During Zoho’s signature event Zoholics in Austin, the company announced the availability of Ulaa, the new Zoho web browser. Of course, Ulaa does have a meaning. It is a Tamil word that means journey or path. Tamil is the language spoken in Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu, where Zoho’s HQ is situated.
Similar to Safari or Internet Explorer it signifies that the web is about discovery. Ulaa is a privacy orientated webbrowser that is based on Google’s Chromium engine. It has been built specifically to help users protect their online privacy by offering capabilities to block tracking and website surveillance. According to a study by YouGov, this is something that two thirds of consumers want, as they feel that tech companies have too much control over their personal data. The 2022 Norton Cyber Safety Insights Report Special Release – Online Creeping even found that globally, 85 percent of internet users want to do more to protect their privacy, while 80 percent say that they are concerned about data privacy. Almost 70 percent say that they are more alarmed than ever.
So, there is clearly a case for privacy-oriented browsers, also one more browser, as there are already some existing ones, like Brave or DuckDuckGo, even Safari.
We had the chance to talk to Tejas Gadhia, Zoho evangelist in charge of Ulaa about the rationale behind Zoho developing a web browser and what the future will bring. You can watch the full interview here.
Why did Zoho build a browser? According to Tejas, there hasn’t been much innovation in the browser market lately. Some browsers came, like Brave or DuckDuckGo, and went (TOR, anybody?), but they seem to be more of wrappers around existing engines with a bit of customization. All of them have their own focus. There are the mainstream ones, like Edge, Google Chrome, and Safari; and then there are the more privacy orientated ones. The companies behind even these browsers make money by ads. They have less intrusive business models than the big surveillance companies but still, they make money by selling ads. And when one wants to create more revenue, privacy and ads are at odds. It needs detailed user data to serve targeted ads, which are the ones that bring most revenue. This doesn’t seem to be a problem now but down the line it very well may become one.
Additionally, there is some scope for a “proper” business-focused browser. While there are some options already now, this means a lot of extensions.
For Zoho, Tejas says “it’s a little bit different because we’re not trying to make money in the browser. We make money from our business apps. This is just a side thing that is an added service that we offer. Anyone that knows Zoho knows that we’re all about value. We offer a bunch of different products at a very affordable price, compared to others in the market. And this is just another tool that we offer that is meant to increase people’s productivity and also kind of protect their privacy as well.” So, there is no business model behind Ulaa. It is free and available for everyone.
Technology-wise, Ulaa is built out of Chromium, Google’s open-source browser engine. The browser has been in the making for more than 4 years from inception to delivery.
Why that long, you might ask, as it is built on top of an existing world class engine?
The reason is that there is “there’s an insane amount of tracking that happens [in Chromium], from DNS fetching and sharing that back to Google, to fingerprinting, to idle times, to device identifier, you know; by default, ads pop up; a lot of different attributes that are there. So, we basically had to de-Google what should have been a de-Googled version of Chromium in the first place. But they are obviously very smart people, and they hide and incorporate a lot of things in Chromium that you have to go into.” Tejas continues “There’s just so much hidden stuff because it is in their business model to hide as much, you know, Telemetry and tracking that they can do inside the open-source version and so it takes a lot of effort. That’s why there are not too many other competitors. If it was so easy to build on top of Chrome and make something good, you would see 100 browsers in the market right now. We see maybe 5 to 6 legitimate ones.”
Given that there have been so many changes to the engine, and also given that Ulaa is probably the first browser that got built after GDPR came into effect, what about the user experience?
This has two aspects to it, performance, and modes, as Tejas explains.
One reason for the original success of Chrome was that it offered far better performance than the then dominant Internet Explorer. When running Ulaa and Chrome instances side-by-side “we generally either fare equal or better in almost every case in terms of performance and battery life.”
Modes are about choice about privacy levels. Zoho is all about privacy. Yet, not all people are. “Some people want privacy, some people don’t want privacy, or some people just don’t care. And so, for us, we go to the approach of everything should be an option, which can give the consent let people choose should they want to be tracked or not.” Ulaa offers five modes that are isolated from each other. For example, by default, the work mode doesn’t allow social media sites to track work activity, while the private mode doesn’t allow work sites track social media activity. Tejas assures that “[we] tell them exactly what we’re blocking, how we’re blocking it, why it’s important that it’s being blocked for you, and should you want to enable it?” Yet, if people want to change these defaults, they can actively give their consent and change the defaults.
Back to the business part, Zoho has the vision of building a business orientated browser. Ulaa is a young product. What can be expected to come?
According to Tejas, browsers are not really bound into organizational controls. Yes, it is possible to enable management policies, but this is usual quite “enterpris’ey”, i.e., bulky and not readily accessible for SMBs. Consequently, Zoho is looking into management consoles and policies around Ulaa, grouping of tabs around projects or other optimizations around work in general. Another example would be further sandboxing of different modes. There is a lot of room for real innovation for a business-focused browser in terms of management and productivity. Privacy is then “just the icing on the cake.”
Interesting times lie ahead of us.