It’s a known issue that I’m not thrilled with Firefox 3. There are some nice improvements to it, but after seeing the progress of development through the betas and seeing where Firefox 3 was headed I decided it had been time to try out other browsers. Unfortunately I’m so spoiled by Firefox’s extensions that no other browser could make me happy. But I thought with Firefox 3 in the third (and probably last) release candidate I would sit down and try to express exactly what it is about Firefox 3 that makes me wish I could be working with Firefox 2.5 rather than Firefox 3.
Back in the day when Firefox 2 was the newest Mozilla browser available and Firefox 3 hadn’t gotten close to reaching late alpha stage we had the ability to zoom into the text with a simple key combination. Ctrl-+ zoomed into the text, Ctrl– zoomed out and Ctrl-0 (zero) reset the text zoom. It may not have been one of the best known features of Firefox 2, but it was there. And if you wanted to zoom the entire page all you had to do was to load Kenji Inoue’s PageZoom extension, an extension that had been around so long the initial version worked with Firefox 1.5.
Then other browsers started making page zoom available by default and people started clamoring for page zoom to be available in Firefox right out of the box. So many people asked for it they added the feature, along with the associated issues of the zoomed page now making us have to scroll horizontally just to read all of the content, and the old familiar text zoom was suddenly not available at all in Firefox 3. A bug was filed to try to get text zoom back and after a rather long wait while the devs took care of memory leaks (which was needed all along) we got text zoom back and the ability to disable the full page zoom.
But Firefox devs didn’t just add page zoom to Firefox 3, they added the ability to remember the zoom level for each site you visited, which isn’t such a horrible idea. Unless you’re like me and you reuse tabs for many different sites, or you use the StumbleUpon extension. Now you can set a zoom level in a tab, load a new site into the same tab and your nicely set zoom level is gone because it’s a different site and the zoom level is no longer tied to a tab.
While the devs were dealing with the memory leaks CatThief came up with an extension that gave us back our beloved text zoom, Zoomer. Unfortunately when he updated it to version 1.0 in March he yanked out all of the code that handled the actual zooming and let Firefox do that job. Unfortunately that left us needing Zoomer 0.9 to truly have the old school tab-based zooming, and you need to have Zoomer 0.9 saved to your hard drive to be able to use it. I talked to CatThief about getting Zoomer 0.9 online somewhere for people to be able to be able to use it, and he said he definitely doesn’t want it in AMO. Perhaps we can come up with something that will make it useful, because otherwise we’re stuck with a change to a basic way Firefox simply worked.
Integration into the Operating System
One of the changes in Firefox 3 was that it integrated the default themes into the operating system it ran on. The idea was that Firefox 3 should look good enough to ship with the operating system (as it does with some Linux distributions). Of course that made the developer’s work four times harder, because you not only had to make it work with Windows, OSX and Linux, you had two versions of Windows to code for, not to mention the various types of Linux (GNOME, KDE, etc.). It also means themers have to worry about which platform the theme is for because what works on Windows may no longer work on Linux. Mac OSX had always had their own quirks that had to be dealt with in creating themes.
It also opened quite a can of worms. There was a very long thread on MozillaZine Forums for “constructive criticism” of the new default themes, and many users questioned why we even need to make Firefox integrate with the OS. Many of us felt Mozilla isn’t tied to a single OS and with the new OS integration Firefox 3 can look rather different on different operating systems. Another topic on MozillaZine Forums pointed out that Firefox always had it’s own look and that was part of why they loved Firefox, that it “looked like Firefox”. (I’d link to these threads but the MozillaZine Forums has finally been upgraded and the new forums aren’t working at all as I write this. Hopefully they’ll merge the old posts into the new forums.) Luckily people are creating Classic themes which will return the look of Firefox 2 and earlier to Firefox 3, but again you have to be careful which OS the theme works on.
To make matters worse, some of the theme changes made in the late beta stage introduced bugs that got labeled WONTFIX until after Firefox 3 ships. Which means that the theme developers work is even harder thanks to the changes made so late in the development process that they were stuck with working around some bugs until the bugs get fixed in the next minor upgrade.
So much for not shipping Firefox 3 until it’s “ready.”
User Interface Changes
Not only do we have new default themes, we also have an entirely new user interface (UI), and it’s definitely not finding universal acceptance.
The first thing noticed is the new Keyhole, a combination of the Back, Forward and history dropdown buttons. Many users (including me) saw it and thought it reeked of IE7, although there’s questions as to how accurate that criticism is. Either way you have to wonder why they made the Back button larger than the Forward button. The answer I got was “because it’s IMPORTANT.” (Again I can’t find the link I’m looking for on MozillaZine.) When I read that I almost fell out of the chair laughing. I have yet to find a more official reason for the larger back button, but any way you cut it it seems to dumb it down enough to cater toward noobies rather than educating them about what button does what.
When I first saw the unified history dropdown I hated it, but after using it a while I see it’s not so bad after all. The current page is highlighted to make it stand out, but I’m still not thrilled with it. What was wrong with clicking a button and having a list of pages backward or forward so that the most recent page is always at the top of the list? With every version from about beta 4 or so each time a new testing release came out we had more people asking “what happened to the dropdown arrow next to the Back button?” The number of times the question came up tells me either Mozilla is doing a bad job of educating users about the change or it was a bad decision.
Mozilla has finally rolled out Places in Firefox 3, and it completely redesigns how bookmarks are managed. Not only does it take your bookmarks out of a simple HTML file and move it into a database, making it harder to share one user profile between two versions of Firefox, they also added a new way to bookmark pages, with a star. I guess the old way of setting a bookmark was just too bloody hard, what with either clicking twice or simply hitting Ctrl-D, making any changes you wanted to make in what the bookmark said, and hitting OK. It’s too bad, since that’s how bookmarking has worked since the web browser was born in 1991. Developers must have been pretty stupid to not realize it was broken after all that time, eh?
Now there’s a nice star in the location bar you can use to set bookmarks. Unfortunately simply clicking the star once stores it in a new folder, the hidden Unfiled Bookmarks folder. Users are now clicking the star and then going crazy trying to find where the hell that site they bookmarked five minutes ago is.
To put the bookmark in a certain folder you have to click the star a second time, which pops up the Firefox 3 version of the Edit Bookmark dialog. When that window comes up you can specify which folder the bookmark is stored in, etc. Decide you don’t want to bookmark the page after all? For a while you were essentially told “tough luck” because it was really confusing what was expected of you. Usually to cancel a bookmark you can just hit Esc, but in Firefox 3 you have to click the Remove Bookmark button. Yes, what you used to be able to do in at the most three clicks can now take at least five different clicks. That may just be two more clicks, but when you add hem up for even a dozen new bookmarks the number of extra clicks needed can get fairly high, especially if you edit the bookmark’s name and add even a single tag. And it isn’t very clear what each click on the star does. I think clicking on it a third time does something, but I still can’t figure out what.
Yes, Places now lets you add tags to your bookmarks to help you find them more easily. Of course if you’re like me there’s no way you’re going through all of the bookmarks you’ve made over the last several years and adding tags to all of them.
The Smart Location Bar
This is a pet peeve of mine, but less about the new function than the new name. Someone hung the name “Awesome Bar” on the damned thing and that’s the name that has been used more often than not. And yes, I have a problem with the name. The word has been so overused that it’s now used for pure marketing hype. I don’t know about you but here in Massachusetts we’ve been seeing ads for Verizon FiOS with Michael Bay, director of the Transformers movie. In the ad everything has to be “awesome.”
Perhaps Mozilla should have Bay do an ad for Firefox 3. I can see it now.
Why does Michael Bay use Firefox 3?
The new Awesome Bar, of course. <cue explosion>
Now granted, the Smart Location Bar is pretty nice. It turns out most web surfers actually don’t bookmark pages (who new?) and the new location bar helps them get back to the pages they visited before. Silly me, I thought that’s what the bookmark system was for in the first place. If you want to get back to a site you bookmarked it. Evidently that’s not how people use web browsers. Although I do have to wonder who’s wrong. People like me who have hundreds of bookmarks so we can get back to a site we last visited a year ago or the majority of people who never ever set a bookmark.
Luckily we can get some of the old behavior back, or at least the old look of the address bar, thanks to Seth Spitzer’s oldbar extension.
Site Identification Button
They’ve also added a site identification button to the location bar in Firefox 3. The idea is to replace the padlock icon showing a site is trusted with something that can give a little more information. Now the background for the site’s favicon will be either gray, blue or green. If you click on the colored background for the favicon you get a popup telling you what level of encryption is used on the site to protect the information you put in. it’s actually gotten better in recent test versions, but for too long you had no idea what the different colors mean. As it is, just looking at it doesn’t tell you much of anything and most users won’t realize that the colored backgrounds mean anything. My biggest beef with the site identification button is that when you come across it the first several times you may not know what the colors mean. Unless you read Deb Richardson’s post, that is.
Non Mozilla dev issues against Firefox 3
Unfortunately not all of my issues are with Firefox 3 itself, but with things that reflect on Firefox 3. Nanci and I already written about the redesign of the Mozilla add-ons site and it’s getting a little better, but it’s still needing some more work before I’m willing to recommend it again. While it’s not strictly a Firefox 3 issue it came out while the Mozilla testing community was already dealing with all of the changes in Firefox 3 and when AMO got redesigned it became just one more damned change from Mozilla devs that I hated. It may be unfair to dislike Firefox 3 because of the new AMO but in my opinion the changes got lumped together, especially since so many of the changes once again seemed to make Mozilla products even harder to use, not easier.
Another problem I’ve had that isn’t exactly a Firefox 3 issue is the response I’ve seen from too many people in the Mozilla community when someone didn’t like some of the new changes. Too many of them essentially said we were stupid because we liked things the old way, and a few of them came right out and said it in so many words. While dealing with the text zoom issue it had gone on long enough that I was saying I’d agree to disagree on an issue and was wanting to move on to something that we could actually deal with and one user in particular posted a response that simply couldn’t let the matter die. I ended up IM’ing the person and telling them that continued debate about the particular issue wasn’t doing anyone any good, especially not the Mozilla community, and could we please just drop it and move on? I got an IM back that said ok and proceeded to still treat me like I was an idiot for not enjoying the same Koolaid he had been served. This person has designed several popular themes for Firefox and I was even trying one out to see if I could get an OSX look theme to work in Firefox 3, but he has acted like a know-it-all on too damned many occasions, always insisting on trying to get the last word in and see if he could belittle someone else for not being gung-ho about all of the new “goodies” in Firefox 3. I ended up not just deactivating his theme, but deleting it completely, and now any time I see his avatar on a post in the forums I simply scroll past and see what others have to say. I won’t name the user, and I won’t give any means you may be able to use to identify him, because you may have a different opinion of his “advice”. Besides, I don’t want to give him any more ink than I need to. I certainly won’t write something explicit that he could use to tell who I’m talking about should he read this. The guy’s like a Vulcan in that he’d probably take my negative opinion as a great compliment. Yeah, he’s that thick, no matter how many people like his themes.
All in All
I’m just not as in love with Firefox 3 like I was with Firefox 2. When Firefox 2 came out I had been testing it for several betas versions and I was excited about what Mozilla devs had added. It was definitely a major improvement over Firefox 1.5 and Firefox 2 truly earned all of the positive press it got. Firefox 3? Not so much.
It’s sort of like when a girlfriend you’ve been dating for a couple of years gets a makeover, and it turns out not to be a change for the better in your opinion. The girl you love is still there, but you hate some of the changes enough to want to break up with her. If only so much of the old her wasn’t so fraking perfect for you!
That’s how I feel about Firefox 3. Yes it’s faster. Yes, the Smart Location Bar helps me return to sites more easily. But so many other changes just seem like crap to me. I wish I could use another browser but it turns out Firefox 2 spoiled me with how much I could customize my browser. I didn’t even realize how much I had tweaked Firefox 2 until I looked at Epiphany and Opera and realized how plain they were. Epiphany was nice, but I simply couldn’t tweak enough things, including the supposedly simple change of having new tabs open in the foreground, not the background. Opera gave me so much trouble getting Flash to work that I gave up on Opera after fighting with it for a couple of days. (Flash still wont work in Opera for me.)So I’m using Firefox 3, but I’m not really happy about it. In fact I’m so unhappy I refuse to wear my Firefox tee anymore lest someone thing I’m advertising Firefox 3.