Services & Software

The future of the Firefox address bar

There's money in those links.

I had an interesting discussion today about Firefox with Mozilla's Mike Schroepfer and Mike Beltzner. One of the things we drilled into a bit was the address bar in Firefox 3 (download). It's being called the "awesome bar" at Mozilla, and while it will end up with an official name eventually (the "smart location bar"), what it does for users can fairly be described as awesome. And as it's probably the most important touchpoint in the browser, it's worth exploring not just what it means for users but for Mozilla as well.

The Firefox 3 address bar helps users auto-complete the URLs they type in, but it's smarter than it appears at first. The choices that pop to the top of the list as you type are not based just on best text match, but on your previous behavior. Sites you visit frequently pop up higher on the list. Bookmarked sites also get special treatment. And since Firefox now has a new high-performance database to record your behavior, it can track what you do over a long period of time; it doesn't have to flush your history every week or so to keep the performance up.

The "awesome bar" knows what I want.

A potential issue with the address bar, for Mozilla, is that it decreases users' reliance on the search bar. And it's the search bar that pays the rent: Mozilla makes money by sending traffic to Google. Schroepfer and Beltzner don't think that the fabulous new address bar will hurt their revenues, though, since searching for a site you've already visited--which is what people use the search bar for only if there's no better option--is not "monetizable traffic."

But that doesn't mean the search bar is out of the woods. Beltzner said that Mozilla would like to "reduce the number of touch points," and eliminate the redundancy and potential confusion of having two smart places that users can type URLs or keywords to get similar results. Ultimately, he said, the two entry fields will merge into one. How the data from your browsing history and from a Web search engine will merge has yet to be resolved. But it will likely reduce the browser users' reliance on Google.

It also puts Mozilla in a stronger position. It gives the browser first stab at determining what the user wants to do, before even Google gets the search words. The Mozilla execs expressed no interest in making money from that position--"We hadn't thought of it," Schroepfer said--but I believe Mozilla would be foolish to not consider ways to make a few more bucks from this power position. The company does not have to sell its soul to do so.

Previously, other companies have seen the value in address bar plays. Real Names, for example, had the brilliant idea of selling address bar keyword shortcuts. Everything was going swimmingly until Microsoft changed how Internet Explorer processed non-URL entries into its address bar, cutting off Real Names' oxygen. Mozilla is in the Microsoft position in this modern re-telling of the story, and it wins. I will be interested to see if the company does anything innovative with this position, or if it instead simply keeps its relationship with Google on strong footing and continues to send the search giant its valuable keyword traffic.

See also: OpenDNS attaches keywords to your router.