After the official release of the Australis theme for Firefox, earlier this week, the online debates about this move by the Mozilla Foundation has been pretty much raging. And most of the debates show some serious negativity towards the new look and consequent changes in functionality. But are those negative comments justified? My idea about that is, right of the bat, no!
To Chrome or not to Chrome, that’s the question
The most stated critique is that the new layout looks a lot like Google’s Chrome. It has the same menu-button on the right and the new curved tabs on top look much closer to Chrome’s tabs then the square tabs on the previous Firefox UI. But this is a skewed perspective: Firefox was the only browser (among the big ones) that still had it’s menu-button on the left, every other significant browser had their menu moved (or initially placed) on the right. So it seems there’s an apparent standard that only Firefox was not yet adhering to but now does. That is not ‘looking like Chrome’, it’s now looking like ‘the standard on most browsers’.
Then there is the tabs-issue, actually more than one. Yes, curvy tabs is something you either like or don’t. I hated the square tabs because they looked bulky (and reminded me of IE, not in a good way), I like the new ones much more. I had an alternate theme installed that’s called ChromeFox, nuff said. It’s now disabled because I do like the new curvy design more than the Chrome-like alternative I had.
Also the tabs are now at the top of the screen and many people don’t like that. But from a usability point of view, that’s where they should be: if you measure the use of the different UI-elements over a serious period and with real user scenarios, you’ll find that the order of UI-elements are by default in the correct order of use, meaning those that are being used most, are closest to the page-view. When you are inside a website, you interact with any UI-elements BUT the tabs, so tabs should be the furthest up, and everything else below those. I can say that for those changes, Firefox is now visually a much leaner and cleaner experience and I applaud the Mozilla team for this result.
Raising the bar… by removing it
The other big issue that is raised in the discussions, is the removal of the plugin bar. However, the plugin bar was a kludge to begin with. It was an option to have plugin-related icons not clutter up the main button bar. But any additional bar eats away precious screen estate, hence many available plugins that (temporarily) hide/unhide the plugin bar and/or even the status bar, now both gone from the UI completely. I had those permanently hidden for years now and didn’t mis them at all. I had to read about those being gone, in the Australis reviews to realise the fact. The new option to move buttons into the new right-placed menu is a great solution that not only saves screen space but additionally makes for a better functioning UI and a menu that is infinitely more functional than it’s equal in other browsers. Firefox is certainly leading the pack (again) here.
What I don’t get is the avalanche of comments saying that ‘if it looks this much like Chrome you might as well use Chrome instead’. My preference for Firefox didn’t have anything to do with it ‘looking different’ from any other browser, but instead of it BEING different from both a functional and a technological standpoint. I don’t like Chrome because it’s a half-breed product, lacking in many areas (don’t get me started about print-preview), it’s ‘looks’ has little to do with that. Firefox is simply a much more functional and usable browser, with better plugins available as well. Australis doesn’t change anything in that perspective.
Bottom line: the new Australis UI is a clear exercise in good UI-design. It actually makes the browser more usable, and taste aside, it does look slick in any perspective. And if you don’t like it, there’s always the gazillion plugins to redo or re-style Firefox, it still being the ultimate tweakable browser.