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Why heavy web users need to check out Firefox 3

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Apr. 24th, 2008 | 05:14 pm

(With apologies to members of the choir who've heard this sermon before)

If you use the Internet a lot, you need to check out Firefox 3 when a flavour appropriate to your personal pre-release-software-comfort-zone is released (Beta 5 is out already, Release Candidate 1 is due soon, Final release is due in June). Here's why:

The primary methods that people use to return to sites they've visited before are the location bar autocomplete and Google. Which is crazy, because browsers have features to help with that - history and bookmarks (IE calls them "favorites"). Unfortunately, bookmarks are a pain to use, especially if you have lots of them and can't be bothered to organise them. I have at least hundreds, and only really do a cursory sort when I get pissed off at the mess they've become. I gather that makes me far more organised than most people. It's better than nothing, but a pain to use.

(Personal history diversion: One of the main reasons I stuck with Netscape 4.x almost to the very end1, and swapped to the Mozilla Suite (now known as SeaMonkey) when I did leave, was bookmark handling. Back when NN3.x/4.x was my browser, search engines sucked (this was in the dark days before Google) so using bookmarks quickly became a habit if I ever wanted to find stuff again. In essence, the competition's bookmark handling sucked. Netscape/Mozilla's sucked as well, but was less sucky than everybody else's.)

I am somewhat boggled that this area has been neglected by browser manufacturers for so long. The Mozilla people reached the same decision some time ago, and decided to do something about it.

In summary, they've made bookmarks much more usable for both normal people and power users, and added loads of cross-linking between the address bar and history/bookmarks so that the autocomplete is scary-good at finding stuff you've visited in the past.

This work was known within Mozilla as "places". In essence, it's a complete overhaul of the way the browser handles history and bookmarks. It includes internal work to replace the mind-meltingly-awful Mork2 data storage format that Mozilla inherited from Netscape with something sensible (SQLlite, for any techie readers) but also includes significant UI work to make the browser's internal history and bookmarking system more useful and usable for normal people, as opposed to organizationally-obsessed people prepared to spend an hour or two a month keeping everything neatly sorted and filed.

Places was originally slated for release as part of Firefox 2, but got dropped when it became clear it wouldn't be ready. Well, for Firefox 3, it's ready, and it's been surfacing gradually in the later betas.

There are lots of little changes, most of which sound trivial, but they add up to something that has changed the way I use a browser3 (and I'm still learning my way around the new stuff).

First up, the so-called "Awesome Bar"4. They improved the way the address bar autocomplete works. Like I said, it sounds trivial, but it ain't.

Essentially, rather than being a simple URL autocomplete, in FF3, the location bar now matches on all parts of a URL (not just the start of the domain). It doesn't just search URLs you've typed, it searches URLs in your history and bookmarks too. And page titles from your history. And Bookmark names. And any tags you've applied to bookmarks (of which, more in a minute).

It then sorts all the results based on match quality, how often you visit them, and how recently you last visited. I think it even pays attention to which items you picked from the list last time, and uses that info to try to guess better next time. Mozilla's Deb Richardson has a post explaining it in more detail. After a while, it becomes almost psychically good at finding the page you're looking for.

This rocks enough that it almost earns the right to have me use such a silly name as "Awesome Bar" with a straight face. Seriously, once you get used to it, you can't go back.

Secondly, general bookmark handling. You can bookmark with one click. A couple more clicks let you file it sensibly, or one click and some typing lets you apply tags to give you tag-style organisation.

The bookmark organiser, while superficially unchanged, has lots of new features to deal with tags, and includes the ability to build and remember queries across your bookmark library. Want a folder on your bookmark bar that dynamically includes all the bookmarks you've tagged with "wibble"? Easy.

Again, Deb Richardson has a post outlining bookmarking and smart folders.

Disclaimer: I'm only just starting to play with smart folders - despite it being on my wishlist ever since they added tagging, I only just found the relevant button, and I'm still bouncing off things - my initial experiments have been a bit bumpy, but I suspect that the problem is with my mental model of how it works, and it'll all go more smoothly once I get used to it. If/when it does work properly for me, it'll rock.

Like I said, if you spend large chunks of time on the web, you need to check these features out. I've never been a huge fan of tabs, so I don't regard them as a killer feature like some people do. The "awesome bar", however, is a serious contender for that description.

1I think I bailed somewhere in the 4.7x series. I wasn't a web developer in those days, so I didn't realise just how bad The Scottish Browser was when it came to page rendering and CSS.

2ex-Netscape engineer Jamie Zawinski, aka jwz, said: "[Mork] is -- and I do not use these words lightly -- the single most braindamaged file format that I have ever seen in my nineteen year career." The primary sins are enumerated in comments in the perl source code he hacked up to read the beastie.

3The scary thing is, that's what an awful lot of people are saying. I don't think we're pod-people.

4This name sucks. But it's semi-official, and thus we're stuck with it. At least it's short, memorable and easy to spell, thereby beating many product/feature names I've had to deal with over the years.

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Comments {10}

Ian Sturrock

(no subject)

from: serpentstar
date: Apr. 24th, 2008 05:05 pm (UTC)

Ta! I shall look forward to June. :)

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Reply Hazy, Ask Again Later

(no subject)

from: replyhazy
date: Apr. 24th, 2008 05:11 pm (UTC)

I will watch for more news! Thanks for the update!

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(no subject)

from: sea_cucumber
date: Apr. 24th, 2008 05:12 pm (UTC)

I find myself feeling suspiciously excited about the 'awesome bar'... :O

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The Magician


from: the_magician
date: Apr. 24th, 2008 05:24 pm (UTC)

Though reading the comments I did find myself agreeing with a couple of the moaning people too :-)

Of course there will always be additional features which would be nice *for me* that make things more difficult for other people.

E.g. if I'm searching for sites for, say, tents for camping, it would be great if I could set some standard tags so when I clicked on the blue star, it also added the standard tags. Also if I've created a folder for camping, with a subfolder of tents ... if I'm going through several sites in succession and wanting to book mark each of them, then I'd have to reselect where to save the bookmark each time as well as reenter the tags each time.

I did like "keywords" in the past, where I could just have a keyword of "orbital" and it took me to the Orbital2008 home page, and "orbitalconcom" and it toom me to the Orbital private committee pages. It looks like I'll have to put the keyword as a tag and then select from the drop down list rather than just hitting enter ... or am I missing something?

Otherwise some very excellent behaviour!

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Re: Excellent!

from: blufive
date: Apr. 24th, 2008 07:01 pm (UTC)

I think the keyword functionality is still there, though I've never bothered setting any up.

Re: the mass search for related sites.
Getting stuff all in the same folder; I think I'd suggest just doing a rapid drive-by, leaving them all in the new magic "unfiled" folder, then going to the organiser and mass-moving them to the new folder. Though I can see how that might not be the best option in many situations. (It's not even close to intuitive, for starters)

Alternatively, if you are a fan of tabbed browsing, open all the pages in tabs in the same window, then use bookmarks->bookmark all tabs option, which dumps them all in one folder anyway. I think that feature's in FF2.x, though I may be wrong because I never use it. Again, probably sub-optimal for most people's browsing behaviour, unless they're rigorous about killing dead-end tabs and not killing "good" ones.

However, there's still no way to add a single tag to a bunch of bookmarks all at once.

(Hmm. bug 412002. Dunno If that'll make it into FF3 final, given the size of the patch and the proximity of the release, but it's not being shot down by the appropriate people who are obviously aware of it, so it could happen)

Like I said, bookmark handling sucks. I think this is a case where Firefox is getting much better, but there are still problems. I didn't want to whine in the main post about the things that I want that are still missing, because FF3 is miles ahead of anything else I've ever used.

To return again to the mass search: I also suspect that the "awesome bar" will actually work pretty well if you just type "tent" after doing the surfing - it works on page titles of both history and bookmarks too, so if the people writing the websites are putting proper meaningful titles on their pages...

I'll make a wild prognostication and say that there will be loads of bookmark/history/places-based extensions in 6-12 months time, which may provide the sort of functionality we're after. Not to mention the possiblity of evolution in FF4...

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Martin McCallion

(no subject)

from: devilgate
date: Apr. 24th, 2008 07:28 pm (UTC)

I'm looking forward to trying it, but I don't use bookmarks much. Or not, at least, the browser's bookmarks.

I guess I used to, like you, before search was so good. But more significantly, before RSS, and particularly Del.icio.us. I now use a plugin that presents my Del.icio.us bookmarks as if they were browser bookmarks. That seems quite good, has decent search, and so on.

But mainly I use URL-completion, a feed reader, and memory. So I'm guessing the Awesome Bar might be quite good for me. Awesome, even.

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from: stsquad
date: Apr. 24th, 2008 09:25 pm (UTC)

The thing I have discovered about bookmarks is I almost universally need to access them when I'm not at my desk/computer. The ability to go to any browser to type in http://del.icio.us/$user/tag and get the url is a godsend. Also the tag history bar is good for those "I'll just tag it and read later" moments. I'm happy with divorcing the browsers bookmarks from my life. That doesn't mean I shouldn't be able to tell it my tag source and let it use that to help guess URL's (much like Deskbar already does).

I lie slightly. I do have some bookmarks on my browser. But basically they are everyday shortcuts. If it's more that the width of my Browser Bookmarks Toolbar I have too many committed to that browser instantiation.

The other very welcome improvement with FF3 is memory usage. After many years of complaining it seems the authors have made a concerted effort to stop Firefox eating quite so much of X's pixel memory.

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Re: del.icio.us

from: blufive
date: Apr. 27th, 2008 11:20 am (UTC)

You and devilgate have effectively already upgraded to an even-more-advanced system with the extra feature of having your bookmarks "in the cloud".

I've never really had that need, personally - I use two machines all the time, but for completely different things, so I actually have two mostly-independent sets of bookmarks going on.

You may still get some benefit from FF3, but you're already ahead of it. But then you're pretty much the definition of a power user and you've gone further already via other tools. This is another case of Firefox looking at mass usage habits, and seeing what they can do.

Like I said upthread, there's probably serious scope for new extensions that hook into all this, but we'll have to wait and see what they do...

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(no subject)

from: davosmith
date: Apr. 25th, 2008 07:46 am (UTC)

And remember, if you want to try it without worrying about breaking anything - http://portableapps.com has a version that will run alongside FF2 and not overwrite any shared settings.

As Ubuntu just updated to FF3b5 yesterday, I've been enjoying playing with it and much impressed by its goodness (just have to work out how to get it onto my EeePC, without breaking it - not that happy about installing non-distribution specific deb files, or the thought of compiling from source on a low-powered machine).

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Tom Chiverton

(no subject)

from: thefalken
date: Apr. 27th, 2008 09:15 pm (UTC)

+1 that
I had to use FireFox 2 and IE the other day. Talk about painful to find things I knew I visited on the box before !

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