"Building Product at The Browser Company" with Josh Miller, CEO of TBC (2/3)
What does the future of the Arc browser look like?
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This is a surprise bonus interview with Josh Miller, co-founder and CEO of The Browser Company. What was originally a 2-part series exploring the Arc Browser by The Browser Company, has expanded into a 3-part series thanks to Josh’s generosity and willingness to have a great conversation about the future of Arc.
If you haven’t had a chance to read Part I yet, it was an in-depth analysis of the product that explored the fundamental question, “what’s so special about another browser?” Give it a read!
Table of Contents
What’s the balance between being data-driven and trusting your product sense?
Disclaimer: The interview transcript has been lightly edited for length and readability.
Q: Why combine bookmarks and tabs?
Jacob Jolibois: Let's start with something kind of controversial and that's the decision to combine bookmarks and tabs. If you can, walk me through some of the thought process behind that and how that impacts a user's browsing workflow.
Josh Miller: Fantastic first question. I would actually love to hear how it's impacted your work flow.
The intention behind it is one of the tricky things about trying to reimagine the web browser and that’s the fact that we've been using them for a couple decades now. And that both means it probably should be different in a lot of ways because you know, the internet hasn’t changed in a long time. But it also means that there are a lot of ingrained habits that aren't broken and actually serve us really great and more importantly, people are just really used to.
So even if, intellectually, there would be a better way, there's a big cost to that. You can only change things up in so many places.
I feel like a large part of our craft, especially in the early days, has been asking where do you reinvent the wheel and where do you kind of keep it the way it is.
💡 Take a child-like approach to first-principles
And the way that we approach that is we try to ask ourselves, pretend like you're a child and you don't have any preconception of how you interface with the internet or how you should interface with the browser.
What is it that you want in a moment?
What are you actually trying to do?
When we thought about the internet today…
A large percentage of our time is spent going to the same five web apps.
And again, the point of the childlike observation is not to moralize whether or not it's a good trend or a bad trend, just observe and embrace what is.
And what is, is I check Twitter 17 times a day. I'm not happy about it. You know, I don’t always feel good about it, but I do it, right? And I need my calendar a lot. And there is a bunch of software that our company uses that I need to live in every day.
So when you observe that there are these 3 to 5 web apps that you go to in your browser and you visit 17 to 29 times a day, then you say, okay, that's a thing you need. What is the best, most easy, effortless way to help someone get to those things?
You'd probably say:
You probably want a fairly large tap target so you don't have to like, be precise about where your cursor is. You just click it and boom.
And then the second thing you probably want is you probably don't want it to make a mess.
Because even though you went to it 17 times, and even though technically, the URLs you may be loading in the browser may be slight variations of twitter.com, from a human perspective you just want Twitter.
And so if you go back and look at bookmarks and pin tabs and other browsers, the problem with a bookmark is it spawns 17 different versions of Twitter in your browser.
The other option is pinned tabs which will just kind of keep the same tabs in place. That has the benefit of not loading 17 tabs. But if you've seen pinned tabs in other browsers, they're like the tiniest fucking thing ever. Like, how are you supposed to click that thing? And they also don't necessarily make it the easiest to go back to the place that you originally were.
So anyways, if you've used Arc, you know that we have the concepts of favorites that are really for your top handful of apps. We make them really big and juicy and fun to click and they look really appealing.
And then for everything else, they stay in the same place. They're never in a different place. They don't spawn other tabs. And so again, that's a situation where we didn't say, “hey, let's reimagine bookmarks just for the sake of it.”
We didn't even think about bookmarks. We asked, what do people need from the internet every day?
Q: What if you have a lot of bookmarks?
Jacob Jolibois: For the folks who have 1,000+ bookmarks, what's the best way to organize that? Do you just have an endless list of folders in your sidebar or is there a better way?
Josh Miller: That’s a great question. A couple things.
💡 Arc isn’t for everyone (is it for you?)
First, our goal is not to make Arc the best browser for every person.
And actually one of the things that motivates us is that the internet is so central in our lives across all parts of our life. And all of the people that use the internet are so different from each other.
There's so much diversity in people, the needs and moments of the day.
The thing that is most flawed about the web browser market in our opinion is that there's a lack of choice.
They're essentially a handful of web browsers.
They all effectively look exactly the same.
They all effectively do exactly the same things.
And they all effectively have the exact same philosophy about how we should use the internet.
If you were to apply that to anything else we spent hours and hours a day in as a human, you'd be like, are you, are you kidding me? Imagine if we all lived in homes that effectively were an identical layout, identical appearance, maybe change the little things on the wall, you know, it's dystopian.
The motivation for The Browser Company and Arc is not that everyone in the world will use Arc, it's that there's gotta be another way.
We are gonna try to build a way that feels right to us and we think a lot of people relate to that, but it's not for everyone. So I just wanna say that at the top, our goal is not to convince every single person that Arc is great for them.
💡 Arc was built to be modular (make it your own!)
The second thing is that we try to make Arc modular. Modularity is a concept that's really important to us. It's a delicate balance because what we don't mean are endless, overwhelming options. But just enough ways that you can tweak the primitives that we have to make it fit right for your life.
So the reason I say that is there are a couple different possible answers.
1. Stick with a traditional browser
First, Arc may not be for you if you love bookmarks. I don't think that is true for 99% of people, but that's a possibility. And we're okay with that.
2. Start completely fresh
Second, and the one I would advocate for, is to start completely fresh. So what you can do with Arc is import all of your bookmarks and then you can put them in a folder in a secondary Space and just challenge yourself to see if you really need that stuff.
Because I think that the browsers of yesterday have encouraged us to hoard, have a bajillion tabs open, have a bajillion bookmarks, and to not be super intentional about what we actually need. If you find yourself actually needing it, pull it out, drag and drop, it's super easy.
3. Adopt the “Archive” Framework
There's another framework which would be to create a Space for your bookmarks instead of a single folder. I've seen people call it their “archive” or their “library” or whatever you want and have it for your old bookmarks.
Have all of the same folders at the same level of hierarchy one over from the main Space, so you can just swipe over if you ever need anything.
4. Use pins like bookmarks
And then there's another, which is to treat it just like you did in your old browser.
We don't have bookmarks in the traditional sense, but you can put a bunch of things in a folder and if you click them you can visit them.
Now, the main difference is we're not gonna open a brand new tab. If you click a bookmark we're gonna open it right there. But it's effectively the same as bookmarks:
you can still have them in different hierarchies,
you can organize tabs within them,
we just open them in place and don't open a bunch of crap and duplicate tabs.
So those are a handful of ways. And again, going back to modularity, I bet there are 10 ways I'm not even thinking of, because…
…we try to create these very simple primitives, like Spaces and Folders and Pinned Tabs and say, “hey, what could you make with that?” and people think of really creative things. It’s pretty wonderful to see.
Q: What is the vision for Notes and Easels?
Jacob Jolibois: Let's move into Notes and Easels. This is one of the more exciting areas that I think Arc has a chance to innovate on.
Right now, Notes and Easels both feel like these fun tools to play with. But companies like Notion or Figma are going to innovate in the note taking and white boarding space faster and farther than The Browser Company will.
So what role do you see Notes and Easels playing in the browser experience today and maybe take us a few years into the future and tell us how will that evolve?
Josh Miller: Yeah. Fantastic question.
For context, the founder and CEO of Figma (Dylan Field) is a two-time investor in our company. The COO of Notion (Akshay Kothari) is a three-time investor in our company. We rely on Notion internally at The Browser Company. We rely on Figma internally. Just to be clear, I am confident Figma will always build a better design tool. I am confident that Notion will always build a better notes tool.
They're fantastic products. They actually inspired The Browser Company and Arc in a lot of ways. So you're absolutely right that they will continue to do fantastic work and it will be better than our Notes and Easels, because that's not what we’re building. We're building a web browser.
💡 Product development is subtractive as much as it is additive
The second thing I would say is that we're a very prototype and experiment-driven culture. So what we like to do is if we feel someone has an inkling, we don't spend a lot of time talking about it. We just say, cool, go build it and we'll play with it.
Do the first version in 48 hours,
make it ugly,
try to get something out there,
and we'll let the thing in our hands, do the talking.
And that extends beyond just that first stage of the product development process.
I think a good 50% of things in the product today won't be there in five years because we think removing from the product and sculpting down and refining is just as important as adding to it.
Now that may sound like I'm setting up to say that Notes are not important or not something we're excited about. That's not what I'm saying at all. But I wanna talk less about Notes and Easels - the specific features - today and more about the higher level.
💡 Embrace an experiment-driven culture of product development
Let me talk about the motivation and purpose behind experimenting with concepts like Notes and Easels, which very much relates to what you mentioned in your prior post and was one of the reasons I loved that write up so much.
What we've observed is that the web browser is actually quite passive. It's a consumptive medium. It doesn't really do much for you in ways of making things. It is sort of this un-opinionated shell. But in fact, because of this trend toward web applications and this move of data to the cloud, the internet has become a place where you go to make things.
That's why there's such an inspiring slate of new creative tools like Notion and Figma that are turning our surf sessions and time on the internet into periods where we are our most active and we're making things. But the web browser kind of does nothing to help you with that.
One of the things we asked ourselves was how can we help people make things? How can we help accelerate that shift back to the web as a place that is generative and that you're creating things in?
And so when we look at a tool like Easel or Notes, the goal isn't to compete with FigJam or with Notion. Absolutely not. Again, we rely on the tools. The thing from a human perspective we look at is how often are you reading something or looking at something and you just wanna jot down a couple quick notes? That's it.
You literally just need to type a few sentences because you got super inspired.
Or you read a pull quote that was super inspiring.
Or you saw a photo that just kind of tickled your fancy and you wanted to stash it away for later.
No matter how great those other tools are, they're not the web, they're not the internet client, they're not the web browser. And so it's quite a number of steps and context switching just to take a couple notes down or just to grab a photo and put it somewhere.
And so whether or not Notes and Easels are the final destination, the human goal is how can the web browser be more opinionated about supporting you throughout your daily internet workflows, especially in ones that help you make things and help you get things done.
In those situations, there's certain things that only a web browser can do in terms of what it can bring up in context, how the UI changes to support grabbing something or writing something down, and then you can send it to Notion or drop it into Figma.
Q: What’s the future of Boosts?
Jacob Jolibois: Boosts, in my opinion, unlock some of the greatest potential of what Arc has to offer.
It shows us a little glimpse of what that layer between the operating system and the apps can actually do. It’s incredibly powerful.
I was scrolling through Twitter earlier this morning in preparation for this, and…
I saw GitHub look like Windows 98.
I saw a pink Twitter.
I saw a website that scrolls like the intro text to Star Wars, which is just wild to see.
All those things are very, very cool. But to me it feels like the power of Boosts is hiding behind this mask of making the web more fun, which is great in and of itself, but I think there's a bigger vision behind it and I'm curious to hear what that is from you.
Josh Miller: Yeah, you're absolutely right.
I think Boosts embody our aspirations more than any other single Arc feature.
And the reason is because going back to what I mentioned for bookmarks, our guiding thesis is that the idea of a single, general-purpose web browser that works for everyone is a flawed concept in 2022.
Everybody is so different. Even a single person needs different things in different parts of their lives and on different days of the week and at different times of the day.
And the ultimate ambition is that Jacob feels like there is a browser made for him by him. And that's not gonna happen because we make it. If we really wanna achieve that goal of feeling like Jacob has a browser made for him, going back to modularity, we gotta give Jacob the tools to literally do that or have other people do it for him.
💡 Boosts hand over the keys to the kingdom
What Boosts does, is it hands over the keys to the kingdom. And we'll do that more in the future. You can imagine it's giving you APIs to change the Arc sidebar and add things to Arc sidebar or change the command bar and what appears in it.
Then on top of that, one of the things we've also tried to do is make it more approachable for people that are not deeply technical. We have a long way to go there, but you'll notice with Boosts, we have these four different preset templates that make it a lot easier to jump in and start making things.
You don't have to publish to a Chrome extension store and get approved.
You can see the change reflected in your browser right away.
We have hot reloading.
We’re just trying to remove the barriers to make those changes quickly in your day to day.
💡 Boosts give you the power to build internal tools
It's very fun to see Twitter that scrolls like Star Wars. One of my favorite Boosts so far. I think that just reflects the kind of creativity of the community. But you know, if you look at the power behind Boosts, you can make internal tools.
We actually use Boosts to add a button to GitHub!
I mean, really it's whatever you could think of.
And I think eventually we want it to feel like you could make your own browser, right? It may not be for everyone, but you can make Arc work for you and, of course, share that with people in the future. You can totally imagine, if there's another architect in the Netherlands that's father like you, maybe one of them puts a Boost up in the marketplace or in the store and you get to grab it for yourself.
So I'm really excited about where this will lead hopefully in the future.
Q: Will there eventually be a community-driven Boost Store?
Jacob Jolibois: And it's interesting that you mention the store because this is actually a question from Chris Messina.
He was asking how much will Arc begin to take on an Apple-style approach where you're building and curating the platform and the Boosts versus something that's more like a Boost Store where it's community-driven and people build and share and, potentially, can even monetize Boosts in the future.
Have y'all put a lot of thought into dreaming up something like that?
Josh Miller: Yeah. Well, two caveats:
One, we think of Boosts as being something that are similar to extensions, but our aspirations for them, both technically and idealistically, are very different.
And that's important because it's hard to predict, you know?
We're very much a prototype, experiment-driven culture that takes things one day at a time. And we may have that ultimate place we're going out in the distance. But “I don't know” is the honest answer.
Two, I don't think we think about it as binary as Apple or non-Apple, but there are some things that we respect about the Apple way and there are some things that we think about a little differently.
💡 Design for Trust
The thing that we respect really is trust.
I think Apple has done a fantastic job of helping me feel safe. I'm not a security expert, but I have that perception of safety and security with Apple and I trust them.
I really want to ensure that when you use Arc, you feel like you have a lot of trust for your wellbeing on the internet.
With great power comes great responsibility. If we are giving the keys to the kingdom, the keys to the kingdom can do some bad things. And it's really important that we take that responsibility seriously, and I think there's a lot to learn from Apple in that regard.
💡 Design for Experience
I also think another thing to learn from Apple, which we really respect, is the unwavering commitment to the best-in-class craft and details. We really wanna ensure that people always have a fantastic experience.
💡 Design for Decentralization
The way that I think we're a little bit different than Apple in terms of belief system, is we believe in openness and decentralization.
The internet is making a resurgence. I think the next great computing platform is not AR or VR. It is the internet. And it's just in front of our eyes and it's changing.
And what's so wonderful about that is it's not controlled by any single company. Arc will never be the only web browser. Arc will never control the internet.
And so I think part of that principle and idealism is that, at the end of the day, I think we want to do our best to ensure a fantastic user experience, we wanna do our best to keep us safe and secure.
We believe in the internet and we believe that there should be many internet clients. And we believe that, to the best extent possible, there should be interoperability. That's the beauty of the web.
What does that look like in practice in five years, once the Boost ecosystem matures and the technology itself matures? No idea. Absolutely no idea.
Q: When is Arc launching to the public?
Jacob Jolibois: I love the honesty, because it's very clear that the team is in an all-out exploration mode. And Arc is obviously in an invite-only, beta mode right now.
Is there a timeline around building something that is more exploratory versus locking down a feature set to launch to the public?
Josh Miller: I hope by the end of the year we don’t have a waitlist and anyone can download it and can use it.
The thing that's stopping that actually is that trust like Apple. We want to ensure that if someone entrusts Arc and The Browser Company with their day on the internet, that we deliver an extremely fast, performant day on the internet, extremely secure day on the internet and an extremely stable and reliable day on the internet.
Because what's unique about a web browser versus other early stage software that's still unfinished is that people should have, and do have, a zero-tolerance policy for “slow.” They have a zero-tolerance policy for “insecure.” They have a zero-tolerance policy for “unreliable.” Because the web browser is the vessel by which you do everything else in your day.
If the browser is buggy, or if the browser is sluggish, it's gonna slow down everything else you do, and it's gonna make everything else cumbersome and buggy.
The only reason we still have a waitlist is not because it's unfinished from a vision perspective. It's because we wanna ensure that whenever we open it up more broadly, we can live up to that promise.
And being in control of how many people we onboard each week allows us to slowly pressure test some of those systems and improve them when they break.
In terms of, when will it feel like Arc will be solidified? I really hope never. And I know that everyone says that, but you know, I truly mean it in the sense that I think there's always an opportunity to refine and sculpt and make things more simple.
💡 The future of Arc is full of big ideas
Everyone joined this company because of these big ideas that we started with.
We think the future of the internet is multi-player and full of people at the browser layer.
We're really excited about what you can do with different teams and Arc.
We're really excited about Arc as a modular platform.
We're really excited about multi-platform and the relationship between Arc on your phone and Arc on a tablet and Arc on a windows machine and Arc on desktop.
So I think we're pretty far away and hopefully forever away from feeling like it’s set in stone. But to your point, we're definitely in a mode of, let’s start removing things or continue to remove things and sculpt and refine and really harden the product to be ready for general availability.
Q: What’s the balance between being data-driven and trusting your product sense?
Jacob Jolibois: We'll wrap it up with this question. It's pretty clear that Arc is kind of a case of the “faster horse vs. a car” conundrum where, if you asked the market what they wanted out of a browser, I don't know that anyone would've said anything that resembles what Arc is today.
But at the same time, you have to build something people want, something people will use and, eventually, something people will pay for.
So how do you think about the balance between user feedback and data versus gut instinct and product sense?
Josh Miller: You know, given that you're asking that question, you probably appreciate the nuance in which case it's more art than science for sure.
💡 There’s no right answer
And related to art versus science, the person that I look up to most in my career is actually an artist named James Terrell, who blends architecture and astronomy and interior design and landscape design and visual art and perceptual psychology and all these different disciplines.
And, ultimately, it's his taste that figures out the right combination for what he wants to express. And his intuition that determines how he does something.
At the end of the day, it is a style and it is a taste and there's an intuitiveness that has to guide us. Because there is no right answer.
💡 Start with what you want to see in the world
I think one of the things we've tried to rely on more tangibly is the belief that we are not that unique. You know, we are just not that special. We are all fairly average. And that may sound negative, but I actually think it's pretty freeing because what that means is it empowers you to build for yourself and follow your gut and intuition because there must be a lot of other people like you.
💡 Then pressure test it with others
We have this membership team, which we've had since day one, where we actually combine the disciplines of user research, customer service, and a couple of others that revolve around talking to people that we serve and our members are central to our product development process.
That really starts with like, what do we believe? What do we feel like we need? And then how do we work with a handful of members to be part of the process to really make it feel like the variations speak to people.
And we picked the right path forward but guided based on what feels right for us. Kind of in the same way that an artist like James Terrell will say, like:
what do I wanna express in the world?
What do I think will be beautiful?
What do I think will be useful?
What do I think will be comfortable?
What do I think will provoke thought?
So again, it's not one or the other, but I think more than other companies, we are much more driven by the belief that we are not unique. But we do have a unique point of view.
If we build for ourselves and build what will feel right, not only will that be authentic for ourselves, but it will resonate with more people than you think.
That’s a wrap folks! Huge shoutout to Josh for being so generous with his time. I hope that you’ve enjoyed the conversation and were able to glean some useful nuggets that you can apply to your own product development process. And don’t forget to…
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Thumbnail: Super cool blueprint adaptation of the Arc icon by Emirhan Ugurlu via the Figma Community.