Saturday, January 31, 2009

Dell and smartphones

The latest rumours indicate that Dell are about to introduce a line of smartphones. Despite the incredible competition in this area, Dell's move makes great sense.

That's because of the convergence of computing to common standards. Smartphones are now mini computers, capable of running the same platform as desktops. Vendors should gain economies of scale by copying Apple, who use Mac OS across its product portfolio, from the iPhone to the iMac.

Dell has two choices for platform. It could choose the one it's worked on for the last twenty years - Windows. Or, as rumoured, it could choose Android.

If Dell chooses Android, this would be a reflection of Microsoft's weakness in the mobile space. But it could also be a harbinger of more to come; why couldn't Dell also use Android for netbooks, even eventually PCs?

I've already predicted further consolidation between the smartphone manufacturers and laptop manufacturers. Now the industries are converging, there are far too many companies around. Dell will struggle to achieve smartphone market share on its own before the market consolidates around it. If Dell is serious about becoming a major provider of smartphones, it should acquire to gain scale and expertise.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Firefox 3.2

Well, I know that Firefox 3.1 is still a month or two from shipping, but I've already got a wishlist for the next version.

Since last summer, Mozilla has been on a hiring spree and momentum has really picked up. So I've been ambitious and included some big improvements.

Firstly, user interface enhancements:

  • Speed dial for the new tab page.
  • Cleaning up history and bookmarks. There's the history sidebar, the bookmarks sidebar, the history menu, the bookmarks menu, the bookmarks toolbar, and places. And none of it integrates with Delicious or Digg.
  • Get rid of the "file / edit / view ..." menu. Chrome did it, IE7 did it, surely Firefox can do it too.
Second, additional standards support: Finally, improvements to the browser:
  • DOM & regexp speed improvements. Further extending the new-found speed of javascript.
  • Native support for Weave, allowing us to share our history and preferences between computers and trusted websites.
  • Native support for OpenID. What a great way to improve and simplify everyone's online lives.
  • Process separation between tabs. Chrome and IE have reaped the benefits, including speed and security.

I told you it was ambitious!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Announcing about:history

Recently I've become convinced that desktop browser interfaces are too complex. Menus, options, tabs and sidebars are a legacy of browser wars, with each side adding many new features; it's also a reminder of how recently we've really started to understand the web. Now, with smartphones with tiny screens and fiddly keyboards finally gaining proper internet access, simplicity is even more important.

So I've developed a Firefox extension to remedy the situation - about:history (download).

It's the first of a series of extensions to fit a new set of principles I've come to believe in:

  • Shrink the chrome

    The browser chrome - the menus, options, address bar and buttons around the actual content - should be as small as possible. After all, what users really want to see is their webpage.

  • The browser as a website

    People are used to navigating websites. Clunky browser dialog boxes, sidebars and menus just don't work in the same way. We should replace all of them with webpages. For example, there shouldn't be a history sidebar - instead, there should be a history webpage that opens in a new tab, with a URI, built from HTML, CSS and javascript, and following normal web interfaces like Google search. In this view, the browser chrome is a website.

So, about:history replaces the current history sidebar in Firefox with a browser tab that works similar to a web search engine:

It's actually quite similar to Google Chrome's history page, with a few important differences. Most notably, it's got a URI (about:history). If the web has taught us anything, it should be the power of the URI. Also, of course, it enables you to selectively delete pages from your browser history.

There's an advanced search option too - see the screenshot:

All you need to do to open up this page is click on the history link on the bookmarks bar, or press Ctrl-H. Of course, since there is a URI, other sites can also link back to it.

Personally I think this interface is much better. It doesn't introduce any new visual features like the sidebar - instead, it works just like a normal page. It follows normal visual metaphors like web search pages. It's linkable, clickable, you can put it in your favourites or view the source or screenscrape it. And it doesn't require any space in the chrome!

Let me know what you think. If all goes well, I'm going to apply the same principles to other parts of the browser, all in the aim of reducing clutter.

Unexpected convergence: smartphones and TVs

CES this year was fascinating. The Palm Pre is the perfect example of where I see consumer devices heading. The whole phone is basically a browser; it's built using web standards (HTML, CSS and javascript) from top to bottom. As Tim Bray states, "Speaking personally, as a person who'd never thought I needed the Internet in my pocket, I find myself using my G1 to approve comments and check the weather and fetch maps and so on all the time." To create the Pre, Palm (like Apple and Google), has focused on creating a browser for small screens. They've had to get rid of all the menus, options and buttons that desktop browsers are infested with, while also removing much of the need for fiddly keyboard entry.

Which brings me to the following quote last week from the CEO of Netflix, commenting on new internet-enabled TVs: "Think of Internet on the TV like the Web browser. One view is that the Web, a browser like Firefox, Chrome or I.E., will be right on the television in the next couple years. Another view is, no, a PC-based Web is just too complex. The second one is the phase that we're in now."

I agree that the PC-based browser is just too complex to use while standing metres away with a remote control. But the smartphone-based browser might work perfectly on your TV!

After all, stripping out the menus, options, buttons and keyboard navigation is the first step to getting a working browser on the TV, too. And though you can't touch your TV from the sofa, you can imagine using a control like the Wii to navigate a pointer round the screen in much the same way. Download the Wii Opera browser to see what I mean. Or just imagine the Palm Pre interface on your TV!

It seems odd that smartphones and 50" TVs could share the same interface. But that's the lesson of this year's CES for me.