31 May 2011

The Firefox version of Chrome’s Omnibox

As a user of beta, sometimes you get the chance to try out some of their experiments and user studies through Test Pilot. Last week it prompted me to test a different user interface that looked very familiar. While the experiment only lasted for two days, you can install an experimental extension, AwesomeBar HD, to keep using it indefinitely.

AwesomeBar HD spins-off from the Home Dash project to focus experiments on a combined location and search bar with a Mozilla twist. This means placing you, as a user, first and respecting your privacy, so unlike other browsers, the combined input will not send every letter you type to a remote server.

You probably guessed by now: it’s the Firefox version of ’s Omnibox, as both the functionality and the innuendo at the “privacy issues” in Chrome show. Naturally there are some differences: in Firefox you don’t really have individual search engines, instead there are categories like general search, videos, music, news, etc. each with it’s selection of (always three, for some reason) specialized search engines. After clicking in this combined field, all the categories are displayed on the right and you can click them to activate one or choose another engine from the drop-down list. Like in Chrome, typing a couple of letters from the category name and pressing ‘Tab’ will autocomplete and activate the search.

The new setup is a mixed blessing at best. While you do get access to a lot more search engines quicker, it’s not very clear how (or if) you can customize them, to add providers or move them to another category. You can only hide some of the categories or replace the link with an icon. It’s a curios departure from Mozilla’s focus on customizability. Coming from Chrome, you naturally expect the AwesomeBar to autocomplete the names of the search engines – well, that’s not the case! There are just too many categories by default: they occupy more than half of the bar on a wide screen. All these factors combined could make for a frustrating experience for first time users.

The one thing I clearly like about the extension is that the search results are opened in a new tab and so do not replace the page you were reading. But other changes need some time getting used to. The default mouse behavior was changed, such that a click outside of the URL text will activate the search interface with all the categories. Only if you click on the URL directly you select it like in vanilla Firefox. Fortunately some familiar keyboard shortcuts are still around: Ctrl+L activates the location bar with the URL selected, Ctrl+K jumps directly to search, Ctrl+down arrow switches to the next search engine in the category. In the end the experiment is probably better suited for beginners and casual users, who will probably enjoy the easy visual selection of categories instead of remembering sites and search providers – once they get the hang of it.Firefox with AwesomeBar HD

Ever since version 4, Firefox seems determined to copy – or at least imitate – every move that Chrome makes, sooner or later: first the general interface, then the faster release cycle and the experiment with hiding the navigation bar, now an Omnibox clone. While there is some logic behind it – as Chrome gains more and more market share, some of it’s features should be the key to it’s success, right? – you don’t get to lead simply by following the good decisions of others. Especially here, where Firefox has a perfectly functional alternative, keyword searches. AwesomeBar HD just lacks the simplicity of Chrome’s Omnibox; maybe someday with more polishing – and hopefully some original ideas – it will become interesting.

P.S. Ah, and one last thing: because of the ‘privacy’ angle, AwesomeBar HD also disables search suggestions, a feature well established in all browsers, including Firefox – offering suggestions means sending keywords to the search engine before the user actually submits his query. Does that mean Firefox is ‘guilty’ of the same privacy trespassing as Chrome?

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