Google, Mozilla spark debate over browser address bar

Experts split over significance of new options that eliminate venerable URL space in Chrome, Firefox

The browser address bar isn't going anywhere, an add-on developer and former contributor to Firefox said today.

"Who would have thought that the humble browser URL bar would spark so much interest?" Matthew Gertner, the CEO of Salsita Software, said in a blog post Sunday.

Gertner, a lead contributor to the now-defunct Mozilla Labs "Prism" project and a developer whose company creates custom Firefox, Chrome and Internet Explorer add-ons for corporate clients, was reacting to news reports that both Google and Mozilla are experimenting with options that will let Chrome and Firefox users eliminate the address bar to free up more space for content.

The address bar -- called the "location bar" by some -- is the part of the browser where users type in URLs, and where the browser displays the current site.

Saying he was "stunned" by the interest in the no-address-bar option in Chrome and in the Firefox plug-in that Mozilla released last week, Gertner credited the heated competition among browser makers as the reason for the attention. "This is more about the browser wars than anything," Gertner said in an interview Monday. "People like to focus on areas where browsers are copying each other."

Which is what he thinks is happening here. "I see this as another example of Chrome going after Firefox by eliminating even more of the browser," Gertner said. "This is another shot across Mozilla's bow."

In the "Canary" build of Chrome for Windows -- Canary is the label for very-early versions of the browser, earlier than even Chrome's "dev" channel -- users can enable a "Compact Navigation" setting via the "about:flags" option screen to hide the address bar by right-clicking any tab.

Google has been talking about Compact Navigation since at least February.

Mozilla reacted by releasing the "LessChrome HD" add-on for Firefox 4 on Friday. The add-on automatically hides all toolbars, including the address bar, until the user "hovers" the mouse pointer atop a tab.

LessChrome HD also works in Firefox 5, which reached beta status last week.

Al Hilwa, an analyst with IDC who monitors browsers, agreed with Gertner on the browser competition angle, but complimented Mozilla for reacting so quickly to Google's option. "I am impressed with how quickly Mozilla was able to respond to what Google is doing with Chrome, showing that the timelines for browser innovation has truly shifted," said Hilwa in an email reply to questions today.

While Gertner scoffed at assertions such as "removing the URL bar will be most substantial change to Web browsers since the release of Mosaic," he said there are bigger issues in play.

"The URL bar is a non-story," said Gertner. "The much deeper question is how browsers are evolving beyond a 'one-size-fits-all' model."

Gertner argued that in some cases, such as when rooting through the Internet on a research mission, the address bar is a necessity, a "key part of your browsing experience." In others situations -- accessing Gmail, for instance -- the address bar and other browser wrapper components are useless.

He knows what he's talking about: Gertner's Prism, now known as WebRunner and available as a Firefox add-on, displays Web applications in a browser-less mode that mimics native desktop applications.

Hilwa echoed Gertner's take. "There's more going on here than just full-screen browsing," said Hilwa. "We're ripe for innovation in this space."

From his perspective, Google's move to make the Chrome address bar optional shows the company's focus on search, and could be seen as another attempt to lock users into searching as the way to find sites, and eliminate the manual typing of URLs.

There are also downsides to stripping out the address bar, Gertner and Hilwa both noted, including leaving users without an easy way to discern phishing attempts. Without an address bar, identity theft attacks that rely on directing victims to fake sites are harder to detect.

Hilwa had a different worry, which played off his take on Google's motivation.

"The concern I have is, of course, putting even more sensitive information about navigating URLs with search engines who can store that for long periods of time," Hilwa said.

Both experts, however, predicted changes to browsers that go beyond disappearing address bars.

"When browser vendors start to offer different browser user interfaces for different tasks, then we will be able to make intelligent decisions about which of the traditional UI widgets are needed and which can be left on the cutting room floor," Gertner said.

"This is an evolving area," said Hilwa. "The issue is how important is the URL?"

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

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