So far with... Arc browser

So far with... Arc browser
Arc generates you a "membership card" with a random subtitle. Flattery will get you everywhere...

I started using Arc before Christmas as my default browser. Here's what I've been thinking about it:

Replacing chrome with features

I remember at the launch of Google Chrome, the whole principle was to build a bridge for Google content into the actual "chrome" that surrounded web content.

Arc feels like an effort to dump all the chrome and replace it with features instead. Maybe too many features.

Where should your most useful tools live?

There's a classic question of what the line between a feature and an independent product – see Dropbox as the notorious example.

Arc has a number of "apps" built in as features – most notably a kind of collaborative visual corkboard and a system to write and store notes.

It almost feels like they literally asked: if the core feature is a browser, what are the other verbs you do immediately around a browse. Examples:

  • browse --> store info you found (corkboard/ notes)
  • browse --> watch/ listen (media player/ PiP)
  • browse --> work

The last of these doesn't currently have any features in Arc, other than telling the Chrome to all get out of your way to help you focus.

Browsing and stopping

There are sites you visit again and again, then sites/ searches/ quick reference that passes by on the stream.

Arc's sidebar is fundamentally split between these categories. What's interesting here is it means it's basically your bookmarks and your history. But in a more useful place.

The fact is: it takes up a lot more space. So it feels really good to turn it off and tell it to auto-hide. BUT, if you do that, things like opening a new tab in the background feel quite unwieldy, or multi-tasking becomes a bit less smooth.

Equally, many web apps are designed with their own sidebars, so something like Asana has painful moments where you can't quickly see which sidebars are open, which are minimised. Do we really want this horizontal hierarchy to continue ad infinitum?

Tail wagging the dog?

Now the real question: when does the BROWSER become the feature in relation to the other functions built in? Does this truly make browsing better? Or does it make the tasks you generally do around browsing better? Which is most important to you?

I suspect the truth is that a lot of making browsing itself better is about getting OUT of the way – this is the direction Safari has taken (sometimes too far.) The best achievement of this in Arc is probably the "mini" browser where you spin up a little instance away from the complex sidebar/space Arc window just for a quick task.

Lessons to steal

When I used the Hey email app, I didn't want to stick with its quite bespoke system, but I found it useful to steal some ideas – particularly the concept of a paper trail folder for receipts, automated emails etc.

With Arc, I feel the lesson may be the same – I could probably use pinned tabs and Tab Groups to achieve a lot of what it's adding to the experience, without being shackled to one company. That's what I'm going to try next.

So far, if you ask that crucial product question of whether I'd be sad to lose it, I think Arc browser has to be a "no" for me. The cost of learning new habits and ways to relate to browsing aren't worth the value of the fairly basic apps it builds into the experience.

There is no "breakthrough" like tabbed browsing or pop-up blocking in Firefox.

There's only bundling.

Anyone interested enough in their systems to learn how to use a new product is very likely to already have their note-taking and similar apps set out. I suspect they are unlikely to want to handcuff them to this browser.

Certainly I think I've learned that I don't.