A 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.)
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.