10 October 2010

Firefox 4 introduces link previews in the address bar

Following the concepts presented more than a year ago, Mozilla has made big and impressive changes to the 4 interface, starting with the tabs, now by default on top, the menus – hidden and replaced with the single app menu – and the add-on manager that now opens in a tab.

Another point on the same list: the removal of the status bar. In the latest beta builds I noticed a new feature that will help bring this goal closer to completion: when hovering over a link, the address is previewed in the address bar, next to the URL of the current page. It’s most likely inspired by the Fission extension, which will probably not be updated anymore, given all of it’s features have been included in Firefox 4 – this extension also merges the progress bar into the address bar, like Safari did at one point. Firefox-link-previews

Inspired by a past extension or not, the Firefox implementation is better in my opinion. It keeps the current URL on the left, thus preventing user confusion about the actual location and also draws the future address in a lighter gray tone, emphasizing the distinction between here and maybe. The separator shaped like an arrow adds a subtle hint that you can ‘go’ to that address from this page – it almost looks like a ‘breadcrumb’ menu. On the other hand, the previewed address takes up as much space as it needs to be fully expanded – sometimes it clips the current the page address, but it clearly shows where the click would land.

It’s interesting that the status bar has now completely disappeared from the Firefox ‘View’ menu. Two of it’s major use cases have been delegated to the address bar, while the third – providing a place for extensions to add custom buttons and menus – will be taken over by the new ‘add-on bar’.

Update: Fast forward a couple of months and beta releases and the behavior has already changed: now Firefox (currently at version 4.0b13pre) dropped the previews in the address bar in favor of the more common solution of a tool-tip on the bottom-left of the page, similar to Chrome and Internet Explorer 9. Most likely this will be also shipped in the final version. It’s probably a move meant to minimize the learning curve of users switching browsers, but personally I preferred the previous approach. Being different isn’t always a bad thing and I would rather see Firefox innovating than imitating the competition. Hopefully there will soon be extensions for Firefox 4 that can bring this feature back.

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