The next major release of Firefox could shake up the browser world and even reshape the way we use the Web in much the same way that tabs did for the original ‘Phoenix’ release of Firefox in 2002.
(Yes we known that Opera did this first in 2000 but there’s no argument that the success of Firefox took tabs mainstream and drove their adoption by Apple with Safari 1.0 in 2003 and Microsoft in 2006 with Internet Explorer 7).
Oliver Reichenstein founder and CEO of UI design firm Information Architects is proposing a radical interfacelift inspired by iTunes and the concept of a browser that organises Web sites rather than just displaying them in the same way that iTunes manages your music rather than just play MP3 tracks.
According to a post on the Information Architects site entitled Designing Firefox 3.2 Reichenstein’s work was spurred by consultations with Aza Raskin the head of user experience at Mozilla.
There’s no indication that Mozilla has signed up as a client of Information Architects however so Reichenstein’s vision should be seen only as an expert’s take on the browser UI rather than the definitive face of the next-gen Firefox (which is now in the home stretch for the final release of 3.1).
None the less we like what we see. Reichenstein’s model would transform the browser into a far more useful tool than it is today and one tuned towards ever-increasing Web consumption and Web 2.0 trends rather than the static display of HTML pages for which the browser was originally created.
â€œ(Today) The browser is more of an operating system than a data display applicationâ€ Reichenstein says. â€œWe use it to manage the Web as a shared hard drive. For the overall organisation of your browsing a ‘cloud’ file system works much better (than tabs).
And while Reichenstein’s advice to Mozilla’s Raskin was â€œForget tabs!â€ he stresses that â€œthe idea is not to totally eliminate (tabs) but to reduce the need for themâ€.
â€œTabs are the main content model for browsing right now and that’s suboptimal. Tabs worked well on slow machines on a thin Internet where ten browser sessions were ‘many browser sessions’â€ he suggests. â€œToday 20+ parallel sessions is quite common. (But) If you have more than seven or eight tabs open they become pretty much useless. They’re a good solution to keep the screen tidy for the moment. And that’s just what they should continue doing.â€
One reason for what Reichenstein calls â€œour current tab jungleâ€ is that â€œmany tabs stay open because we have no time to read the article but at the same time we’re afraid to lose the URL.â€
This led to Reichenstein’s rethink of the purpose of the browser and the way it treats Web sites as part of a personal collection rather than a set of files on sitting on a distant server.
â€œInstead of structuring a browser to keep the screen tidy for the moment we thought that it’d be awesome to structure the browser as a (multi media) file system like iTunes.â€
Explaining his reasons for choosing iTunes as the model for a better way of browsing Reichenstein says that â€œin spite of its flaws iTunes does a good job as a multimedia file system. In my library of tens of thousands of songs it never takes me more than five seconds to find the song that I am looking for. I want to find my Web sites as fast as that. If you combine search (URL bar) and sort with a thought-through file structure things should get fast and simple.â€
The proposed Firefox library is analogous to the iTunes library which Reichenstein simply suggests be thought of as a â€œa URL libraryâ€.
â€œWe use the Internet under the constant fear that we might not find or remember what we’re doing. This is a first shot at a more solid file system. It orders URLs like iTunes orders songs to give us more security to be able to find again what we found before so we don’t feel like hanging on a cliff when we browse a site anymore.â€
â€œTabs are still thereâ€ Reichenstein reassures â€œbut you don’t need to open so many anymore as different sites are more easily accessible through the library. You’d still be able to use tabs but you’d need less because the file system and the automatic bookmarks takes care of stuff that you just want to save for later like iTunes takes care of songs that you’ll listen to at some point later.â€
The proposed Firefox library is analogous to the iTunes library which Reichenstein simply suggests be thought of as a â€œa URL library combining bookmarks RSS and historyâ€. New tabs in the browser window show the contents of the library as a â€œfile system instead of a blank screenâ€ using Web previews in the same way that iTunes uses album art to identify music.
â€œIf you open a new tab (or window) you’d see the library just as you left it before you surfed to the last visited page. It’s not what Safari or Chrome do. The idea is not to show screenshots but to turn the browser into a media system organiser more than a media display application.â€
The mockup also borrows other well-received user experience elements from iTunes and Apple. The Firefox library contains a set of pre-defined folders like the sidebar in the OS X Finder while ‘Previous’ and ‘Next’ buttons to the right of the URL address bar can flip through the RSS feed of the Web site you’re visiting.
The Surflist collects sites you regularly visit for specific times or activities while the Genius button â€œwould suggest a list of similar Web sites to the active one analogous to the iTunes geniusâ€.