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.


tobiasly said...

Looks interesting Chris, will this be available via the official Addons site? I prefer to install extensions from there if possible.

Chris Jay said...

yes, I'm just waiting for approval from addons.mozilla.org