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The Origin Chip And The End Of The Internet As We Know It

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Wil Alambre
Wil Alambre Senior Programmer
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Last week, internet enthusiasts all jumped onto their blogs to write about Chrome Canary. It seems that version 36 started burying the long-form URL, and showing only a webpage’s domain name in a new “origin chip”.

If you want to give it a look-see yourself, download Chrome Canary and enable the origin chip by copy-pasting the following line into the address bar:

chrome://flags/#origin-chip-in-omnibox

Chrome Canary is the experimental version of Google’s browser that lets developers and early adopters try out proposed features. There’s never any guarantee that anything found in it will ever make it to the main channels, never mind being adopted into rival browsers.

Some guessed the change was to emphasize internet searches over internet addresses. Others assumed it was to make it harder to trick the average user with phishing sites. Either way, you’ll be hard pressed to find an article that sees this possible change as a ‘good thing’.

I’m uncertain where much of the apocalyptic conjectures are coming from. A similar thing is already happening in iOS’s default web browser, and has been there for a while now. Last I checked, the mobile web hasn’t yet melted down into an unuseable chaos of phishing trap sites.

Here’s that same blog page rendered in Mobile Safari:

We’ve been on a trend of reducing the URLs for years. Once upon a time, we needed to type in both “http://” and “www.” if we wanted to reach a valid webpage. I think we all got sick of radio advertisers saying “double you double you double you” every morning on the ride in from work.

Modern URLs are more influenced by search engine algorithm changes than by any affirmative attempts to human readability. This has lead to URLs getting stuffed with various pieces of content like page titles, published dates, author names, etc. It may help page rankings, but this information unnecessarily formatted into URLs is just duplicating the ‘real’ content on the associated page. I predict that Google will eventually drop ‘readable URLs’ as part of its rankings for the same reasons it did for keyword metatags.

Developers have to help the machine interpret these long strings into the ID values and file names its expecting. And as web users, we have to do the same thing, trying to translate a coded address into the context we’re interested in. After all, when we send a friend a link, we don’t actually want to share the URL with them, but the content at that URL. This is why Twitter and Facebook use open graph data to provide a preview with status posts:

This isn’t to say URLs are disappearing completely. Over the past four years, the URL has become more prominent in Google own search results. In 2010, the URL appears at the bottom of a listing, and it didn’t even earn itself the link underline:

Today, the URL appears at the top, second only to the content title itself. Even the green font color has been tweaked to let it stand out more:

But realistically, URLs have always been just a means to an end. Every web browser worth its salt can save and sort bookmarks, a feature whose purpose is hide a URL behind a memorable label. As web developers, our job is to tuck the nitty-gritty workings of a webpage underneath slick user interfaces and carefully chosen font families.

The tech savvy among us will laugh at the idea of our grandmothers going to the Google homepage that she’s bookmarked, typing “facebook.com” into the search field, and click the “I’m feeling lucky” button every single time… but it's a stereotype that demostrates how many people see URLs. Domain names are seen more as brand names than machine addresses these days. This is going to blur even more as top-level domains like “.tv” and “.bike” become more prevalent.

The long-form URL will exist behind the curtain for a very long time, but its importance up front and on stage is certain to diminish. It's the scaffolding of the internet, not the star.