop you.

But it’s the small features that stand out. On the side of the browser bar, in a spot that Safari doesn’t really take advantage of itself, is a gearwheel signifying an options menu. That menu offers some fine-toothed controls that go beyond what Safari and many Chromium-based browsers do. You can enable reader mode, block tracking and turn off fonts—a useful feature that makes your webpages less pretty, but also removes a potential tracking vector (as many web fonts are distributed by Google) and an element that can slow down your browser speed.

Other browsers, like Vivaldi, also have these settings, but what’s nice in this case is that they’re organized in an easy-to-uncover spot. Orion doesn’t offer the kitchen sink; instead, it has a few extra features that many power users will enjoy and regular users will find a nice change of pace. (It even promotes the idea of this being a Grandma-friendly browser in its FAQ.) And given the business model approach, odds are that its financial motivations won’t stray too far from this basic approach.

While the final result looks like a native MacOS app, Prelovac says that in the long run, he hopes to bring this ground-up approach to other platforms, with the goal of building a browser ecosystem that offers an alternative to the seemingly Google-centric web we’re all living in.

“I have no doubt in my mind that if we manage to execute on the vision for Orion, it will be the greatest web browser that Mac has ever seen,” Prelovac says.

“Early on, we realized that our mission to achieve a more humane web would mean offering a holistic, alternative infrastructure to consume the web, not just one component of it.”

— Prelovac, discussing the ecosystem around the Orion browser, which will involve a search engine called Kagi Search, also currently in private beta, as well as an email client that will compete with Gmail. The idea: produce an alternative ecosystem to Google that can offer an alternative to the vertical and horizontal ecosystem it offers for users that isn’t clouded by monetization needs at every corner. Yes, he realizes this might prove a bit of a lift: “I am aware that this is a very ambitious undertaking, but I am afraid that there is no other way to approach the problem!”

The aspiration that Orion has—building a better take on Safari, with a focus on privacy and a shifted business paradigm—feels ambitious and somewhat modest at the same time. When asked what his goals are for this browser/search engine/email client empire he’s hoping to build, he aims for a double-digit browser share on the Mac, which (with a little luck) seems totally accessible given the crowd-pleasing nature of what’s already been built.

“Increased popularity of Orion would then hopefully produce enough Orion Pro users so we can pursue support for other OS platforms, emerging web standards and protocols, and niche browser features, while optimizing for speed, memory, and battery use and contributing to WebKit itself,” he said.

(A 2018 estimate of MacOS market share, given by Apple at a press conference, puts its active user base around 100 million; in that light, a double-digit market share, even if modest compared to Chrome and Safari, would be a major success story.)

In a lot of ways, Orion goes back to the leaky faucet approach of early Netscape—yes, you can download it for free, and yes, it will totally be usable in that form. But if you want pro features, here’s where you can sign up.

We have embraced this model with so many other things we do in our digital lives, from music to streaming to password managers to office suites. Why not web browsers? After all, they probably know more about you than any other application on your computer.

That’s the promise of Orion Browser. It’s nice to see someone’s trying it.

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Thanks to Vladimir Prelovac for taking the time to chat for this one. Find this one an interesting read? Share it with a pal!

And thanks again to Revival for sponsoring.

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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