Re-dreaming Firefox (2): Beyond Bookmarks

June 3, 2015 § 17 Comments

Gerv’s recent post on the Jeeves Test got me thinking of the Firefox of my dreams. So I decided to write down a few ideas on how I would like to experience the web. Today: Beyond Bookmarks. Let me emphasize that the features described in this blog post do not exist.

« Look, here is an interesting website. I want to read that content (or watch that video, or play that game), just not immediately. » So, what am I going to do to remember that I wish to read it later:

  1. Bookmark it?
  2. Save it to disk?
  3. Pocket it?
  4. Remember that I saw it and find it in my history later?
  5. Remember that I saw it and find it in my Awesome Bar later?
  6. Hope that it shows up in the New Tab page?
  7. Open a tab?
  8. Install the Open Web App for that website?
  9. Open a tab and put that tab in a tab group?

Wow, that’s 9 ways of fulfilling the same task. Having so many ways of doing the same thing is not a very good sign, so let’s see if we can find a way to unify a few of these abstractions into something more generic and powerful.

Bookmarking is saving is reading later

What are the differences between Bookmarking and Saving?

  1. Bookmarking keeps a URL, while Saving keeps a snapshot.
  2. Bookmarks can be used only from within the browser, while Saved files can be used only from without.

Merging these two features is actually quite easy. Let’s introduce a new button, the Awesome Bookmarks which will serve as a replacement for both the Bookmark button and Save As.

  • Clicking on the Awesome Bookmarks icon saves both the URL to the internal database and a snapshot to the Downloads directory (also accessible through the Downloads menu).
  • Opening an Awesome Bookmark, whether from the browser or from the OS both lead the user to (by default) the live version of the page, or (if the computer is not connected) to the snapshot.
  • Whenever visiting a page that has an Awesome Bookmark, the Awesome Bookmark icon changes color to offer the user the ability to switch between the live version or the snapshot.
  • The same page can be Awesome Bookmarked several times, offering the ability to switch between several snapshots.

By switching to Awesome Bookmarks, we have merged Saving, Bookmarking and the Read it Later list of Pocket. Actually, since Firefox already offers Sync and Social Sharing, we have just merged all the features of Pocket.

So we have removed collapsed items from our list into one.

Bookmarks are history are tiles

What are the differences between Bookmarks and History?

  1. History is recorded automatically, while Bookmarks need to be recorded manually.
  2. History is eventually forgotten, while Bookmarks are not.
  3. Bookmarks can be put in folders, History cannot.

Let’s keep doing almost that, but without segregating the views. Let us introduce a new view, the Awesome Pages, which will serve as a replacement for both Bookmarks Menu and the History Menu.

This view shows a grid of thumbnails of visited pages, iOS/Android/Firefox OS style.

  • first the pages visited most often during the past few hours (with the option of scrolling for all the pages visited during the past few hours);
  • then the Awesome Bookmarks (because, after all, the user has decided to mark these pages)/Awesome Bookmarks folders (with the option of scrolling for more favourites);
  • then, if the user has opted in for suggestions, a set of Awesome Suggested Tiles (with the option of scrolling for more suggestions);
  • then the pages visited the most often today (with the option of scrolling for the other pages visited today);
  • then the pages visited most often this week (with the option of scrolling for the other pages visited this week);

By default, clicking on an Awesome Bookmark (or history entry, or suggested page, etc.) for a page that is already opened switches to that page. Non-bookmarked pages can be turned into Awesome Bookmarks trivially, by starring them or putting them into folders.

An Awesome Bar at the top of this Awesome Pages lets users quickly search for pages and folders. This is the same Awesome Bar that is already at the top of tabs in today’s Firefox, just with the full-screen Awesome Pages replacing the current drop-down menu.

Oh, and by the way, this Awesome Pages is actually our new New Tab page.

By switching to the Awesome Pages, we have merged:

  • the history menu;
  • the bookmarks menu;
  • the new tab page;
  • the awesome bar.

Bookmarks are tabs are apps

What are the differences between Bookmarks and Tabs?

  1. Clicking on a bookmark opens the page by loading it, while clicking on a tab opens the page by switching to it.

That’s not much of a difference, is it?

So let’s make a few more changes to our UX:

  • Awesome Bookmarks record the state of the page, in the style of Session Restore, so clicking on an Awesome Bookmark actually restores that page, whenever possible, instead of reloading it;
  • The ribbon on top of the browser, which traditionally contains tabs, is actually a simplified display of the Awesome Pages, which shows, by default, the pages most often visited during the past few hours;
  • Whether clicking on a ribbon item switches to a page or restores it is an implementation detail, which depends on whether the browser has decided that unloading a page was a good idea for memory/CPU/battery usage;
  • Replace Panorama with the Awesome Page, without further change.

So, with a little imagination (and, I’ll admit, a little hand-waving), we have merged tabs and bookmarks. Interestingly, we have done that by moving to an Apps-like model, in which whether an application is loaded or not is for the OS to decide, rather than the user.

By the way, what are the differences between Tabs and Open Web Apps?

  1. Apps can be killed by the OS, while Tabs cannot.
  2. Apps are visible to the OS, while Tabs appear in the browser only.

Well, if we decide that Apps are just Bookmarks, since Bookmarks have been made visible to the OS in section 1., and since Bookmarks have just been merged with Tabs which have just been made killable by the browser, we have our Apps model.

We have just removed three more items from our list.

What’s left?

We are down to one higher-level abstraction (the Awesome Bookmark) and one view of it (the Awesome Page). Of course, if this is eventually released, we are certainly going to call both Persona.

This new Firefox is quite different from today’s Firefox. Actually, it looks much more like Firefox OS, which may be a good thing. While I realize that many of the details are handwavy (e.g. how do you open the same page twice simultaneously?), I believe that someone smarter than me can do great things with this preliminary exploration.

I would like to try that Firefox. Would you?

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Re-dreaming Firefox (1): Firefox Agents

May 29, 2015 § 9 Comments

Gerv’s recent post on the Jeeves Test got me thinking of the Firefox of my dreams. So I decided to write down a few ideas on how I would like to experience the web. Today: Firefox Agents. Let me emphasise that the features described in this blog post do not exist.

Marcel uses Firefox every day, for quite a number of things.

  • He uses Firefox for fun, for watching videos and playing online games. For this purpose, he has installed a few tools for finding and downloading videos. Also, one of his main search engines is YouTube. Suggested movies? Sure, as long as they are fun.
  • He uses Firefox for social networks. He follows his friends, he searches on Facebook, or Twitter, or Google+. If anything looks fun, or useful, he’d like to be informed.
  • He uses Firefox for managing his bank accounts, his taxes, his health insurance. For this purpose, he has paranoid security settings – to avoid phishing, he can only browse to a few whitelisted websites – and no add-ons. He may be interested in getting information from these few websites, and in security updates, but that’s about it. Also, since Firefox handles all his passwords, it must itself be protected by a password.
  • He uses Firefox to read his Gmail account. And to read his other Gmail account. And he doesn’t want to leak privacy information by doing so on the same Firefox that he’s using for browsing.
  • Oh, and he may also be using Firefox for browsing websites that are sensitive for any kind of reason, whether he’s hunting for gifts for his close family, dating online, chatting with hackers, discussing politics, helping NGOs in sensitive parts of the globe, visiting BitTorrent trackers, consulting a physician through some online service, or, well, anything else that requires privacy. He’d like to perform such browsing with additional anonymity guarantees. This also means locking Firefox with a password.
  • Sometimes, his children or friends borrow his computer and use Firefox, too.

Of course, since Marcel brings his own device at (or from) work, that’s the same Firefox that he’s using for all of these tasks, and he’s probably even doing several of these tasks at the same time.

So, Marcel has a set of contradictory requirements, not to mention that each of his uses of Firefox needs to pass a distinct Jeeves Test. How do we keep him happy nevertheless?

Introducing Firefox Agents

In the rest of this post, I will be calling each of these uses of Firefox an Agent (if we ever implement this feature, it will, of course, be called Persona). Each Agent matches one way you use Firefox. While Firefox may be delivered with a predefined set of Agents, users can easily create new Agents. In the example, Marcel has his “Fun Agent”, his “Social Agent”, his “Work Agent”, etc.

Each Agent is unique and separate:

  • Each Agent has its own icon on Marcel’s menu/desktop/tablet/phone and task list.
  • Each Agent has its own visual identity, to make sure that work-related stuff doesn’t end up accidentally in the Fun Agent.
  • Each Agent has its own set of preferences, bookmarks, remembered passwords, cookies, cache, and add-ons.
  • Each website may be connected to a given Agent, so that links received through Gmail or through Thunderbird, for instance, automatically open with the right Agent.

As a consequence, any technology that can come bundled with Firefox to, for instance, provide search suggestions or any other kind of website suggestions is tied to an Agent. For instance, Marcel’s browsing a dating site, or shopping for shoes, or having religious activities will not be visible to any of his colleagues looking above his shoulder at his Work Agent, nor will it be tied to either of Marcel’s Gmail accounts. This greatly increases the chances of suggestion technologies passing the Jeeves Test.

Agents are also connected:

  • A menu in each Agent, as well as a keyboard shortcut, lets users quickly open/switch to other Agents.
  • When an Agent follows a link to a website that belongs to another Agent, the relevant Agent opens automatically.
  • Bookmarks may be pushed, on demand, from one Agent to another one.
  • Passwords may be pulled, on demand, from one Agent to another one.

How far are we from Agents?

Technologically speaking, Firefox Agents almost exist. Indeed, Firefox has supported Profiles forever, since way before Firefox 1.0. I generally have three instances of Firefox opened at the same time (four when I’m doing web development), and it works nicely.

With a few add-ons, you can get almost everything, although not entirely connected together:

  • Profilist helps a lot with switching between profiles, and the dev version adds distinct icons;
  • Firefox Themes implement distinct appearances;
  • there are add-ons implementing whitelist browsing;
  • there are add-ons implementing password-protected Firefox.

A few features are missing, but as you can see, the list is actually quite short:

  • Pushing/pulling passwords and bookmarks between Agents (although that’s a subset of what Firefox Accounts can do).
  • Attaching specific websites to specific Agents (although this doesn’t seem too difficult to implement).
  • Connecting this all together.

What now?

I would like to browse with this Firefox. Would you?

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