Co-browsing is Just the Beginning — the Future of Middleware at Surfly
Spoiler alert: This post contains a preview of what we’re working on for 2022 and beyond. If you’d rather be surprised, stop reading now!
At Surfly, we’ve always known that co-browsing is just the beginning. Ultimately, we’re in the business of building collaboration infrastructure.
When we got started back in 2014, the future of work was looking increasingly remote. But nobody could have predicted how quickly global events would drive demand for collaboration tools. Over the past year, co-browsing has helped businesses and consumers replicate all sorts of in-person tasks remotely. As we look to the near future, we’re excited to introduce some new stuff that will take our interaction middleware beyond co-browsing and into a new kind of collaborative web experience.
This week I sat down with Maxim Tsoy, our head of R&D, to talk about what’s around the corner for Surfly.
Brendan: Tell us a little bit about your work pre-Surfly and how that has influenced what you’re doing with us.
Maxim: I started as a security researcher. This work requires a deep understanding of how applications and their underlying technologies work. I was particularly interested in web technologies, especially web proxies. Later, when I switched to the development side of things, this expertise helped me a lot.
When I started with Surfly in 2016, I saw that the product could do some really exciting things. And it was cool to meet a team that shared this vision.
Brendan: What is about the technology that caught your attention early on?
Maxim: The core technology behind Surfly is powerful and promising, with so much potential as a framework for other interesting things. At the same time, the core idea is simple, which makes the whole thing very elegant
As with most “simple” ideas, it is really challenging to get right in practice. It took us several years to overcome the many technical challenges we were presented with.
Today it’s a mature technology. I’m proud of my role in getting it there.
Brendan: What are you excited about in the near future of Surfly?
Maxim: Today, our product is the co-browsing solution, but we always knew our middleware/ proxy tech driving it could be applied to many different use cases beyond co-browsing.
We had this in mind all along, and now everybody else is getting their first look at what we’ve been building.
The core technology has always been the focus of our development efforts. Now we’re at a point where we’re willing to actively expand on alternative use cases. That’s what I’m busy with these days.
Brendan: Could you explain, from a technical perspective, how middleware works and what makes it unique?
Maxim: Sure. Our core technology touches all levels of the web application stack. What we’re trying to achieve is being able to take any web app you can think of and enhance it dramatically on the fly by introducing new features or changing or even removing existing features.
But here’s the key, we do all of that without actually changing the original application or having access to its source code. It’s a simple concept, but actually achieving it means that we need to intercept all the inputs and outputs of a web application to change the behavior on the fly. This includes all network communication between the browser and the server, as well as communication between the client-side application and the browser. Easier said than done.
All of this then has to be backed by a robust and scalable infrastructure.
What’s unique about middleware is the versatility. The framework has so many potential use cases for collaboration. But it can offer a totally enhanced solo browsing experience as well.
If I had to sum it all up In one sentence: We can virtualize any web application.
We will be publishing more content in the near future, with more technical details that should be interesting for developers and web enthusiasts.
Brendan: Could you say more about that custom solo browsing experience?
Maxim: When you run a Surfly session, you’re looking at the site and the session that’s built on top of it. Already, this includes some enhancements like highlighting and virtual tabs.
Now we’re working on web enhancements that have nothing to do with co-browsing, such as text translation, web highlighting features, privacy layers, and more. We are also looking into opening up the technology to developers so they can build their own enhancements. Stay tuned.
Brendan: What’s it like behind the scenes in R&D, working on all this stuff?
Maxim: As a small company, we’ve had to stay focused. We always try to be pragmatic. The “research” part of our work isn’t the same as R&D at a bigger company. We don’t have the resources to set up a bunch of small teams for new projects.
That said, I think Surfly has done an amazing job assembling a small squad to explore new possibilities while still constantly improving our core product. The Surfly Labs initiative showcases proof of concept applications that show there’s more to Surfly technology than co-browsing. We worked part-time on these projects, we didn’t promote much, but we started to see organic results as people found those pages and took interest. Then something cool happened–the people who found those started coming to us with ideas. That got us thinking, what would happen if we put more resources behind these projects? I think there’s a lot of potential. We just need to harness it.
The other side of this will be a marketing play. We have to tell a good story about this work and get people as excited about these projects as we are. At this point, we need to increase awareness and demo this to the world. The goal is to work together with the developer community and solve existing problems with the power of interaction middleware!