Gizmos

How Will Voice Control Change the Web Browser?

Mozilla is reportedly building a voice-based browser. Here’s what it could mean.

A laptop that says Moz://a and features a search box, with a set of ears on it.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

We all know how to use a desktop browser. You type in a URL or search term, head to the website of your choice, and read the information it serves up. While browsers have added some bells and whistles—additional security features to protect your data while browsing, for example, or things like Reading Lists to circle back to longreads when you’ve got extra time—their general operation and navigation hasn’t changed much over the past decade. Now, a new trend is gaining traction—voice control—and it could give us a new way to browse the internet.

Voice control on the desktop isn’t entirely new. Operating systems such as macOS offer accessibility features such as VoiceOver for vision-impaired users. VoiceOver offers auditory cues for what’s on your computer screen, including descriptions of each on-screen element. For those unable to use a keyboard or mouse, software such as Nuance’s Dragon Speech Recognition offerings allow users to dictate documents or messages. Hardware-makers are also porting virtual assistants onto the desktop experience for improved access to files and information and the ability to control other apps or hardware by voice. But until recently, voice-based computer navigation has still been niche. CNET reports that voice control, via a new browser from Mozilla, could change that status quo.

Mozilla, the company behind the once ubiquitous Firefox browser, is working on a voice-based browser called Scout that will let you browse and consume content via voice alone. You can give it a command, such as, “Hey Scout, read me the article about polar bears”—an example given at an internal all-hands meeting in San Francisco last week, according to CNET’s report. While Mozilla representatives confirmed Scout is an early-stage project, the company wouldn’t share further information on the endeavor. It told CNET that it looked forward “to discussing these efforts publicly when they are further developed.”

Mozilla’s proposed voice-based browser offers some obvious accessibility benefits: With Alexa or Google Assistant–style ease, users could ask the browser to pull up a website or article and have that information read aloud to them. But it also could provide productivity-related benefits to any user. It could save time—users would no longer need to navigate to their browser and then type out a Google query, for example. It could also better allow for multitasking, much like listening to a podcast while getting work done. Instead of having to keep your eyes glued on screen as you research a new subject, this Scout browser could read you that information while you accomplish something else: respond to emails, take notes in a separate document, edit images, sketch. Suddenly the browser would be an accessory seamlessly integrated into the rest of your work day.

At this point, there are still a number of questions to be resolved. Like concerns with the way Amazon’s Alexa may suggest particular brands when you want to buy something generic such as “paper towels,” a voice-based browser could present issues with what websites it sources for information when one isn’t specified—although to be fair, bias is an issue search engines already grapple with, so this isn’t an entirely new problem. Then there’s that element of serendipity: When you head to Wikipedia to research a topic, you inevitably fall down a rabbit hole of related and tangential hyperlinks. Information being read aloud might not elicit that same ease of discovery as you’d get by tapping a link. There’s also the prospect of user adoption: Over the past few years, we’ve grown increasingly comfortable using voice to interact with our phones and smart speakers, but users may not see a need for an audio-based browser experience. Or perhaps, as the popularity of podcasts has shown, users may be eager to get their news and information aurally. However, with digital assistants and accessibility tools already built into desktops, a voice-centric browser could just end up being redundant.

Regardless of whether—or how—Mozilla’s Scout browser ships, the idea of a mass-market voice-based browser is worthy of exploration. It’s clear that voice control and digital assistants aren’t just novelties anymore; they’re increasingly becoming useful tools in our daily lives, allowing us to navigate the mass of news, to-dos, and events we’re presented with each day. The idea could become an important product for the company: After peaking with 32 percent of the browser market in 2009, Firefox’s adoption has dropped to 5 percent, and a voice-based browser could attract a fresh flock of downloaders. Alternatively, it could be a tool incorporated directly into digital assistants like Alexa, which boasts no browser of its own. And who knows what Mozilla will learn along the way about the future of how we’ll interact with online information? We’ve been Googling for nearly 20 years now—it may be time for a change.