Why Firefox 29 Sucks

Firefox homepageA lot has been said, written and ranted about Firefox 29 and its ‘Australis’ user-interface redesign. Just for the record, I’d like to clarify my own criticisms. ‘Why Firefox 29 sucks’ is really two questions. First, what features of the new version suck? And second, what internal process led Mozilla to take this huge leap sideways?

Tabs on Top

The trouble started when Firefox followed Google’s lead in placing tabs at the top of the browser window, by default. This lemming-like behavior is not unprecedented, but it is incomprehensibly stupid.

The historical parallel that occurs to me is IBM’s appalling alteration of the standard PC keyboard layout, moving function keys to the top, and shoving the Ctrl key down into the bottom row alongside the spacebar, to be replaced by the almost-never-used Caps Lock key. My understanding is that the change was intended to harmonize PC keyboards with those of some IBM mainframe terminal. And yet, the entire PC industry slavishly followed IBM in making a change that was a) horrendously disruptive; b) counter-ergonomic; and c) totally unnecessary.

Google put tabs on top of its browser to further its own Web apps strategy. I’ve never been convinced that tabs at the top of the window furthered that strategy in any real way, but at least we know there was some rational thought behind Google’s approach. But most of us don’t use Web apps. Personally, I’m pretty confident in saying I’ll never use Web apps to any great extent. I like having my software on my local PC; it gives that insanely powerful quad-core CPU something to do, and helps fill my multi-terabyte storage farm.

It’s true that Mozilla has lost some market share to Google’s Chrome browser. This is hardly surprising. Chrome arrived new on the market, lean and mean, and bound to appeal to somebody. It elbowed its way in at the expense of the incumbents, namely Firefox and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. And then… things stabilized. Any fool could see that pretty much everyone in the world had picked a favorite they were happy with. In that situation, the way to win market share is to win users over to your approach. Not to ape the approach of one of your competitors, and thereby abandon the approach that made you a contender in the first place. (You’ll find endless online comments of this form: “As long as you’re going to make Firefox work like Chrome, I’ll just go ahead and switch to Chrome.”)

Choice is Not an Option

Another problem with the new Firefox UI is that it doesn’t follow any previous paradigm. All of a sudden, we’ve got drop-downs in the top-right corner. Tabs in the title bar. Icon windows that act like menus. Firefox 29 doesn’t look like any application you’ve ever seen before. And I’m sure the big heads at Mozilla think that’s a good thing.

Sorry: no. The familiar old text menu may seem humdrum and old-hat, but it works about as well as anything anyone has been able to dream up. It presents the maximum number of options in the minimum amount of space, as informatively as possible. Sometimes, a picture is worth a thousand words. But most of the time, a cute little icon is way more confusing than a two-word menu item.

More importantly, we already know the boring old text menu. Once upon a time, all applications used it, and therefore, we knew how to use all applications. Mozilla should be barred from software entirely, for violating such a priceless standard.

But all the hocus pocus with the UI is only part of a deeper problem. The main reason I switched to Firefox in the first place, and the main reason I cling to it even now, is its flexibility. Its configurability. Its extensibility. With Firefox 29, Mozilla decided not only that it needed to change the UI — it needed to prevent users from changing it back. Or in fact, rearranging it in any number of other, perfectly reasonable ways.

That’s the philosophical change that really bothers me. It parallels the change in Microsoft’s thinking with Windows 8. It’s not that the new UI of FF29 or Win8 is so ungodly awful that I can’t bear to look at it (though it is pretty close, in both cases). It’s the abandonment of the underlying philosophy of configurability — of appealing to the power user who needs to do jobs that the software developer may never have envisioned.

Rearranging the Furniture

Maybe all that’s too deep for most people. So here’s a more concise criticism of Mozilla’s decision.

Altering any established user interface is something that should be done very rarely. Also very judiciously, very carefully. And above all, very reversibly. Any change in the UI, no matter how brilliant, imposes a vast cost on the user base. If every user wastes ten minutes re-learning activities they do every day, that lost time has to be multiplied by the total number of users. The benefit of any UI change has got to be really MASSIVE in order to be worthwhile.

People are always pointing to Apple as an example of success, but usually for the wrong reasons. One thing they should be noticing is that the Macintosh user interface is virtually unchanged from that of the original ‘Thin Mac’ in 1984. There are extra features, but for the most part a time-traveler from the Disco Age would find today’s latest Mac quite comfortable. Is it a coincidence that Mac users are the most devoted fans of any technology on Earth?

Moreover, it’s little short of criminal to waste resources moving UI elements around, when there’s much more important work to be done. Firefox crashes on me about once every two or three days. That’s shameful, for a product that’s been through over 20 major updates. Sure, there’s no doubt much of the trouble comes from add-ins… but then shouldn’t the add-in framework be the top priority? Is there no way at all of preventing add-ins from dragging down the entire browser?

Improving the crash-resistance of Firefox in even the smallest way is a change that’s all upside. And there are lots of other tweaks that need doing, but are being forgotten in this chase for the perfect user interface that will make 100% of browser users prefer Firefox. (Yeah, right.)

Information Stagnation

Beyond fixing internal problems, somebody should be working on expanding the capability of the browser.

Personally, I tend to have over 300 tabs open (though possibly not loaded) at any given time. I have dozens of saved Firefox sessions, thousands of bookmarks, and uncountable Web pages saved in various formats. I deal with information for a living, and most of what I do for pleasure also involves managing ever increasing amounts of information.

Firefox today is more capable than the original Mosaic browser in only a few key ways. It has better bookmarking tools. It lets me open multiple pages in tabs. It lets me organize tabs into tab groups. And it has the ability to load a bunch of add-ins.

That’s not nearly enough.

Why can’t tabs be organized hierarchically? Why can’t they be indexed locally? Or color-coded? Or sorted alphabetically? Why can’t pages be saved along with their bookmarks, for offline viewing? (There’s nothing more useless than a bookmark to a deleted page — or worse yet, to a page that’s been subtly re-written.) Why are there no tools for saving pieces of pages, or hyperlinking them together?

Today’s browsers are fundamentally the same as the browsers we used when the total number of Web pages in the world could still be counted by a human being. We all need tools to help us deal with information overload. Meanwhile, Mozilla is wasting time moving tabs around, for reasons that won’t matter to most of its users, when there’s a near-infinite amount of real work to be done.

Firefox 29 Sucks

The excuse for ducking that work is always the same: “Most people don’t need more capability.” That’s a load of BS.

Everyone needs more capability. Some people just need that capability to be more accessible than others. It’s just not that difficult to provide layers of capability, so that undemanding users aren’t bothered and power users aren’t constrained. Moreover, there simply has to be at least one browser that’s designed for heavy lifting. One browser for power users. One browser that lets you unbolt the training wheels and go full tilt down the information superhighway.

Set the power users free, and I’ll bet they’ll find a way to make new capabilities available to the less-demanding ones. Sooner than you think. That’s the way the computer revolution has worked since the beginning.

Firefox 29 sucks, because above all, it’s a ninety-degree turn away from where browser software needs to be going. It sucks because it creates disruption without real benefit. It sucks because it follows no known interface paradigm.

In saying this, my concern is not to dump on Firefox 29. It’s to influence Firefox 30. Microsoft is relenting on its previously unshakeable UI decisions in Windows 8. Mozilla can do the same. There’s no shame in admitting you made a mistake, folks. Turn the ship around, and show us in Firefox 30 the first hints of what a truly next-generation browser can be — familiar, configurable, reliable, and powerful in ways that no one had previously dared imagine.

About fung0

Long-time tech journalist. Contributor to numerous periodicals, online sites and TV productions in the US and Canada. Author of several books on computing topics. Graduate mechanical engineer (Queen's U).

Comments

Why Firefox 29 Sucks — 22 Comments

  1. Totally Agree .. spent hrs getting my FF back to 28 and the way I like, will not use 29, have started to look for a new browser, which is a shame as i am a FF devotee for 10+ yrs

  2. Pity they dint put as much emphasis on reducing the memory used by FF . using 1 Gb or memory for one open tab. its a joke ..

  3. The problem with Firefox stared several releases ago, when they suddenly decided that giving users the ability to say no to Javascript was something that ought to be taken away from them, for their own good. I consider that update to be near malware: they disabled a security feature without your consent.

    It seems that Firefox wants your browser to just take orders from the web designers and their popovers, lightboxes, surveys, and other crap you didn’t come to see. Giving people the ability to turn off that crap might hurt somebody’s monetization strategy. I’m surprised they haven’t figured out a way to turn off ad blockers “for your own good” as well.

    Moved to Pale Moon, done with them.

  4. it’s a complete trainwreck… aping the chrome “one size for everyone” policy is driving away the people who use firefox specifically because of the UI flexibility. sure, there’s classic theme restorer to get back some of the old UI/usability, but it’s redundant.

    sadly, firefox wants to ape chrome in having a consistent platform across all types of devices (desktop, phone, tablet), without realizing that what’s good for portables/touch screens isn’t necessarily good for the desktop… just look at the backlash against microsoft and windows 8.

    the fact that almost 1/4 million users are flocking to classic theme restorer should be a wakeup call to mozilla to stop following the lead of UX designers… they tend to little sense of what truly makes the essence of usabilty.

    in the meantime, i’m sticking with FF24 ESR… old interface, while still receiving security updates. when that changes, i’ll go back to FF28 and turn off automatic updates.

    for the readers, here’s every version of firefox, archived by mozilla:

    https://ftp.mozilla.org/pub/mozilla.org/firefox/releases/

    find FF28 (or 24 ESR), or whatever version you like; download, install, then check off “never check for updates”.

  5. The general trend in technology really is discouraging. MS forces ribbons and tiles on us. Apple locks us in a rubber room. Google sells us like the products we are. And now Mozilla seems to think copying these competitors is the way forward. I will also resist upgrading to FF29 until they reconsider or force me off. Those of us who care really must vote with our pocketbooks and/or our feet.

    • What about IOS7’s disgusting flat hippie loving interface for froo froo folks..? I went back to IOS6 and never cared about 7 again.

  6. There’s only two things that changed in my firefox. It put the tabs at the very, very top, which is fine with me, it actually saves about 1/2 inch of screen space as it puts it on the bar with the minimize and close button. Nothing at all was there before. I’d still like the option to put it where I want it, as there are times when I need the tabs to be closer.

    The only other change it did was move all my toolbar stuff around…AND I can’t get them back. It moved my address bar to the far right on the 2nd row (when I had it on the left.) It put my bookmarks on the same toolbar as the address bar, when I had them on a separate bar. It also put my tools/icons for different services such as sage, clearly, pocket, etc on a separate toolbar below my address bar, when I had them next to my address bar. When I right click and customize toolbar, it lets me move them around but when I exit firefox and come back to it later, they are all moved around again. FRUSTRATING. I hate these software companies that think that every time they turn around they have to switch things up. I understand security updates but stop trying to control everything I do. I have to wonder how many hours are lost to this kind of baloney. I’ve totally abandoned Yahoo after their switch to make themselves look more like Gmail. I will do the same with firefox. I use firefox for specific things. I use Chrome for specific things. I don’t use IE at all bc it just doesn’t work. I have several browsers installed on my machine and will change to them for the things I used firefox for if I can’t get firefox to be efficient for me anymore.

    And why couldn’t they put an ‘undo close tab’ in it. People have been asking for that for forever. Don’t they listen?

  7. Miss the old Firefox? BLUE MOON browser is the answer. It’s like the best Firefox you ever had. All my FF add-ons worked instantly; I didn’t even have to reload them. Don’t know who wrote the post that turned me on to Pale Moon, but MANY THANKS!

    • Ha… some kind of Moon, anyway. Myself, I’ve just converted to Cyberfox. My next post will talk about the process of switching, and why Cyberfox was the fork I chose.

  8. Ever since I read what you wrote about IBM’s changing the keyboard layout, I’ve been trying to find a picture of what the standard keyboard layout was like before. Won’t someone put me out of my misery???

    I totally agree. FF29 sucks. Pale Moon is definitely my browser of choice. So thanks, Mozilla, for creating the sack of crap that is 29 and pushing me to a browser that makes way more sense.

  9. Man I want to punch whoever did that crapolonian in the nuggets! NUGGETS! AH I need to pummel them with a planet, the bigger the better!

    A SOLAR SYSTIM!

    FF29 is FF-retarted

    Do you feel me ubangis?

  10. For the past week I have wasted untold hours trying to get my Firefox back the way it was when they forced their latest damn update onto my account. i have lost all kinds of things including i cannot customize my toolbar and add in the back and forward which i use and which every update firefox screws up – i find it and i put it back and then it disappears i really hate you M.F. keep your damn hands off my computer you do not have permission to add updates with out my approval even though i have read that is what you are doing because you are annoyed people resist your updates the reason they resist them is because they FUCK EVERYTHING UP

  11. Firefox was very clean, easy to use, wonderfully friendly. Social-based – without any following of corp trends.

    I have installed recent versions of Nozilla FriedFox, and they all sucketh.

    I would suggest that the social-based browser has been infiltrated by corporatist/capitalist asses, who are trying to turn people off of it (just as there are infiltrating shills in every people-centered endeavor. Corporatocracy is the new piracy!)

    Mozilla, if it intends to stay around, should go back to its basic formula and founding principles- and weed out those so-called “developers,” who are blatantly destroying it…

    Needless menus, menus inside of other menus -a pigsty poked into several holes- an auto-update thing that can’t be turned off, except via about:config and several Hail Marys, constant nags about adobe or other “plugins” requiring updates… Incompatibility issues with netvideodownloader that makes the menu bar vanish; and trouble with other add-ons, (extensions?) etc etc… It is just a mess, and my heart is really sad about it.

    I do run a home-tweaked version of 11.0, and with enterprise version of Adobe Flash Player 10.0, (which never calls for or needs updates), it is simply fantastic. If anyone wants in, let me know. I’ll send you the software (no viruses: I get no kicks from such shames) in the interests of promoting free, reliable and good software.

    Blessings!

    Xayan

  12. Note to web Admin – you may publish my email address with the above post, which is awaiting moderation. Blessings.

  13. I feel your pain, Xayan. I’m running a heavilly-modded version of Cyberfox 28. More recent versions have User Interface Restorer built in, which is pretty smart of them. But there’s only so much you can counteract using add-ons.

  14. As one of the Australis developers, I understand your concerns with the sudden changes, but I am absolute that they are for the better. I’m just a volunteer, so the usual “my opinions don’t reflect Mozilla’s opinions” applies here more than ever.

    Firefox has had tabs on top since version 4, so I don’t see why you’re complaining about that coincidentally as Australis is released. We considered tabs on top for ergonomic reasons – if you want to quickly change over, it’s just a flick of the mouse (or finger) to point the cursor over a new tab, and it effectively shortens the step. It may look different, but after getting used to it, returning is a real pain.

    Firefox hasn’t been ripping off Chrome’s design stratagem. Round tabs were first proposed by SH back in 2006, two years before Chrome’s beta release. Since around 2007, Google had (at least from my perspective, a lot of people getting jobs at Google seemed like too much of a coincidence) started to pick off some of the most open-minded Mozilla developers to work on the Chromium project, and I’ve always personally seen the resemblance between Chromium and some of their concepts.

    Yes, it probably would have been a good idea to gradually bring in the Australis changes. The new hamburger menu is something that I’m still not a fan of, but it was necessary. The point of Australis is to try and bring a unified and familiar interface across different platforms, including touch-based.

    You can, of course, show the classic menu, in its original glorious form, by hitting ALT, or even by right clicking on the menu and opting to permanently display it. On Mac OS, it’s always visible anyway. In fact, by hiding this menu by default, not only is it easier for touch-based users (think Windows 8 or RT) to navigate, but it also saves precious vertical space without making the interface feel “cramped”. In fact, where possible, we have striven to maintain that level of customisability that you won’t find in any other browser.

    Every Firefox update introduces new features, however subtle, and most of the time, this will break something in the interface. As you mentioned, why waste resources maintaining two different themes instead of putting energy into making Classic’s successor better?

    Penultimately, pages can be saved to the disk (think CMD / CTRL – S). :-). Admittedly, there isn’t any tie-in to bookmarks (yet) to make it more accessible – but that’s not my area to comment on as I don’t develop features.

    Firefox is moving forwards, and following the new design trends. Who would want a Windows XP-style application running 10 years after that fad ended? I am not personally a user of Pocket, but the codebase is so small it doesn’t affect Firefox’s performance or security. It also had pretty good feedback from focus groups, from what I understand. but Mozilla, as a not-for-profit, needs a source of income – without full time developers, Firefox would have ended up long-forgotten and behind, like Konqueror.

    If you have any more concerns, please email me or reply to the comment, and I’ll do my best to clear anything up.

  15. My apologies to developers but have to agree that it sucks more and more. That’s the feeling I have and I guess not only me.

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