One startup's quest to take on Chrome and reinvent the web browser
The web browser is a crucial part of modern life, and yet it hasn't really been revised since the '90s. That may be about to change.
Photo: The Browser Company
The web browser is a crucial part of modern life, and yet it hasn't really been revised since the '90s. That may be about to change.
The browser tab is an underrated thing. Most people think of them only when there are too many, when their computer once again buckles under Chrome's weight. Even the developers who build the tabs — the engineers and designers working on Chrome, Firefox, Brave and the rest — haven't done much to them. The internet has evolved in massive, earth-shaking ways over the last two decades, but tabs haven't really changed since they became a browser feature in the mid '90s.
Josh Miller, however, has big plans for browser tabs. Miller is the CEO of a new startup called The Browser Company, and he wants to change the way people think about browsers altogether. He sees browsers as operating systems, and likes to wonder aloud what "iOS for the web" might look like. What if your browser could build you a personalized news feed because it knows the sites you go to? What if every web app felt like a native app, and the browser itself was just the app launcher? What if you could drag a file from one tab to another, and it just worked? What if the web browser was a shareable, synced, multiplayer experience? It would be nothing like the simple, passive windows to the web that browsers are now. Which is exactly the goal.
The Browser Company (which everyone on the team just calls Browser) is one of a number of startups that are rethinking every part of the browser stack. Mighty has built a version of Chrome that runs on powerful server hardware and streams the browser itself over the web. Brave is building support for decentralized protocols like IPFS, and experimenting with using cryptocurrencies as a new business model for publishers. Synth is building a new bookmarks system that acts more like a web-wide inbox. Sidekick offers a vertical app launcher and makes tabs easier to organize. "A change is coming," said Mozilla CEO Mitchell Baker. "The question is just the time frame, and what's actually required to make it happen."
They have lots of different ideas, but they share a belief that the browser can, and should, be more than it is. "We don't need a new web browser," Miller said. "We need a new successor to the web browser."
Miller and co-founder Hursh Agrawal started The Browser Company together in 2019. The pair had worked together before, founding Branch in 2011 before selling it to Facebook in 2014. Eventually, both left Facebook to do other things: Agrawal founded and worked at a number of startups, Miller was the director of product at the Obama White House before joining Thrive Capital as an investor.
The email Miller sent to Agrawal that kicked off their plan to reinvent browsers.Photo: Josh Miller
While he was at the White House, Chief Digital Officer (and Miller's boss) Jason Goldman said something Miller couldn't forget. "Platforms have all the leverage," is how Miller remembers it. "And if you care about the future of the internet, or the way we use our computers, or want to improve any of the things that are broken about technology … you can't really just build an application. Platforms, whether it's iOS or Windows or Android or Mac OS, that's where all the control is."
Later, at Thrive, Miller noticed something else. Companies like Figma, Notion, Airtable and Superhuman weren't going mobile- or desktop-first, but were building powerful, collaborative apps with web technologies. Their "native apps," in most cases, were just wrappers around their web apps, plus a homescreen icon.
Miller became convinced that the next big platform was right in front of his face: the open web. The underlying infrastructure worked, the apps were great, there were no tech giants in the way imposing rules and extracting huge commissions. The only thing missing was a tool to bring it all together in a user-friendly way, and make the web more than the sum of its parts.
Of course, there's a reason that tool doesn't exist. Generally speaking, internet users use one of two browsers: the one that came on their device or Google Chrome. Chrome owns about two-thirds of the browser market and continues to grow, while its competitors all have single-digit share and most continue to shrink. Many users complain about Chrome's performance issues and Google's massive data collection, but Chrome has effectively won the browser market. Other browsers now use Chrome's underlying engine, Chromium, and copy its interface because it's what everyone knows.
Ironically, Chrome was also designed for the exact future Browser imagines. "We realized that the web had evolved from mainly simple text pages to rich, interactive applications and that we needed to completely rethink the browser," Sundar Pichai wrote in a 2008 blog post announcing Chrome. "What we really needed was not just a browser, but also a modern platform for web pages and applications, and that's what we set out to build."
Chrome, circa 2009. Some things have changed since, but only slightly.Photo: Internet Archive
But Google made one crucial decision in the Chrome development process. It built Chrome to get out of the way. "To most people, it isn't the browser that matters," Pichai wrote in 2008. "It's only a tool to run the important stuff — the pages, sites and applications that make up the web." Even when Google launched Chrome OS, it merely grafted that out-of-the-way browser onto a lightweight desktop OS. Google built a near-perfect version of the browser Netscape imagined 20 years earlier, but it didn't reinvent anything.
"Tabs are still tabs, bookmarks are still bookmarks, history is still history," Agrawal said. "In 20 years, the UI hasn't really changed, [yet] we spend eight hours a day in front of it, and it's necessary to get work done." When he and Miller started brainstorming ideas for their new project in 2019, they didn't know exactly how they planned to change all that. But they were convinced that the browser market is both so vast and so ripe for innovation that it was worth taking even a somewhat circuitous route to figure out the answers. "Nobody thinks they need a new browser," said John Lilly, a former CEO of Mozilla and an investor in The Browser Company. "And so you have to do a different thing."
After months of brainstorming and prototyping, Browser decided the first way to beat Chrome was just to build a browser that was nicer to use. They called it Arc. Agrawal decided early on not to try and rebuild the whole browser stack, and based Arc on Chromium like everyone else. Chromium works. Browser's team instead spent its time thinking about how to solve things like tab overload, that all-too-familiar feeling of not being able to find anything in a sea of tiny icons at the top of the screen.
That's something Nate Parrott, a designer on the team, had been thinking about for a long time. "Before I met Josh," he said, "I had this fascination with browsers, because it's the window through which you experience so much of the web, and yet it feels like no one is working on web browsers." Outside of his day job at Snap, he was also building a web browser with some new interaction ideas. "A big one for me was that I wanted to get rid of the distinction between open and closed tabs," he said. "I wanted to encourage tab-hoarding behavior, where you can open as many tabs as you want and organize them so you're not constantly overwhelmed seeing them all at the same time."
Parrott brought that thinking with him to The Browser Company. One of Arc's most immediately noticeable features is that it combines bookmarks and tabs. Clicking an icon in the sidebar opens the app, just like on iOS or Android. When users navigate somewhere else, they don't have to close the tab; it just waits in the background until it's needed again, and Arc manages its background performance so it doesn't use too much memory. Instead of opening Gmail in a tab, users just … open Gmail.
There's much more going on in Arc, but I can't tell you much about it. The 100 or so people who have been onboarded have all been sworn to secrecy, and Miller is clearly worried about its new ideas being quickly copied by bigger players. For now, all that has been made public are a few tweets from Miller, showing a browser that has almost no chrome, making web apps in Arc look and feel like desktop apps. Another shows the ability to rename tabs. But overall, the initial goal is to make the act of using a web browser a little more pleasant in every way the team can find.
All these features are the results of endless prototyping within the company. That's their main product strategy: Have an idea, build it, test it, see what happens. Making that possible was Agrawal's job for the first months of the company's life. He and his team took the internet's existing infrastructure — from Chromium to encryption to multiplayer tech — and "built the plumbing up into a world where you can iterate and build features in a day, or two hours, rather than months," he said. Even still, the team is racing to stay ahead of the product builders, making sure the foundations are solid before building on top of them.
The Browser Company team.Photo: Josh Miller
Building this way takes a while and costs a lot, and it takes a lot of faith in the overall idea, but Browser thinks it's worth it in the long run. "Big companies tend to have the resources to be able to invest in things that aren't features, like developer tools," said Victoria Kirst, a software engineer at Browser who in a previous life was an engineer on the Chrome team. "But if you do it right — which a lot of big companies don't — you can be nimble, which is exactly what you want at a startup."
In the long run, Agrawal said, Browser can also give some of this work back to the open web. "Arc can just be one example app on all of this plumbing that we've created," he said, "that pushes the web forward as we have new surfaces that our developers can actually iterate on."
Beyond that, the future is still somewhat uncertain. Miller has lots of ideas, but is constantly careful to qualify those ideas by saying it's too early, or they're just a guess. Everyone at The Browser Company swears there's no Master Plan, or much of a roadmap. What they have is a lot of ideas, a base on which they can develop really quickly, and a deep affinity for prototypes. "You can't just think really hard and design the best web browser," Parrott said. "You have to feel it and put it in front of people and get them to react to it."
One surprise hit feature that came out of this process was a Notes app. Not even an app, really, so much as an empty page that opens up when users hit Ctrl-N in their browser. Browser uses Notion as a company, and Miller likes Apple Notes, so the idea of building another note-taking app seemed ridiculous. And the app? "It's actually terrible," Miller said. "And yet people are loving it." It feels immediate and native, it's right there in the browser instead of off in a separate app window, it just works for people.
Everybody at Browser seems to have wild ideas for the future of browsers. Kirst has this operating system idea called iOMess, "literally an operating system for messy lives" that could help keep people from seeing pictures of exes or sending dumb drunk texts. Parrott is thinking about a universal inbox cobbled from all over the web, and what a totally distraction-free browser might look like. Miller seems to really want to build a native file-uploading service. The team seems willing to entertain any idea, and at least test any prototype.
The risk of this approach is that The Browser Company could become an R&D shop, full of interesting ideas but unable to build a browser that anyone actually uses. The company does have plenty of runway: It recently raised more than $13 million in funding from investors including Jeff Weiner, Eric Yuan, Patrick Collison, Fidji Simo and a number of other people with long experience building for the internet, that values The Browser Company at $100 million. Still, Agrawal said, "We're paranoid that we could end up in this world of just having a Bell Labs kind of situation, where you have a lot of interesting stuff, but it's not monetizable, it's not sticky, any of that." That's why they're religious about talking to users all the time, getting feedback on everything, making sure that the stuff they're building is genuinely useful. And when it's not, they pivot fast.
Miller would never explain it this way, but here is roughly what seems to be his Grand Vision For The Future of Web Browsers. Someone can grab any device with a screen, log into Arc, and immediately have their entire computing life — the apps, the files, the shared lists, everything — presented to them. Everything is online, everything is synced, everything is just a URL, remember? That person might have a set of links or apps shared with their team at work, others with their kid's soccer team, others that stay private. And the browser itself makes every web app better, by making it easy to move data between them or pull information like browser history or preferences into other apps.
There are two particularly tricky parts of making this vision real for any company trying to reinvent the browser. First is mobile, which is both the dominant computing platform and an even harder place to compete with the default options. Lilly said he gives Browser two pieces of consistent advice: Focus on building a great browser that works, "and oh, it'd be great if you could get it on my phone soon. Because I think until they get mobile, I don't think they have enough surface area to get real adoption." And to build the kind of proactive, personalized browser that can make the web better for users will require those users to place an enormous amount of trust in Arc and in Browser. The upstarts would argue that it's crazy to place that trust in Google, but most users have made peace with that bargain. Earning and keeping user faith is hard.
And for Miller and Agrawal, the trickiest thing might be deciding what not to build. From a product perspective there's a near-infinite set of developer tools, APIs and mini-apps the team could decide might benefit from being made more native to the browser. Going forward, there are almost as many possible business models for Arc. Miller mentioned search licensing, freemium subscriptions, enterprise editions and advertising as valid possibilities, before again saying it's too early and who knows. (A popular browser is an exceptionally good business: Firefox's search deal with Google is worth more than $400 million a year.)
How it will all shake out is anyone's guess. The competition in the space is heating up, too, and the entrenched players continue to have a massive advantage. Ultimately, it's one thing to build a better browser, and another entirely to convince millions or billions of people to download and use it. The same goes for Brave, Firefox, Mighty and everyone else. In order to get their browsers, those companies have to convince someone to open the browser they already have and decide it's not good enough. That's a tough bar to clear for any company.
Yet to Browser, and the rest of the tech industry, the possibilities seem to be worth the risks. More people use web browsers than use Facebook or Google, and much of modern life happens in windows and tabs. It's been more than 25 years since anyone fundamentally rethought what a browser should be. The open web is due for a comeback, and so is the web browser. And if any upstart can unseat Chrome, it might help define what the next two decades of life look like.