Arc, Vivaldi, and the Next Generation of Browsers

You can see this as another review post, and in a lot of ways it is. But I also want to take this time to talk about some innovation that’s occurring in a place where you’d least expect it: the internet browser.

Recently, I decided to go “browser shopping”. I had been using base Google Chrome for a couple of years after I had switched over from Firefox, and it was pretty much the same old stuff. I didn’t mind Chrome, but if there were any improvements to the old formula, I wanted to know.

I was already familiar with the concept of the “boutique browser”. It was an idea pioneered by Opera, creating an avenue to see the browser more as a “work of art” than a mere technical resource. The plan was to inspire a level of design creativity and innovation that might invite new, exciting, permanent changes to the browser formula.

There were two boutique browsers to come out of Opera: Neon and Vivaldi (1). Neon was a place for continuous experiments — a project that was “never quite done”. Vivaldi, however, was meant to be something more stable — the world’s first look at the next generation of browser.

I was there for the launch of both Vivaldi and Neon. And, to be honest, they were not all that impressive at the start. Both were bloated, ran poorly, and worst of all didn’t really have any distinct new features other than a fresh coat of paint. So, at the time, I dropped them.

What built my interest anew wasn’t any new updates or unprompted recollection of the browsers, but rather a new player all together. On the other side of the Atlantic (2), in the city of New York, a small software company was playing with the boutique browser idea to launch a browser of their own, named Arc. It was hearing about this Arc browser, and the changes it brought to the table, which made me interested in it — and also willing to give other boutique browsers a try.

Arc, as I write this, is invite-only. So after I interest for it, I had some time to kill before I could actually use the app. I decided to use this time to check out Vivaldi again.

Immediately upon using it, I realized there were some benefits that were not there on launch. One of the big reasons initially to not make the switch was because these new browsers did not have the same extension libraries that Chrome and Firefox do, many of which are essential to my workflow. Vivaldi now includes the ability to run any Chrome extension, which is a huge step up. Yet this still only puts it at the same level as Chrome.

Here’s where things get interesting — Vivaldi also includes a feature called web panels. Web panels are almost “extension-likes” — for example, if you wanted to “clip” a page without there being an official extension, you can simply bookmark your database as a web panel, then any time you find a website to clip you can grab the data right then and there. It might not be as simple as an extension, but it’s still a step up from the old “make another tab and start from the beginning” formula.

Vivaldi also hosts a notable amount of miscellaneous built-in features. With Vivaldi Mail you can combine your emails together into an in-browser email viewer, with Vivaldi Notes you can write notes in the margins of websites (3), and with Vivaldi Translate you can easily highlight a sentence and have it translated for you then and there. These features are not what I would call “essential”, but they also are not bloated (i.e. they don’t effect load times and UI-wise are relatively hidden/easy to hide) and do serve a net positive benefit.

The benefits of Vivaldi, ultimately, were enough to get me to switch over. Which was a bad sign for Arc, who had just finally given me access after I had already decided on a new browser. It also didn’t help that Arc was Mac exclusive, and I only had a single Macbook Air in an otherwise sea of Windows and Android products.

However, when I finally got to try Arc, I noticed something rather interesting. While Arc would’ve been just as mindblowing if I had gone straight from Chrome, in comparison to Vivaldi it was rather the same! I don’t mean this in a derogatory way — Arc’s focus on design makes it much prettier than Vivaldi’s more pragmatic approach, plus there are still new features we will get into — but rather it gives the sign of changing times. This wasn’t just Vivaldi — this was the next-generation browser.

From what I can tell, a next-generation browser (Vivaldi, Arc, Brave) is defined by the following: built-in ad and tracker blocking (all of them appear to have this to some degree), easy access to “create your own extensions” (Vivaldi has web panels, Arc has split view (4)) and built-in tools that help the browser become more of a central point in your workflow.

On this built-in tools point, Arc doesn’t have anything like Vivaldi Mail or Notes, but it does have the Arc Canvas. Arc Canvas is an “infinite canvas” widget, similar to something like Miro or the whiteboard on Canva. In addition, it has a rather nice “file access” widget, which allows you to look at your recent files and drag and drop them into upload spaces when needed.

So, to round this out — how do next-gen browsers stack up to the old faithful? I definitely think there is some level of bloat — if I’m not going to pick Vivaldi Mail over Apple Mail, or Arc Canvas over OneNote, then these features just become tacked on buttons to avoid. That being said, this used to be a much bigger issue back in the day than it is now. There’s no slowdown issues because of these new tools, and its usually pretty easy to hide the stuff you’re never gonna use. So, overall, I’d say we’re beginning to step in the right direction when it comes to finally innovating the browser.

(1) To clarify: Vivaldi and Opera are separate legal entities. Vivaldi was created by a co-founder of Opera, however, and so the boutique browser influence is still there. Similar things can be said for Arc, which is made by a team comprised of former Mozilla and Google Chrome developers.

(2) Opera and Vivaldi are based in Oslo, Norway.

(3) As I was writing this, Google announced they were adding a very similar feature to Chrome. I imagine they will slowly start to add other next-gen browser ideas as well.

(4) Vivaldi also has split view, though web panels are the better way to achieve the “build your own extension” functionality I mention here.

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