While I’ve been at conferences and jamming on deadlines at work, two new browsers came out, which is huge news for Web designers and developers everywhere. I’ve already mentioned some developer-related changes in Firefox and IE7. The IE7 team does deserve credit there, they’re obviously working on it, and that’s a good thing.
In this post though, I thought I’d comment on the browsers themselves as end user tools. Before I go on, in the interests of full disclosure, I want to note that Firefox was and is my default browser — with no change on the horizon.
IE7 Has Improvements
IE7 certainly has made improvements as a browser goes, but in my opinion Microsoft is just playing catch up. IE7 has finally added tabbed browsing. They did add a nice thumbnail feature (which you can get for Firefox as an extension, by the way), and bookmarking tab groups so you can open sets of tabs at a time. Also, they’ve improved handling of printing by adding print-to-fit pages features. This allows you to, rather than scale a printed page to a percentage, ask the browser to scale the page to fit the printed page the best it can. It’s been interesting to me that in reviews of IE they keep mentioning things like tab groups and print to fit, but Firefox has done these things for years.
They changed the UI a lot. I can’t stand what they did to the toolbar and such. Seriously, I can’t believe it got out of their usability labs, but who am I. For one, the File/Edit/View type menus are all suppressed, I believe, in an effort to bring browsing to the fore-front. They can be brought back by clicking the “alt” key, but that’s just odd, nonstandard behavior IMHO. Maybe Vista will work that way, I don’t know.
The biggest improvements (beyond the obvious tabs and security items that I’m not touching on) in IE I can see from the casual user standpoint is the inclusion of nice font-smoothing and full page zoom.
I think the font-smoothing is huge to improving reading and will benefit designers as well — it’s on par with what the Mac has done for years — which will help make the Web a prettier place and I can’t wait until Firefox supports this (are they even planning on it?).
To date, only Opera has had full page zoom. Honestly it kills me because whole page zoom in my opinion is a preferred approach beyond font resizing, but that’s just me. However, not really being the audience for these features I’m speaking from the perspective a developer who gets headaches dealing with font scaling issues. I think it’s real nice being able to zoom the whole page, but again, different audience.
Firefox and IE on RSS, etc.
Both Firefox and IE7 have added good RSS feed handling improvements. The browsers now give you nicely formatted pages with options when you click on an RSS link, rather than showing users the default XML formatting, which is useless. I love what Firefox has done, where you get options for subscribing to the feed, including client software you might have installed — quite nice. In IE you can subscribe, but I think from what I can tell, it’s just similar to Firefox Live Bookmarks, also a feature they’ve had for some time.
For Firefox, they put serious effort into a UI spit and polish (looks ready for Windows Vista, if you ask me) with improvements to the tabs (close buttons on the tabs themselves), undo close tab (which was an extension which I swore by) built into the History menu, and finally improvements to the handling of many, many tabs being open by adding tab scrolling. There’s also a nice, handy open tabs list drop down, also very useful.
Conclusions and Future IE
As far as browsing experiences go, Firefox is, especially with extensions, years ahead of IE. But I really don’t think for Mozilla add-ons like that are easy to sell to a consumer market. I’m thinking they might have to start pushing them as part of a custom install setup (maybe a process that allows consumer friendly add-ons to be downloaded on demand) or something. The thing is, a lot of the Firefox team was part of the Netscape fiasco, and will be the first to tell you what they want to avoid in the area of bloat ware, etc. Keep it simple is the mantra. How do you introduce innovations and keep it simple?
It’s great to see that Microsoft is responding to market pressures (when have they ever not?), and that they’ve released an update which has some improvements (it’s definitely better than IE6). I was a little perplexed when some prominent names announced with the release of IE7 they were moving BACK to IE, but I’m not even going to put the links here, because I just don’t get it — yet. As I said, I’m a Firefox user and I won’t pretend that this is some thorough, fair and balanced review of the two products.
But I do wonder — Microsoft showed they’re back and taking it seriously, with Chris Wilson now taking the role as an architect now, (for the Web development platform no less) what does the future hold? IE7 also showed Microsoft were willing to take some chances, the re-jiggering of the toolbar space alone was enough to show that, and going with the Firefox minimalist approach — what’s next for Web browsers and who will raise the bar?
My biggest concern is what about IE8 or beyond? Mozilla and company have awoken a sleeping giant, and that can be quite scary. They are playing catch up, and even some folks on the IE team would tell you as much, but it’s made the browser landscape that much more interesting.
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