Canterbury redesigns browser back button

The traditional web browser may be set for a revamp, thanks to scientists in Christchurch.

Staff and students at the computer science department of the University of Canterbury have been looking at how to make browsers more efficient.

Senior lecturer Andy Cockburn says millions of people use the "back" button to navigate around the web every day, but there could be a better way.

He has developed a prototype called Webview, which he describes as a "temporal" browser that helps people navigate by producing a list of thumbnail-size images representing sites that have been visited.

Traditional back buttons, in comparison, use a stacking system that records only index pages - parent homepages - meaning recently visited pages often disappear.

Trials of the new browser took place in the middle of last year, though the findings have only recently been published.

"Our new system provides a complete view of the history of the pages you have looked at with the duplicates removed. It works, but has a wide set of pros and cons," Cockburn says, adding that he is neutral over which is better.

Trials showed temporal browsers worked well at navigating between distant pages, but were less effective at supporting backtracking to index pages. Users of the temporal browsers either solved tasks very efficiently or inefficiently depending on whether they used the back menu, which drops down from the back button.

Cockburn first raised the issue of thumbnails with Microsoft when visiting Redmond in 1999, and says the software giant was interested in the technology. But he says the method has also been published openly, so Microsoft is likely to produce its own version with thumbnails in coming years. Apple, for its part, recently released its Safari browser which features a SnapBack button. This returns the user to the point where they last typed a URL or selected a bookmark.

The university department plans further tests of its browser system with the aim of producing a more robust version of Webview.

However, don't expect this piece of ingenuity to make the country millions.

"Microsoft could do it. There's little point in everybody trying to compete with these guys. I am sure thumbnails will be there in the next release of Internet Explorer. The intellectual property is in the public domain," Cockburn says.

Reports on the temporal browser can be found on his web site.

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