Mozilla hopes to deliver the second beta version of Firefox 4 to users before the end of next week, according to the minutes from its recent developer’s meeting.
Tuesday’s meeting notes show the team has picked next Thursday, July 22 as the proposed ship date for Firefox 4 beta 2.
There are several enhancements on the way in beta 2, but the one sure to raise the most interest (or the biggest stink) is the new tabs-on-top interface for Mac OS X users. Windows users got the tabs-on-top look as the default interface in Beta 1 earlier this month. With beta 2, the rollout continues to other OSes.
The tabs-on-top interface is a growing trend among browser vendors. It was popularized by Google Chrome, which shipped with top-tabs as the default within its initial release. Reaction was mostly positive — Opera now puts the tabs on top, and Safari tried the same thing in a beta release thing before abandoning it. But there are some within the Firefox user community who don’t want to see Mozilla’s browser make the switch just to chase the latest design fad.
Mozilla’s lead user experience designer Alex Faaborg defends the decision, saying it has nothing to do with fashion. By putting the tabs on top, he argues, Firefox 4 will be better suited to running web applications that sit in their own tab. It turns the tab bar into something much closer to a dock or a task bar — a fitting change, since the browser is becoming something much closer to a GUI for an operating system.
Here’s a mock-up showing several web apps running in top-placed tabs in Firefox. The browser may not end up with this design, but it nicely illustrates Faaborg’s idea.
Here’s a seven-minute video his team produced that furthers the debate:
Of course, if you don’t like your tabs up top, you can always revert to the old look in the browser’s View menu.
Some other stuff due in Firefox 4 Beta 2: CSS transitions, better handling of retained layers on pages and a new feature in the add-ons manager that confirms when an add-on has been installed.
As always, Mozilla’s ship dates and feature lists (especially for beta releases) aren’t final. The team usually sticks to the proposed plan, but don’t be angry or surprised if the release slips to the following Monday.
Safari 5′s seemingly innocuous new Reader feature, which isolates the text on a webpage making it easier to read, has sparked a surprising amount of outrage from web publishers who think Apple is trying to squash online advertisements and attack their livelihood.
But there’s been an equally distinctive and vocal reaction from readers, one that can be summed up quite simply: “Thank you.”
Similar tools have been around for eons, starting with the “Print this page” link of the last century, all the way up to tools like Readability, whose code Apple borrowed for its browser. But the advent of Safari Reader seems to have galvanized a point of view that’s been brewing for a while: Webpages are too cluttered and difficult to read.
So publishers, listen up. Your readers, the people you depend on to reach your bottom line, have something to say. It’s a pretty simple message: Your webpages are hostile to reading. It’s time to start paying much closer attention to the design of your pages — not just to reduce clutter and make everything easier to read, but to make sure your text maintains that readability across the broad range of screen sizes, devices and browser configurations people are using today.
It’s telling that Apple, a company with a history of only adding the most-needed features to its products, decided its browser would benefit from a tool that strips away the clutter on a page. Of course, one could make the argument that Reader is simply a subtle attempt to drive publishers toward Apple’s iOS platform, where you can create apps filled with iAds that can’t be removed. However, it would be a shame if that’s the only message publishers took from Safari’s Reader. After all, Reader is not an ad blocker, and given that there are ad blockers available for every browser, Reader is hardly a new threat. Reader is only presented as an option after the page has loaded, the ads have been displayed and impressions (i.e., the money part) have been registered.
The message of Reader (and tools of its ilk) isn’t that the online publishing model is doomed, but that it desperately needs a reboot to get rid of all the junk that’s clogging up the whole point of the system: connecting readers with the information they want.
Savvy publishers have an inkling that something is wrong. The popular British news site The Guardian, for one. The Guardian notes in its review of Safari 5′s Reader feature, “technologies like Safari Reader sound a salutary warning to media companies and advertisers…. From now on, we must love our readers or die.”
But The Guardian is putting its money where it’s mouth is. The site recently launched its Open Content Platform, complete with a Content API which allows anyone to grab an article from The Guardian and use it how they see fit — within the guidelines of The Guardian‘s terms of service.
One of the best creations to come out of The Guardian‘s new API is Phil Gyford’s Today’s Guardian.
The primary purpose of Today’s Guardian is to make reading news articles easier. For Gyford, that means eliminating distractions — sidebars are gone, comments zapped, menus pared down and page navigation radically simplified. We take issue with the removal of comments, but in short, it’s The Guardian redesigned with ease of reading as the primary goal.
As Gyford notes in his overview, it’s “a shame that such tools are even necessary … if you were creating a site whose purpose is to provide articles to read, wouldn’t you want to make it perform that task really well?”
If you’re wondering what makes a more readable design, read through Gyford’s post first. Also check out Mandy Brown’s In Defense of Readers on A List Apart. It’s filled with excellent advice on what to think about when designing a reader-friendly layout. (She’s the creative director at Etsy.)
“Limit distractions to the full extent possible,” Brown writes. Pull quotes are great, she says, as long as they’re near the top of an article where they can draw a reader in. But they become distracting farther down. She also advises on white space, typographic treatments, and where best to place your visual distractions so you don’t foul up the reading experience (the top and the bottom).
Brown’s own site, A Working Library is an exemplar of usability. Load it in Safari Reader and the only things that are removed are the header and footer.
A clean page layout falls apart when the proper attention isn’t paid to typography, and in that department, Blaine Cook has some homework for you. He gives you a way to calculate the proper text size mathematically by sizing all of your text in ems. This makes it much easier to find the proper pairing of column width and text size, giving your readers an easier time no matter what resolution, browser, or device they’re using.
Cook’s methods will “make your site look amazing on the shiny new devices,” he says, but they will also improve readability in a good old-fashioned desktop web browser. On that note, he warns against the common practice of designing different layouts and serving different stylesheets for different-size screens.
“You shouldn’t be optimizing for iPads,” Cook writes. “Or iPhones. Or iPhone 4Gs. Or Nexus Ones. Or 30-inch 90ppi screens, or 30-inch 300ppi screens. You should be optimizing for reading experience, and you should be using the best techniques available to do so.”
Advice? Links we should see? Put them in the comments below.
That’s the impression we’re left with after playing with Safari 5′s new feature, Reader. It takes a web page and, in Apple’s words, “removes annoying ads and other visual distractions from online articles,” presenting a clean, uncluttered version of the page content.
To try it out — head the Safari download page and grab a copy of Safari 5, which was made available Monday for Mac OS X and Windows. Click the Reader button (located in the URL bar once a page loads) and Safari 5 will overlay the current page with a black shade. You can also launch it with a keyboard shortcut (Command-Shift-R on a Mac, Esc to exit). The main article on the page is shown against a plain white background, stripping away ads, sidebars, headers and footers. Also, Reader pulls multiple-page articles into the window, so once you hit the first page, you don’t have to click anything to read more. Just scroll down, and the extra pages are tacked on at the end automatically.
The result is a clear message to web designers: Your designs are failing your readers. In contrast to what we all see everyday, Reader’s vision of the web is a very clean and more readable place — there are no distractions, nothing competes for your attention, the web page is suddenly simple and elegant.
It’s no secret that most people spend very little time on a web page; sites have mere seconds to capture a reader’s attention. With so many sidebars, gadgets, animated ads and other confusion, is it any wonder that most people just move on?
Reader’s vision of the web doesn’t make sense on every site, but for long articles in particular, it’s a godsend.
Of course, Reader isn’t an entirely new idea. Browser add-ons and bookmark scripts like Readability have long offered the same feature (with customization options even), but this is the first time we’ve seen a browser ship with the feature. In that sense, Reader could be a signal of the tides changing.
On one level, Reader seems like it could hurt publishers by subtracting ad revenue, and it could hurt ad networks like Google’s. But Safari loads the entire page — ads and all — before it presents the Reader button in the URL bar. So, by the time the person clicks on the button and launches the Reader view, the ad impressions have already been counted. Reader also has the ability to string multiple pages together, and it appears as though Safari is loading all of the information (including the ads) from the next pages, but only displaying the text. Ad impression numbers should be unaffected by Safari Reader, but click-through numbers will no doubt go down. Also, we noticed some ads served within the text body made it through into the Reader view, so it’s not perfect at stripping out ads.
The message that ads are distracting is nothing new — ad blockers are as old as sin — but the the more interesting implicit message is that the web is currently a cluttered confusing mess. Or at least Apple thinks it is and, having used Reader all morning, we’re inclined to agree.
Apple’s vision of the web does not include Twitter sidebars, recently popular article links, fancy headers or sharing widgets. In short, Reader cuts through the distractions to the actual content. Of course, that’s exactly what good design should do in the first place — focus your attention on what’s important. If every web page were well-designed, there would be no need for Reader. Clearly, that’s not the case.
As web developers ourselves, we appreciate experimental page layout designs. But when it comes to actually reading things on the web, less is far more. In short, we’re hooked. Well, technically, we installed Readability in Chrome and Firefox, but conceptually, the idea of a cleaner, simpler, more readable web is a step forward.
What remains to be seen is how designer’s react to Reader. Some backlash seems inevitable; some sites may even go so far as to block Safari — though that would an extreme move given that just because you’re using Safari does not mean you’re using Reader. In fact, most users may not even notice or use the feature.
However, we’re hoping that not only will something similar appear in other browsers, but that web designers will focus on simplifying their designs. Reader takes things to an extreme. There are ways to give content focus without eliminating nearly everything, and we look forward to seeing that idea gain more currency.
We’re also looking forward to an iPhone version of Reader that eliminates iAds.
Get ready to say goodbye to Firefox’s multitude of dialog boxes. Recent design mock-ups show Firefox moving toward an “in-content” look where settings, the add-on manager, themes and other “things which formerly appeared in dialog boxes” will now become just another tab in your browser.
The mock-ups were posted by Mozilla designer Stephen Horlander, who calls them a “work in progress” and notes that the final versions may differ significantly. At this point, the designs have a natural feel. To navigate through the various preference setting in Horlander’s mock-ups, you simply use the back and forward buttons as you would on any other web page.
While the final look may change, the move to in-content displays is already well under way. The recent alpha testing release of Firefox 4 already has a tentative design for the new in-content Add-ons manager. Firefox has also long used in-content views for session restore, about:config, network error pages and phishing/malware warning pages. Horlander says that “future possibilities for integration are things like preferences, the library, home tab, tabcandy and about:firefox.”
Whether or not Horlander’s designs for the preferences panel and other UI elements make it in time for Firefox 4 remains to be seen, but the future of Firefox, and possibly browsers in general, is looking free of dialog boxes.
Firefox isn’t alone here. Google Chrome displays its history pages, bookmarks, add-ons and other information with in-content tabs. Opera has long had similar designs. Other desktop apps are moving that way, too — recently Photoshop CS5 removed a couple of dialogs in favor of what Adobe calls “non-modal” windows.
While this trend has its detractors, the move is motivated by a desire to make software easier for beginners to use. It’s also evidence that designers are being influenced by the newer types of human interactions we’re seeing on new devices like the iPad and phones with touchscreens. Particularly, in-content designs are vastly preferable for tablets and mobiles, where the primary method of interaction is touch. Browsing on netbooks and other devices with smaller screens gets cluttered and confusing very quickly once you start opening additional windows and dialog boxes.
Even if you have a big screen, there are still advantages. In the browser anyway, in-content designs eliminate annoyances like the need to close a dialog box before interacting with the web page. And, it requires less brainpower from the user if the software maker can easily replicate the same design on all devices. So when you’re moving from Firefox on your 27-inch iMac to browsing with Firefox Mobile on your Android phone, it’s much more pleasant of a jump if all the controls and dialogs are in the same places on both platforms.
If you’d like to see more screenshots of the mock-ups, check out Horlander’s blog post which showcases several looks for both Windows and Mac OS X. As Horlander notes in the comments, “designing something that will fit into a variety of Linux environments takes a little more thought” than Windows and Mac. For the time being, Linux users will have to use their imagination.
An Interstitial is a web advertisement that appears on its own page, typically in between “content” pages. Interstitials are typically not clickable (or are linked to the page you’d originally hoped to reach), but are usually buffered by a similar, smaller advertisement on the subsequent content page that allows you to investigate the advertiser’s product. By mid-1997, interstitials were at the top of every advertiser’s want list, but have lost popularity since then.