Thanks for giving my pixels back, browser makers

More pixels means more productivity. In the coming age of browser-based applications, it's more important than ever to thwack that thicket of icons and menus.

I'd personally like to offer browser makers my gratitude for realizing that my screen isn't big enough.

I'm one of those people who wants every bit of display real estate I can get. The more I can see of the document I'm writing, the in-box I'm scanning, and the photo I'm editing, the happier and more productive I am.

The maximize button is my friend. Toolbars are my enemies.

So I'm happy to report that browser makers are paying new attention to the issue. It's important to me for reading Web sites, but it's really important to me for the new generation of Web applications. A row of pixels saved once in the browser is returned again with each Web-based application.

Mozilla's ultimate goal is to make the user interface step into the background as much as possible--indeed, the mobile-phone version of Firefox now under development has no visible user interface until it's needed. "Every time a user has to think about how to do something, instead of what we want to do, we as software creators have failed," said Aza Raskin, Mozilla's leader of user interface work.

But it's not simple to redesign the browsers. Users can be confused when interfaces change, some controls are essential, and hiding them can cause problems.

"The challenge to reducing UI (user interface) is in recognition versus recall. People generally use what they see," Raskin said. "How can we provide one-click access to everything possible on the Web without also cluttering the screen? That's a question we are still answering."

Microsoft's case is illuminating. Its Internet Explorer 7 hid the menu bar, though it could be revealed by pressing the Alt key, but IE 8 shows menus by default. (It can be hidden again by default if people choose, and I do.)

Reclaiming real estate
There's been some work in this area for years. For example, hitting the F11 key in Windows puts Firefox into a full-screen mode, hiding title, menu, address, and tab bars. And Microsoft's Internet Explorer 7 hid the menu bar, though it could be revealed by pressing the Alt key; IE 8 shows menus by default again, though it can be hidden again by default if people choose, and I do.

But now the pixel reclamation effort is taking off in earnest. The big statement came in September 2008, when Google revealed its Chrome browser--ironically named because it aims to move the user interface elements, called chrome, as much into the background as possible.

Chrome wiped out the title bar altogether and arrayed its browser tabs in the newly freed space. It also wiped out the menu strip and tucked the options into two drop-down menu buttons to the right of the address bar. Information that would show in a status bar, such as the actual URL of a Web address you're hovering your mouse over, appear in a temporary box that appears on the lower left. When you search a Web page, another small window appears in the upper right. (Chrome looks somewhat different on Mac OS X, which always uses a menu bar at the top of the screen that's detached from the browser Window itself.)

An example of Chrome's latest interface.
An example of Chrome's latest interface on Windows. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET
Chrome on the Mac can't free up the menu bar real estate, so it looks different than on Windows.
Chrome on the Mac can't free up the menu bar real estate, so it looks different than on Windows. Screenshot by Josh Lowensohn/CNET

Missing at launch was a full-screen mode, but Google rapidly filled in that gap. This max-screen ethos is one reason that Chrome, at present at least, is my default browser.

Another change came with Safari 4 from Apple. Like Chrome, it added the two-button menu icons toward the upper right. Unlike Chrome, it sports a traditional menu bar as well, though with the Windows version it can be hidden to free up some real estate.

Safari 4 lets you hide the menu bar--but between the beta and final versions, Apple moved the tabs to the more conservative position immediately above the browser Web page.
Safari 4 lets you hide the menu bar--but between the beta and final versions, Apple moved the tabs to the more conservative position immediately above the browser Web page. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Unfortunately, in my opinion, Apple backed off from another change between the Safari 4 beta and final version. Initially, the browser sported tabs in the title bar, like Chrome, but Apple later moved them into the more conservative position immediately above the Web page.

The next move comes from Mozilla, which leads development of the Firefox browser.

With the dash to release Firefox 3.5 now over, developer attention again focuses on the future. Last week, mock-ups of Firefox 3.7 arrived to trigger discussions of what the final interface should look like. On display were two Chrome-like characteristics: the two menu icons and the missing menu bar.

Shortly afterward came the Firefox 4.0 mock-ups, moving the tabs to the title bar in one option that's even more Chrome-esque.

This Firefox 4.0 mock-up shows a very Chrome-like interface.
This Firefox 4.0 mock-up shows a very Chrome-like interface. Mozilla

One of the big assets Firefox has is its extensions system, which can be used to customize the browser. One I like is autoHideStatusbar, which reclaims the status bar real estate except when I need it in order to see where a link on a Web site leads. I also use Tree Style Tab to move tabs off to the left; I typically need vertical space more than horizontal.

In the same vein, those who were enamored of the Firefox 3.7 mock-up look can try it themselves in the real world with a three-step change LifeHacker put together.

The Web app era
How all these changes will shake out isn't clear yet. But what is clear is that influential developers believe thin frames are better than thickets of icons, menus, bars, and boxes.

The Web application trend is one reason this trend is important.

Consider for a moment Microsoft Word. Especially when the newer version's ribbon of icons is active, it requires a fair amount of area to house its controls.

Now consider Google Docs, which must add its word-processing user interface elements with those already present for the browser itself. Those using the application must bear a double burden. It's like going back to the era of 800x600-pixel displays.

Now factor in the Web application future--Picnik for photo editing, Zoho for office productivity, Bespin for programming, even Microsoft Office soon. These applications are increasing in number, sophistication, and importance, even if they aren't replacing desktop applications as soon as Google Chrome OS developers might hope.

A little bit of screen real estate saved in the browser is multiplied many times over across this range of applications. And of course, conventional Web browsing can benefit, too, offering the possibility of more information and less scrolling to get to it.

It takes real work to pare back a user interface without impairing software's utility. But until the day arrives when my screen is displayed on an entire office wall or directly on my retina, I'll hoard every pixel that browser developers can give me.

About the author

Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and covers browsers, Web development, digital photography and new technology. In the past he has been CNET's beat reporter for Google, Yahoo, Linux, open-source software, servers and supercomputers. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces.

 

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