Firefox finds itself at an interesting juncture: not only is Google's Chrome managing to gain some serious market share, but even Microsoft Internet Explorer is starting to fight back – although it remains to be seen whether that trend is sustained or not. That puts a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of the forthcoming Firefox 4 and its team: Mozilla needs to show that it has not lost the initiative, and that it is still in the driving seat as far as the browser market is concerned.
Nitot grouped the changes that we will see with Firefox 4 into three main categories. The first, and in many ways the most obvious, involves the user interface. The emphasis is very much on getting out of the way of the user – through less “chrome” (no, not *that* Chrome, but the visual elements in the browser), shrinking the menu bar, and simplification of modal dialogues that simply stop people getting on with doing stuff. Another welcome change is allowing most extensions to be installed without the need for restarting Firefox, and the use of several processes - one each for the interface, content and plugins - to isolate any problems.
One of the key inputs to these developments was the Paper Cuts project. This was initiated by Alexander Limi, a member of the Firefox User Experience group, through a post on Reddit. As he wrote there:
What I'm after is more the “one hundred paper cuts”, the stuff that annoys you on a daily basis, and that I could help with getting prioritized as a User Experience / User Interface person.
Of course I have my own list of these pet peeves, but I'm interested in yours! Especially since moderation and voting works well on Reddit, and you're all pretty awesome when it comes to insightful comments.
I'll try to respond in the comments when I can, spare time and timezone permitting. Remember, Firefox is your project — as the only mainstream browser not owned by a massive corporation — so help us make it better.
This generated a very lively response:
We got over 2 000 — yeah, that’s two thousand — replies, and spent some time analyzing and grouping the feedback into actionable bug reports and general focus areas
Those Paper Cuts have been broadly categorised as follows: Focus issues, Startup Experience, Being in Control, Add-ons & Plug-ins, Tab Behaviors, UI Cruft & Consistency and OS Integration. These give a rough idea of some of the things that are likely to turn up in Firefox 4's new interface.
The final area is that of new features. These include things like a new site manager that will let users manage passwords and related security issues for a site in a unified way. This is moving towards the idea that Firefox could become an independent, global repository of online identity, replacing the current fragmented one where each site wants to manage identity locally. That could be a crucial role for Firefox to play, so it will be good to see some progress here. There will also be new features supporting HTML5 and CSS3, although many of these will be under the bonnet rather than obvious things to the user.
If Firefox 4 will be an important statement about where Firefox is going in general, another crucial piece of code for Mozilla is Firefox for mobile devices. That's especially true for the new generation of smartphones that are taking the market by storm, and which are likely to offer increasingly serious competition to desktop machines in the future.
At the moment, the only mobile platform supported is Maemo. On the Android front, things were held up until Google released its Android NDK, “a toolset that lets you embed components that make use of native code in your Android applications.” As with Firefox 4, Nitot hopes that the Android version of Firefox will be available sometime around the end of the year – for a suitably flexible definition of “end” that probably embraces beginning of 2011.
The situation for the other leading smartphone is even more unclear. Given the strict control that Steve Jobs/Apple exercises over apps running on the iPhone, it is unlikely that a Firefox browser will be appearing for this platform anytime soon. However, just yesterday, Mozilla submitted Firefox Home to the Apple App Store for approval:
Firefox Home is a free application that provides access to your Firefox desktop history, bookmarks and open tabs on your iPhone. Firefox Home enables access to the websites you need on the go by picking up where you left off with your desktop browsing. Firefox Home uses your browser data, securely synced from Firefox on your desktop to the cloud, to let you search and browse it quickly and efficiently. You can view the sites you want directly in Firefox Home, open them in Mobile Safari or share them with friends via e-mail. Your Firefox data is private and only you have access to it.
Given the constraints placed upon it by Apple, Mozilla's approach here seems sensible, offering Firefox users a way to stay in touch with their main browser when using the iPhone. As far as the Android version is concerned – and speaking as an Android phone user – I really hope that Mozilla makes this a priority. It's evident that Android is taking off far faster than many of us (myself included) thought. It is really important for Firefox to establish itself as the browser of choice there before anyone else does.
As for the main Firefox 4 application, the key thing to remember is that Mozilla has something that neither Microsoft nor Google has, and which ultimately trumps their deep pockets: a passionate user base.
The best way for Mozilla to ensure that Firefox's market share continues to climb is not just through great new ideas and cool code of the kind that Nitot described, important though they are. Even more vital – because it's an option uniquely available to Mozilla – is to activate its users with a global campaign as it has done in the past, notably through the Spreadfirefox site. Maybe it's just me who is out of touch, but I haven't really noticed much happening there recently; the arrival in a few months' time of Firefox 4 would be the perfect opportunity to re-ignite the amazing passion that powers that resource.