27 March 2011

What’s really new in Firefox 4?

Since I wrote about the latest version of Internet Explorer about a month ago, it seems only fair to do the same for , who was finally updated to version 4 earlier this week. There were a number of articles on the web surrounding the launch mentioning the new features and improvements; here’s my opinion about them:

Already available somewhere else

I think it’s safe to say this category covers most of the updates in Firefox 4: the new look (with tabs on top, Aero Glass for Windows 7 and less cluttered) is very similar to , continuing the trend started by . So is the unified menu under the orange Firefox button. App tabs? Old news for Chrome users. Sync? I can’t even remember how long ago it was first offered by Opera. Restartless add-ons? In Chrome, Opera and even Safari there’s no other kind of extensions.

They are generally solid updates, but I think some of them are not yet optimal. Even with tabs on top, the title bar in a restored window is wasted space; in the final release you need an user-style to have the tabs completely cover the title bar. Chrome solves the problem much more elegantly leaving a strip of title bar available above the tabs. And, this may be a personal preference, but I can’t grow accustomed to the two-column unified menu. Every time it feels like I’m searching too much for the function I need – not my idea of efficient design.

The little things that got left behind

In the race for a minimalistic interface, sacrifices had to be made. I didn’t miss the status bar for a second – although others did – but I still can’t agree with the removal of the RSS button from the standard toolbar layout. Another ‘collateral victim’ is the page load indicator; unlike the status bar and feed button, it was removed entirely without a single explanation (or maybe I missed it?) and can be re-enabled only by installing an extension. To be fair, it took me months to notice the progress bar is missing, which sais a lot about it’s usefulness; nevertheless, it’s disappointing to see it suddenly go, especially after being featured in several early concepts about the refreshed Firefox design.

I feel these are all indicators of worrying trend in Firefox’s evolution: imitating what other browsers do instead of innovating and differentiating themselves from the competition. Safari and Chrome removed the progress bar? Check! Tabs on top? Check! No more RSS button? Check! The same happened to the link previews, as I mentioned previously on my blog: at first they tried a different design inspired by an extension, only to switch later to the solution used by Chrome and Internet Explorer.

Long awaited, still nowhere in sight

If it’s trying to mimic the competition, Firefox continues to ignore some pretty neat features from others. Memory management could still use some improvements and process separation on a tab basis could help, but that project doesn’t seem to be a priority. Silence also surrounds an interesting concept for revamping the ‘downloads’ interface presented a while back by Mozilla’s UX lead. I would also like to see more dialog windows converted to tabs: not only add-ons, but also ‘Options’ and ‘Downloads’. That’s one thing I always loved about Opera, and fortunately Chrome is heading in a similar direction as well. Also, with the trend to integrate extension functionality into the main software trunk, it’s weird that something like Greasemonkey hasn’t been considered yet. Not to mention a more useful ‘New tab’ page; after the release of Internet Explorer 9 basically all the relevant competing browsers have one. The browser already has a ‘Most Visited’-section in the bookmarks from the last major version, would it be that hard to make a nice user interface for it?

Original features

The most prominent innovation in Firefox 4 is definitely Tab Groups, better known as ‘Panorama’. While it has some potential, I don’t see myself using it, at least not in the current state. It’s original name best explains my view: it’s “Tab Candy”, not efficient tab management. I mean, why do we need a separate view to drag tabs and group them, just to see some pretty thumbnails and burn some CPU cycles? You can’t switch between groups directly from the browser or even see if you have other groups defined! Firefox already displays a list of tabs in the top right corner; they could have added groups as entries in this menu to enable a fast switch between them. And the most inefficient aspect of this new interface is that you have to organize your tabs one-by-one! When you have dozens of tabs, do you really want to spend your time building tidy groups that will become obsolete immediately after you finish reading the tabs? Multiple tab selection is a must for Panorama to become useful; some semi-automatic rules to group tabs wouldn’t hurt either. For example: if you perform a search, start a new group with the search results page and add all the clicked links to it. That way you will have an instantly useful group with no effort from the user.

Firefox Panorama: How To from Aza Raskin on Vimeo

The second new feature is ‘switch to tab’, also aimed at helping heavy users who use a lot of tabs: if you type the address of an already opened tab, the browser will offer to switch to it, instead of loading a second copy. A small thing, but nice nonetheless. As far as I see from the list of experimental features, Chrome is not far behind with it’s own implementation. Chrome about:flags Focus existing tab on open

A nice surprise in the new version, for me at least, was rediscovering an older feature: Personas. When it was first introduced in Firefox 3.6 I considered it just another ‘bloat’, an unnecessary addition to the browser that should have remained an extension. Now it just looks awesome, especially on Windows 7 with Aero Glass, but it’s OK under XP as well. You can even install animated Personas – like Lightning Overload – although they could easily become distracting. Maybe it will take another iteration for Panorama to become a worthy addition to the browser.

The bottom line

Blog search traffic for Firefox tab animationThere’s no doubt Firefox 4 is a very good browser. It’s now on par with the competition in terms of speed and features. And users love it, as the impressive number of downloads after release show. It even sent a decent chunk of visitors to my blog, in search for a solution to turn off the animated tabs. But somehow I just can’t feel enthusiastic about this release. Maybe it’s my past experience with Firefox beta vs. final releases from version 3: everything went very smoothly during the beta phase, but after switching to the final version the browser became slower and started crashing. Or maybe because Chrome showed us a better way: a regular and fast update cycle with small incremental improvements, without the hassles of manual updates and extension incompatibilities; a browser that just works without unnecessarily drawing the user’s attention and doesn’t need to brag about versions and download numbers.

A Romanian blogger noticed that most of the features are inspired either by other browser or Firefox extensions and that Mozilla should give developers credit for their ideas as they are added to the browser. I don’t see how this ‘strategy’ could work out well for Firefox in the long run, especially if they don’t start releasing updates more frequently. A year is a very long time in the online world, especially now that there is real competition in the browser market. Faced with such a rapidly changing environment, it’s no wonder some bloggers are already discussing the ultimate fate of Firefox and it’s possible demise, be it through lack of apps or funding. To me, one sad sign that the spirit of the browser is fading is that version 4 didn’t get it’s own ‘Book of Mozilla’ Easter egg, like all the other major versions before it.

As usual, there's an extension for that: TabGroups Menu.


  1. If Firefox would let you view PDFS inline I'd consider using it over chrome.. I cannot understand this being ignored. It's really rather standard and a much needed attribute.

    1. They got around to that in version 16, apparently. I haven't use Firefox regularly in a very long time, so I can't say how good it works.