New Opera Icon [Update]

New_Opera_icon

According to Jon Hicks, the Opera browser is set to get a new icon, designed by Oleg Melnychuk. It’s a little happy guy in a red jumpsuit, sporting the a capital O on his tummy. Certainly an improvement over the old one, while still not redoing the entire logo (which I’m sure the darkly suited guys at Opera must’ve opposed because they’re scared of a re-brand).

[Update]: It’s not a happy little guy in a jumpsuit. It’s still a red, capital O. It’s just a tweaked O. Pity. (Thanks Alexander).

Real_new_Opera_icon

Firefox 3.5 Mini-Review

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Mozilla Firefox 3.5 is the latest version of the open source project originally spun off of the Netscape browser. Its latest incarnation features private surfing, better history handling, a number of web standards display features, speed improvements and a tweaked icon.

With 3.7 already on the way, Firefox 3.5 may prove to be a short-lived pleasure. But it is a pleasure, nonetheless. 3.5 feels faster, especially in JavaScript heavy applications such as Gmail or Calendar. The new features are all nice additions even though they simply feel like incremental improvements to a good product (which is fine). The two features that matter the most these days, however, are memory handling and webpage rendering, both areas wherein 3.5 improves over 3.0. With CSS drop shadows and inset styles, it certainly feels like its catched up to the competition (Safari, Chrome, Opera).

The icon, originally designed by Jon Hicks, got an update. It’s now more glossy, and updated by the Icon Factory. Pity. I like Jon.

When it comes to speed, the browser certainly feels both faster and lighter. Yet somehow, now that I’ve tasted how fast a browser can be (Chrome, Safari), Firefox falls short. It still takes a long while to launch the browser. It’s bulky to open lots of tabs and when they’re finally open, the whole thing slows down and if (this is rare, fortunately) one tab crashes, all tabs crash. Oddly, even closing the browser takes a while; closing the browser and starting a new one immediately after will tell you that Firefox is already running.

Back when it was Firefox versus Internet Explorer, things were simpler — and not only because IE was the worst browser in the history of everything — no, Firefox was the open source, extensible browser that took on the giant. It was David vs. Goliath, and David had a chance. We rooted for the browser, and overlooked the few issues there were, because after all, it was still parsecs ahead of IE. Things have changed, and I’m almost sorry they have. Out there is Chrome, which through Chromium is also open source. Chrome has better speed and memory handling. It’s got Google behind it, and soon it has extensions. At some point, the only thing keeping me on Firefox will be the icon, which isn’t even the sole product of someone I know any more. It’ll be a tearful goodbye.

Quick Thoughts On Mozillas Firefox 3.7 Theme Revamp Mockup

FF_3.7

The next Firefox browser, 3.7, is apparently scheduled for a theme revamp. As indicated by the above mockup, Mozilla is pondering radical changes (see all mockups). Some thoughts:

  • Clearly, Mozilla looks to embrace Windows’ glass interface to make the browser look so much the more platform-native. The idea is nice, but the current implementation looks as sloppy as Internet Explorer 7s.
  • The new buttondesigns for Back, Forward, Stop and so on are small rounded rectangles extremely reminiscent of those found in Google Chrome. The idea, no doubt, has been to tone down the distractive qualities the moreso multi-colored icons Firefox 3.5 has, but I hope and expect the final designs to be more distinct to Firefox. Anything else would be a disservice to an innovative browser.
  • The new tab design is uninspired and the tabs are still below the addressbar. Either Firefox should do something radical like putting the tabs on the side, or take notes from the exciting resizable tabs in the Opera 10 beta. Otherwise, what’s the point in redesigning the tabs at all.
  • Ditching the file menu was scoffed at when Internet Explorer 7 did it back in the day, now browser vendors are scrambling to remove as many menus as possible. What’s interesting is that they all seem to end up with the same new icon-menu-design. Two buttons, outlined icons, “Tools” and “Page”. If Mozilla does this, we’ll pretty much have the same menus in both Firefox, Chrome and Safari. It’s not that it’s a bad idea per se, I hoped Firefox would do this ages ago, but it does feel a bit uninspired.
  • There are still two inputfields. The addressbar and the search box. Since the searchbox is Mozillas primary source of revenue (Google pays for each search), and the revamped addressbar for Firefox 3 (dubbed “The Awesomebar” — with its type-to-go bookmark search features it’s arguably Firefox’ best feature), it makes sense to combine the two into the Super-Awesomebar. Searchable bookmarks, AND a source of revenue. Mozilla, I dare you!
  • In this mockup, the “Page” menu is in context of the tabs (and the page). Yet, it feels dislocated and odd. Once again, tabs on top would’a been the more logical way to go.

[Update]: That was quick (and slightly stupid). You can now skin Firefox 3.5 with a 3.7-mockup-look-alike.

No Tab Left Behind

With the new Safari 4 beta, Apple is taking a page from the book of Opera and Google Chrome and moving their browser tabs all the way to the top:

Safari_4_tabs

While not an incredibly original idea, it is a good idea and there are a number of reasons why. First of all, it optimizes the amount of vertical real-estate, which—with the upcoming surge in lo-res Netbooks—will matter more than you think. Secondly, it moves an important multi-tasking feature right up to the literal application top, where discoverability is great. Finally, it helps users understand what exactly tabs are: individual content windows with their own unique address-bar and history.

This is clearly a usability improvement, and I’m sure that now Apple has canonized what is (probably) an Opera invention, it’ll make both Mozilla and Internet Explorer scramble to get with the program. So much the better: thanks Apple.

There’s one aspect Mac users will miss out on, though. On Windows systems, when a browser is maximized, tabs that are topmost will fondle the very edges of the screen, an area of extremely valuable realestate. The little secret that makes this top screen edge price go through the roof is the fact that, to reach it, you have only to push your mouse upwards; soon enough your cursor will bump into the edge. When a browser window places its tabs there, that means you only have to worry about left or right to pick your tabs. Not even a shopping cart is left behind in such a system.

Alas, Apple has permanently reserved this top area of the screen for the ubiquitous file menu, which I’m sure a number of people appreciate. Not those who want to get the full flavor of topmost tabs though, they’ll be left out in the cold. Perhaps Apple should place tabs at the bottom of the screen instead? (Oh wait, that’s where The Dock lurks, spring-loaded to pop out when innocent cursors are nearby).

3rd Place: Opera Sings Out of Tune

Since trying out Opera 9, I’ve been slowly warming towards the browser. It’s really fast, it does most of what I need, and it does it all pretty well. There are some quirks and ifs here and there, but generally it’s rock-solid competition for Firefox.

It’s really fast, it does most of what I need, and it does it all pretty well.

This got me thinking. Why didn’t I even consider running Opera before? Why is the Opera browser share as low as 1.5%, when the browser is, in fact, more decent than that?

In this entry I’d like to touch upon some design issues, usability issues, interface design decisions and naming issues I personally think could use touch-ups or changes.

1. The Logo

opera_logo_comparisons

Which one would you rather have sitting in your tray / in your dock / on your desktop / in your start menu? Which icon looks the most like the icon of a web-browser?

In both these questions I’d prioritize like this: 1. Firefox, 2. IE, 3. Opera. Firefox has a globe, which communicates “world-wide”. IE’s “e” communicates “electronic”, and when it animates (while loading), the e transforms into a globe. The Opera “O” is simply the first letter of the name. I would suggest that Opera gets a new and more apt logo and apparently I’m not the only one to suggest this.

2. The Name

Mozilla Firefox Windows Internet Explorer Opera

Which name do you prefer? Which name is most likely to be a web-browser for the unknowing reader?

Neither of these names are really good, but at least IE’s full name communicates “internet exploration”. As such, both Firefox and Opera could learn from this. My suggestion: tweak the name ever so slightly. How about: *Opera Internet Browser”, or plainly “Opera Browser”. Solely communicating singing to orchestral music won’t help.

3. The Default Configuration

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Note: I have removed a few toolbars and buttons from Operas default configuration.

Which of the above three default configurations appeal the most to you? Which of them looks most like a browser?

In my case, I really like the Opera configuration, but simply due to the fact that it’s skinned with a whitish/bluish look by default, I’m picking Firefox in both questions. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the ability to skin an application is not bad per se, but enabling a non-OS-looking skin by default is a huge usability mistake. Not only will it stand out like a sore thumb, but unless it’s built by Microsoft or Apple, it’ll probably be the only application on your system standing out like this. Additionally, since it looks different than the other two browsers, chances are casual users will think it behaves differently too. My sincere recommendation for Opera (seriously, please heed this) is to have the Windows Native skin be enabled by default. I believe this issue will become especially visible when Windows Vista comes out.

4. Streamline Menus And Menu Items

As a quick example of the difference between the three browsers, here is a list of the three “Tools” menus:

Firefox Internet Explorer Opera
Web Search Delete Browsing History… Mail and chat accounts…
Read Mail Pop-up Blocker » Delete private data…
New Message… Phishing Filter » Notes
Downloads Manage Add-ons » Transfers
Add-ons Work Offline History
JavaScript Console Windows Update Links
Page Info Full Screen Advanced »
Clear Private Data Menu Bar Quick preferences »
Options… Toolbars » Appearance…
Internet Options Preferences…

Note: Shortcut text removed.

Legend: Tools, Privacy, Options, » indicates sub-menu.

Which menu is generally the most easy to decipher? If you wanted to change the default startup page, which menu, do you think, would get you to the right place with the least amount of thinking?

My opinion? This is where Firefox shines. IE is number 2, and Opera is a distant 3rd.

Specifically, why are there both “Quick preferences” and “Preferences”? Is the preferences page so badly designed (yes it is) that it’s not quick enough as it is? Why are downloads called “Transfers” when “Downloads” would be my logical choice (and hence what I would scan for in the list)? By simply combining some items and renaming others, the contents of the “Advanced” foldout-menu could easily be part of the main list. Finally, sub-menus should be avoided whenever possible. It’s always a cop-out to simplify menus by creating more menus. Sub-menus are especially bad because they require precision pointing.

Conclusions

It shouldn’t require an interface designer to point out the obvious shortcomings of Opera. The work is essentially spelled out for them. What it takes, however, is commitment.

It shouldn’t require an interface designer to point out the obvious shortcomings of Opera.

Since Opera “lost” Browser War 2 to Firefox and joined Browser War 3 with a free browser, Opera lost a stream of revenue. Opera now mainly makes it’s profit on ports for devices, including hand-helds, cellphones and the Nintendos Wii & DS. In other words, there’s no clear dangling profit-carrot in front of Opera for Windows. There is only one carrot: the brand-recognition-carrot. Should Opera become a player in the Windows browser market, it would automatically help the brand elsewhere.

Considering the fact that it’s a solid product, giving it a cheap 10-years-younger makeover to possibly give it some traction seems like an easy-peasy job. Hello Opera? Earth calling. We wish you were here.

The Web-Browser Interface Redesigned

Earlier this month, Opera released their new browser. While testing Opera 9, I noticed the main browsing interface was radically different from that of Firefox. Namely, the browsing tabs were above the address-bar and primary navigation buttons (Back, Forward, Stop).

This got me thinking; If one could completely redesign the current browsing interface, ground-up, what would be the most logical and intuitive configuration?

Armed with only screenshots of Firefox and gut-feeling, I got to work on a configuration.

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Thoughts On Opera 9

With the Opera web-browser free since version 8.5 and now updated to version 9, it’s about time I took a second look at it. The last time I used Opera, the only alternative was Internet Explorer.

Opera has a lot of things going for it. It has pretty much the same features as competing browsers, it’s fast (faster than IE and Firefox), and the web rendering engine seems fair enough (meaning much better than that of IE).

On the downside, Opera suffers from feature creep and has done so since I can remember. Most of these extra features (notes, widgets, style-manager, mouse gestures) would have worked great as extensions – what Firefox is doing – but they’re bundled and enabled by default.

Another mistake is that the standard Opera installation uses a custom skin by default. Skinning applications is a huge usability mistake since users will have to learn a new interface. This move is especially saddening since the optional standard UI support is actually very good.

The bottom line is that Opera 9 appeals a lot to me, mostly due to the speed with which it launches and browses. It might not be enough for me to switch, but it is closer than ever. Unfortunately, Opera 9 will fail commercially until the developers realise that the default configuration should be unskinned, simple and easy.