Mozilla ponders major Firefox UI refresh

Same look and feel on all editions, including tablet, phone and Windows 8 Metro, may show later this year

Mozilla is working on a revamp of Firefox to synchronize its various versions -- desktop, tablet, phone and Windows 8 Metro -- into a single visual style, according to documents posted by members of its user interface (UI) design team.

The project, which does not have a name, and the earlier blending of Mozilla's mobile and desktop design groups, is meant to bring more coherence to the various versions of the open-source browser.

"One of our major goals for the year [is] getting Firefox to feel more like one product -- more 'Firefoxy' -- across all our platforms, desktop to tablet to phone," Madhava Enro of the Mozilla UI design team, said in a post to his personal blog yesterday.

Enro posted a slideshow he and others used the week before to present their proposals at a company get-together. According to the presentation, some UI elements will be shared across all Firefox editions, among them a lean toward "softer texture" and smoother curves in the design.

By the looks of it, Firefox on the desktop will change most dramatically. The mock-up of the new UI, dubbed "Australis," does not show the orange Firefox menu in Windows, an element which first popped up in Firefox 4 more than a year ago at the last major UI redesign. The tab condensed most commands formerly on the traditional Windows menu into a single-click destination.

Australis is even more streamlined than the current Firefox UI, a move consistent with the trend toward minimalist designs as evidenced by rival Chrome's long-time look, and the changes Microsoft made last year to Internet Explorer 9 (IE9).

Also part of the project is the UI of the new Metro version of Firefox on Windows 8, the operating system upgrade Microsoft will likely launch later this year. Third-party browsers can be built to install both a traditional browser for Windows 8's desktop, and a Metro edition for the touch-enabled, tile-style side of the new OS, without the latter having to go through Microsoft's app store.

Mozilla has been working on a Firefox Metro app for months, and the most recent status update reported that the still-internal build had added Start page pinning, a Metro feature that lets users "pin" favorite sites as individual tiles on the page. Clicking on a pinned site tile loads the website, even if the default browser, in this case Firefox, is not yet open or active.

Google has also committed to developing a Metro version of Chrome for Windows 8, putting the top three browsers on a collision course for share on the new operating system, and pride of place on the devices, including tablets, that will rely on it or its second cousin, Windows RT.

Some Firefox UI elements will land on the desktop long before the redesign is in place: Firefox 13, set to ship June 5, will include a revamped "new tab" page that lets users select from recently- and frequently-viewed sites when they create a new tab.

Chrome and IE9, among other browsers, currently include have a similar feature.

Mozilla has not set a timetable for mutating its current UI into the new designs, although in a year-long planning document published previously, the refresh is listed under the goals for the second half of 2012.

Past UI changes to Firefox have raised the hackles of some users. In 2009, Mozilla said it would "ribbonize" the then-under-construction Firefox 3.7, to reduce clutter and mimic the upcoming Windows 7's look and feel.

Mozilla quickly clarified its position, saying its proposal had been "worded kind of poorly." In the end, Firefox 3.7 never appeared -- it instead became Firefox 4 -- and the changes, although substantial, did not include a Microsoft-esque ribbon.

Firefox UI changes
The new 'Australis' UI for Firefox on the desktop sports a more streamlined look reminiscent of Google's Chrome. (Image: Mozilla.)

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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