What do you get when you cross a Firefox with a chameleon?
An open-source Web browser whose user interface is adapted to the look of the operating system it's running on. One change planned for the upcoming Firefox version 3, code-named Gran Paradiso, is this more native appearance.
"The Web browser is an incredibly central piece of the user's operating system, and we don't want the user's initial reaction to be that they have modified their computer to add some type of strange, foreign application," said Mozilla interface designer Alex Faaborg in a blog posting last week. "Mozilla's user experience team literally wants to do a better job of visually integrating with Windows than IE, and a better job of visually integrating with OS X than Safari. I don't know if we will be able to pull that off, but that's the goal."
Firefox will have different looks for Windows XP and Windows Vista, but the much broader diversity of Linux interface options makes it more challenging. Red Hat, Suse and Ubuntu all look different, just to name three popular versions, and as a further complication, each is available with the KDE and GNOME graphical interfaces.
"We still aren't sure what the best way to visually integrate with Linux is, given the number of different distributions," Faaborg said. He also referred those interested in the issue to related posts by lead Firefox engineer Mike Connor and Firefox user experience leader Mike Beltzner, who detailed some of the problems.
The Firefox native-look approach goes counter to one trend.
There was a time when user interface guidelines for operating systems were rigorously set. Buttons and menus and scroll bars had to look and behave in a certain way so computer users would know what to expect and have an easier time figuring out how to accomplish what they wanted.
But user interfaces today are exploding in diversity. Years ago, software such as media players forsook a traditional appearance in favor of an interface that looks like a car radio. Followed suit are a profusion of smaller programs called widgets and gadgets such as clocks or weather monitors. And rich Internet applications, which run in Web browsers, are designed to look the same across operating systems.
Software that's adapted for multiple operating systems always faces something of an identity crisis. Should the software look the same from one operating system to the next, providing a familiar look regardless of where it's running, or should it fit in with the local system?
Faaborg said he believes people will imprint more on what Firefox can do than on how exactly it looks.
"I personally think Firefox has in the past established its identity through interactions as opposed to the visual design of the interface itself," he said, citing for example people's recognition of the tabbed browser windows in Firefox 1.0. And users similarly might identify in Firefox 3 with a feature that lets them navigate to a Web page by typing some part of its name in the location bar, with Firefox suggesting full links based on bookmarks and previous pages visited.
"When you think about the difference between Firefox 2 and 3, or the difference between Firefox and other Web browsers, I think it is streamlined interactions like this, or one-click bookmarking, that are likely to spring to mind, as opposed to the application's unique visual style," Faaborg said.