Tag Archives: firefox

My mobile and desktop browsing habits are very different things

Browsing habits are the kind of things that gradually change over time without you even realizing it. If you look back a year ago, I’m sure some of the most visited websites today weren’t even on the top 20 list then. An obvious example is that quarterly goals page from Q3 2011 that you visited every day for a full quarter, and then suddenly never looked at again.

What’s even more interesting for me is how my mobile browsing habits have gradually changed into something very different from my desktop browsing habits. A couple of years ago, I used to visit roughly the same sites on both devices, but over time I found myself visiting some websites more from my mobile, and other websites more from my desktop computer.

Today, the separation is very clear: I almost exclusively use my desktop computer for work-related browsing (wikis, Etherpads, calendars, reports, etc), and I use my mobile phone mostly for casual browsing (news, social media, tech, blogs, etc). Another separation along the same lines is that I mostly use my desktop computer to write, and I use my mobile phone to read.

This actually makes me a little torn about the Firefox Sync implementation on Android today. On the one hand, I absolutely love the fact that I can have convenient access to all pages I visit on the desktop, and I simply can’t live without the pre-filled passwords. But on the other hand, I’m not sure I’m too crazy about the fact that all of those “Top Sites” are mixed together the way they are on the Awesome Screen. At the end of the day, I find it distracting to see ten different flavors of https://mail.mozilla.com/zimbra/#%5Binsert number here], or twenty different Etherpads or wiki pages all mixed up with the handful of sites that I actually do want to visit from my phone.

This is one of the things that I like about the stock Android browser on my Samsung Galaxy Note: it allows me to define exactly how I want the top bookmarks to look like, even in which order they should appear in the thumbnail grid.

Stock browser's bookmarks grid -- pardon the Swedish and poor reading taste.

Some things that would make my use of Firefox on Android feel more awesome:

  • An intuitive, quick way of arranging my top sites and bookmarks and ensure duplicates aren’t bubbling up at the top.
  • An option to view the top sites as a thumbnail grid instead of a list.
  • An option (or simply changed default) to not show the soft keyboard until you hit the text field again — I just want to click the top site rather than type on the keyboard.

Firefox Awesome Screen

All this said, I don’t know what I’d do without Firefox Sync. It really enables me to accomplish stuff on my phone that I previously had to use my desktop computer for. The only downside, I suppose, is that it also makes it that much easier to switch your mind back into work mode after stumbling on that interesting report, or Etherpad, or wiki page that you’re not supposed to read when trying to wind down after a long workday… :)

Firefox for Android finally ready for prime time!

If you’ve tried Firefox for Android in the past and weren’t impressed, try again today. With a revamped interface built entire from scratch, it’s infinitely faster, renders websites beautifully, and supports Flash (for those who happen to like that).

Promotional Graphic (2)

Sync your mobile and desktop Firefox

If you’re using Firefox on your desktop computer, the first thing you will want to do is to set up Sync so you can synchronize bookmarks, passwords, form data and other settings across your devices. Simply follow the on-screen instructions or check out this step-by-step guide.

Already hungry for more? Get Aurora!

What if you’re already using Firefox and want to get a sneak peek at what’s coming up in the future? Then install Firefox Aurora and use that instead of plain Firefox! Aurora is an experimental branch of Firefox that represents what will eventually appear in a future Firefox release. So by using Aurora, you get to see what awesome things are coming up before mere mortals will benefit from them. They’re generally stable enough that you can use it without any major issues. Besides, if something does go wrong, you can always just switch back to normal Firefox again — you can keep both versions installed on both your computer and phone (though you can’t run them both at the same time, so Quit one before starting the other).

Keep in mind that by using Aurora, you are also encouraged to provide feedback about the experience. If you’re a bit more technical and used to filing bug reports, you can go straight to Bugzilla and submit your feedback that way.

Firefox tip: Getting past the Wikipedia blackout

Wikipedia is joining the movement of protests against the SOPA/PIPA bills. Quoting their page linked to from every article today (Wednesday January 18):

What are SOPA and PIPA?

SOPA and PIPA represent two bills in the United States House of Representatives and the United States Senate respectively. SOPA is short for the “Stop Online Piracy Act,” and PIPA is an acronym for the “Protect IP Act.” (“IP” stands for “intellectual property.”) In short, these bills are efforts to stop copyright infringement committed by foreign web sites, but, in our opinion, they do so in a way that actually infringes free expression while harming the Internet. [...]

Wikipedians have chosen to black out the English Wikipedia for the first time ever, because we are concerned that SOPA and PIPA will severely inhibit people’s access to online information. This is not a problem that will solely affect people in the United States: it will affect everyone around the world.

For the record, I fully support Wikipedia’s protest — and so does Mozilla. However, this blog post isn’t really about that.

What if you really, really need to read that particular Wikipedia article today and you don’t have your mobile phone nearby, and you’d rather not disable Javascript of the entire browser? I thought I’d share this simple method that will allow you to quickly get access to the content:

Update: Asa Dotzler pointed out that there’s an even easier method than what I explain below: just replace the “en” part of the address of the article you’re visiting to “m” and you’re done — that will take you to the mobile-optimized version of the Wikipedia article. Example: change http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toilet_paper_orientation to m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toilet_paper_orientation. That’s it!

The original instructions were:

  1. In Firefox, navigate to the Wikipedia article you want to read. You’ll see something like this:
  2. Press Alt on your keyboard to reveal the classic menu of Firefox:
  3. Click View > Page Style > No Style. You’ll then see a somewhat crudely formatted version of the original article:

This setting is not remembered in Firefox, so when you’re done reading the article, just close the tab and things will go back to normal when you open it the next time. (Wikipedia itself will also go back to normal, tomorrow. In the meantime, take action!)

The next browser war: Users vs Web Content

Browser wars is a popular (and retro!) topic these days. In this post I’ll discuss another kind of browser war that I’m afraid all browsers are at risk of losing.

One side-effect of a richer web experience with html5, Javascript and CSS is that it becomes increasingly harder for web browsers to stop bad web design practices for the benefit of the user. Firefox is known for putting the user’s needs first and pioneered mainstream use of features designed to make the web experience better for users – the pop-up blocker is perhaps the most notable example.

Features like the pop-up blocker were not designed for web developers — they were designed completely in the interest of users, who were fed up with annoying ads that popped up over and under the web page you were currently visiting. This effectively forced web designers to adjust their practices and keep the users’ interests more prominently in mind. I think this is a wonderful example of how web browsers can change the web for the better. Before the pop-up blocker, web designers were dictating how their web sites should behave, and users had no other choice but to put up with it.

There are of course many other examples of when browser features have helped tame annoying web design practices, such as scrolling text in status bars, disabling the context menu when right-clicking, and blocking third-party cookies — the general theme is that the browser balances the sometimes bad urges of web developers and designers with the actual needs of the user. And as a result, the web becomes a better place. Mozilla has its own spin on this that captures the essence of Firefox: Firefox answers to no one but you.

The yellow pop-up blocker info bar in Firefox. A rare sight these days.

Today, however, you don’t see the little pop-up icon  in the location bar of Firefox very often anymore. This is because “true” pop-ups, (in the traditional/technical sense) are no longer common. It used to be that, in order to display a pop-up, web developers had to use Javascript methods like window.open to tell the browser that it wants a new window to be open so the (usually annoying) ad could be shown.

Back in 2004, when Firefox was first launched, window.open was the way of displaying pop-ups. These kinds of pop-ups are trivial for Firefox to detect, since the web page creates a separate browser window for the ad (this usually happens when a page loads, or at some other event which is straightforward enough for a browser to determine that it isn’t explicitly requested by the user).

Today, most modern web sites have become smarter and use more sophisticated technologies to display pop-up ads embedded within the web page triggering the ad. In fact, a quick anecdotal survey shows that most large, international websites have completely stopped using the traditional pop-ups. You can still find them on smaller or more local websites though (for example, Swedish news sites like aftonbladet.se are typically a year or two behind the more recent web page practices used on websites from the US in general, and the Valley in particular). The original pop-up blocking implementation certainly still matters, but its relevance is decreasing.

New websites use all sorts of clever (and highly annoying) tricks to make sure their ads are not missed by anyone:

  • Inline pop-ups — these behave similar to the traditional pop-ups, but the ad content isn’t actually displayed in a separate window. Instead, the ad is embedded in the web page itself. From a technological point of view, a browser is then unable to distinguish the ad from the rest of the web page, so it can’t block it.
  • Hover ads — this is similar to inline pop-ups, but taken to an increasingly more annoying level: here, the ad doesn’t just block a particular area of the web page, it follows along on your screen as you scroll down on the page — often with a smooth movement to give the impression that it’s actually hovering over the page. It’s like the ad is trying to say “I’m here! Look, I’m still here!”
  • Splash screen ads (I just made this term up) –  these are by far the most annoying ads and are commonly seen on sites like di.se and e24.se (two popular finance websites in Sweden). This is like an ad saying: “Look, I’m not going to let you read the web page until you’ve paid attention to ME!” Web designers do this by overlaying the ad so it completely covers the content of the page (alternatively, it redirects you to a separate page). If you pay close attention, you will see a tiny link to get to the page you actually wanted to visit, but the web designer has usually made it the smallest link on the entire page — despite the fact it’s the link you are most likely going to want to click. These type of web pages clearly answer to no one but the ad provider — certainly not to you.
  • Video ads — as videos are getting more and more mainstream, the most common practice today by content providers is to show an ad before playing the video clip you actually requested. This is similar to those “important messages” you see when inserting some DVDs, and just like those messages, you can’t skip these ads. You simply have no choice but to watch the entire thing. (Some content providers add a small clock countdown in the corner to at least let you know how long you have to put up with watching the ad — it’s clear that they’re aware of the inconvenience for the user here.)

All of these types of web ads have one thing in common: it’s next to impossible for web browsers to block them. These ads are, from a technical point of view, integral parts of the web page itself, and as such they’re indistinguishable from the “good” content on the page.

Where do we go from here?

Web browsers make at least a bit of an effort to block advertisement today with their aged pop-up blocker feature, but it’s also clear that they are not able to block all attempts of displaying advertisement on the web. (And should they? Unless we can create a world where advertisement is not just generally unwanted, but also not necessary to make the online economy spin, I would say we probably shouldn’t try to block them all. But that’s a much deeper discussion than I’m aiming for in this blog post.)

More importantly, however, web browsers are no longer stopping bad design practices. Showing an ad as a splash overlay covering the entire page and blocking the user from seeing the actual content of the page is exactly the kind of thing that Firefox effectively stopped in 2004 — but so far there is no solution in place in any web browser on the market to stop the new pop-up behavior that is at least as bad as the traditional pop-ups.

Taking a step back, what is the role of the browser in this new world where web pages are becoming more like web applications that live a life on their own terms? How can we ensure that the browser still acts as a balance that puts the user first? Of course, I don’t have the answers to these broad questions, but it’s definitely something I think must be discussed.

My impressions with web browsing on the N900

I’ve recently had the pleasure of testing Firefox on the brand new Maemo based Nokia N900 phone (which I blogged about previously), and I have to say I’m impressed. Of course, I’m biased — I love Firefox. I’ve been using it since the Phoenix days and it’s almost part of my DNA these days.

However, I have a confession to make: Firefox isn’t yet my default browser on the N900. I think it will be very soon, but right now, my browser of choice on this particular device is another Mozilla-based browser: MicroB. It’s actually the best web browsing experience I’ve ever had on a mobile device (but to be fair, Firefox is the second best experience, so it’s definitely up in the same league already).

Allow me to summarize my initial impressions with both of these Mozilla browsers:

  • The Awesome Bar in Firefox is… awesome. I never actually reflected on how convenient it was to use until I tried MicroB, which forces me to remember URLs again.
  • Weave is probably extremely useful, too, but since I’m using the latest trunk builds of Firefox (“Fennec”), I can’t actually use it.
  • I’m not completely sold on Firefox’s UI model of showing controls on a surface on the sides of the web page. I’d be curious about whether there has been any usability research that suggests it’s better than the more traditional toolbar at the bottom of the screen. Btw, I’ll follow up with some ideas about this in a future blog post.
  • I’ve fallen in love with the volume rocker zoom in MicroB — it’s smooth, fast and surprisingly accurate. Would love to see this in Firefox!
  • When double tapping to zoom in MicroB, a subtle zoom animation is used which feels intuitive and responsive. In Firefox, the zoom is instant, making it feel less fluid.
  • The default page zoom in Firefox is designed to make the full width of the page fit on the screen. This unfortunately has the side effect of making the text on almost all web pages too small to read. It seems like MicroB has chosen a different approach where the default zoom includes about 800px of the web page width, which makes it possible to read most pages without zooming in.
  • Actually zooming in on a page in Firefox is a bit tricky, because it auto-zooms on the object you double tab on, even if that object is only e.g. a small image. This means that you often zoom in too much, and since it’s not possible to adjust the zoom level in an easy way (keyboard shortcuts don’t cut it, especially not for me since I have the Scandinavian keyboard layout where [Ctrl]+[-] doesn’t work), you have to double-tap again to zoom out and then try again.
  • MicroB feels more responsive when panning around on a page. This is mostly due to the fact that the UI and panning is done in a separate process from the actual Gecko web rendering process. At FOSDEM, I was pleased to hear in the Mobile talk by Mark Finkle that Firefox will make full use of the Electrolysis technologies that are currently being baked. What this means, in simple terms, is that Firefox will be just as responsive as MicroB in the future since the web rendering process will be separate from the UI/frontend. I can’t wait to see the results of that (which of course will benefit desktop Firefox as well).
  • The checker pattern seems to show up more frequently on the screen in Firefox compared to MicroB. I don’t know if Firefox is just more conservative with how much of the web page it pre-loads off-screen, but sometimes it can cause the whole screen to remain “blank” for a few seconds, which rarely happens with MicroB.
  • The Back button history in MicroB is a good idea in theory: when clicking the Back button, small thumbnails of the previous pages are shown, making it easy to pick the page you want to get back to. However, the implementation sucks because it takes several seconds to load these thumbnails and the thumbnails are big enough that you have to pan around in order to see anything more than one page back. Would be nice to see some kind of combination of Firefox’s and MicroB’s implementation: when tapping on the Back button, Firefox would simply go back to the previous page, but when tapping and holding, it would show a pop-up with preloaded thumbnails in a similar fashion as with MicroB, except without the delay. (Maybe the actual thumbnails could be recorded when you navigate away from a page?)
  • Flash — as much as I hate it — works pretty well in MicroB out of the box. In Firefox, I have to enable it manually, and the responsiveness of the UI with Flash enabled isn’t great. Can every web site switch to open video, please?

I personally feel that both MicroB and Firefox are really good web browsers, and the fact that they’re both powered by Mozilla’s Gecko web rendering engine is a huge plus for me. So in a way, I don’t feel bad for not using Firefox primarly right now, because my current web browser of choice is still filled with Mozilla love. :)

That said, I can’t wait to use an Electrolysis-powered version of mobile Firefox later this year!

Ubuntu is old, most of the time

One thing that I really don’t like about Ubuntu is that, by default, it doesn’t automatically upgrade popular software releases until a whole new version of the operating system is released. This means that right now Ubuntu 9.10 (the latest stable release) is still running Firefox 3.5.8 and OpenOffice.org 3.1.1, when the latest versions are 3.6 and 3.2, respectively.

I can definitely understand why such a policy simplifies maintenance on older releases, allowing the developers to focus on the upcoming release, but why can’t they just change this policy at least for the most popular desktop programs?

The way they do things today is annoying and makes Ubuntu feel old-fashioned. Is there another Linux distro that has a better software upgrade policy that I can switch to instead, or am I stuck having to upgrade software manually and store the programs in my home folder?

Let's create that ideal world together!

John Slater recently hosted a brown bag about how to improve Mozilla’s web sites by making a clearer distinction between Mozilla, the non-profit organization, and Firefox, one of its products (and, of course, the most popular since it happens to be the best browser in the world!). He also posted a blog post about the topic, and David Boswell then followed up by providing his thoughts from the point of view of the Mozilla Foundation.

As I’ve said before, my vision for SUMO goes beyond Firefox: SUMO is a vibrant community of people who want to help others with their web experience. It’s also a support website platform for products like Firefox, mobile Firefox and Thunderbird.

The URL for Firefox Support, the largest SUMO-powered support site, is currently support.mozilla.com. While I don’t think URLs are that important in the first place (the navigation and structure of websites are far more important), this particular URL is a bit unfortunate because the support site is indeed about Firefox, and not Mozilla as a whole. A URL like support.firefox.com would make more sense, and would also send a clearer message to everyone what the focus of the site is.

In the ideal world, there would be a central place for support on mozilla.org where users of all products could find easy access to the support offerings per product. In other words, something like mozilla.org/support, which already exists today (although I would also make sure that support.mozilla.org worked).

Then, each product would have its own support site hosted on the product domains, e.g. support.firefox.com, support.thunderbird.com, and support.seamonkey-project.org. Of course, these sites would also link to all the amazing community-hosted support websites around the world — just like they do today.

So, what stops us from creating this ideal world? Well, nothing, really. But we’re an incredibly big community and support is just one piece of the big puzzle, so I encourage you to participate in the discussion!