Mozilla unveils new Firefox interface ideas for 2010

Plans 'App Button' to replace menus, borrows concept from Windows 7, Office

Mozilla yesterday said that its planned overhaul of Firefox's interface will be pushed back to Firefox 4.0, the major release now slated to ship before the end of 2010.

Previously, Mozilla said it would revamp the look and feel of its open-source browser in a two-step process, with part of the redesign debuting in Firefox 3.7 -- a minor refresh scheduled for late in the first quarter of next year -- with the rest following in version 4.0.

Mozilla's interface plans, particularly those intended for Firefox for Windows, have attracted attention because the company last September said it would "ribbonize" the browser by borrowing graphics concepts from Microsoft's Windows 7 and Office 2007. Users blasted the idea.

Later, Mozilla clarified its intentions, saying that although it was going to eliminate the traditional top-of-the-frame menus in Firefox, it was not going to turn its browser into a graphical doppelganger of Office 2007.

Mozilla's newest plans for Firefox 4.0 center around a so-called "App Button" that will take the place of the menus long-seen in Windows applications, said Stephen Horlander, a designer and longtime contributor to Firefox's interface.

In a blog post outlining the single-button approach, Horlander said the App Button would replace the idea of a dual-button concept -- one marked "Pages," the other "Tools" -- that Mozilla had previously considered. He acknowledged that the App Button, like the talk of "ribbonizing" Firefox, was borrowed from Microsoft. "[The] App button ... is similar to the single menu approach taken by Windows 7 native applications [such as] Paint and WordPad, and by Microsoft Office," Horlander said.

The App Button, which would appear at the top left of the Firefox window, would take up less space, consolidate all menu commands under one roof, and reduce clutter, he said.

Mozilla's interface plans for Firefox 4.0
Mozilla's interface plans for Firefox 4.0 (left) compared with the current Firefox 3.5 (right) on Windows.

Firefox 4.0 would also give users the option of moving the browser's tabs to the top of the application's display, a so-called "tab-on-top" look that other browsers, notably Google's Chrome, have adopted.

Mozilla's browser will not, however, combine the search bar with the address bar -- the latter is where the URL is entered or appears -- as does Chrome. "With the LocationBar containing an increasing amount of functionality it may be best to retain a clear distinction between the two fields," said Horlander, referring to Mozilla's name for the address bar.

Horlander posted numerous screen shots of the Firefox 4.0 interface design ideas on his blog, including a head-to-head comparison between the revamp and the current look and feel in Firefox 3.5.

User reaction, as judged by the nearly 100 comments left on Horlander's blog since yesterday, were generally positive. Most of the criticism came from users who were disturbed by what they saw as the "Chromifying" of Firefox, that Mozilla's browser was too anxious to copy the look of Google's Chrome.

"Firefox should be careful not to just chase Google too much, though," said a user identified only as "Woody" in a comment added yesterday to Horlander's post. "Chrome is Chrome, Firefox shouldn't try to play catch-up ... they should stay innovative."

"Trying to copy ideas from Microsoft Office and Google Chrome must lead to a big fail," warned another user.

People uncomfortable with the change will be able to restore the more familiar menu bar, Horlander promised.

According to a recently published timetable, Mozilla will ship a public review of Firefox 4.0 in June 2010, and final code in the fourth quarter.

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

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