Aurora

Mozilla Labs is starting to release some information on their concept next-gen web browser called Aurora.

They’re releasing concept videos of how they envision this next-gen browser might work. And after watching the first three videos you too will become sick with the term “next generation” or “next-gen”. Why not just call it Aurora?

The nice thing to see in the demo is something I’ve been on about for a while now and that’s the use of data within a web page for something OTHER than just reading humans. In the demo they use a tool to take data from a table and generate a graph on-the-fly. Very good stuff.

I still maintain there’s something to creating a feature which can quickly summarize a page for you based on heading hierarchy and strong/emphasis tags, etc. Take the existing information and organize it for the user in a way that highlights the important bits.

Sadly, that’s where my compliments for Aurora end.

The first thing you notice is Aurora is designed to become your desktop. It’s already very stuffed with widgets and icons, where’s the button to get out and access the rest of my computer? Good luck fitting one in there.

Aurora also tries to take a crack at the 3D desktop. It’s something that developers have been trying to come up with for years. There are many 3D desktop alternatives already out there (for all flavors of operating system) and few seem to ever stick around. There appears to be some inherent usability problems with the 3D desktop or at least problems in getting users to think three-dimensionally about their desktop organization.

What bothers me about 3D desktops is the motivation behind creating such a thing. Is it for better organization or is it to create some special effects to make things look more “cool”? Every 3D desktop I’ve seen so far seems to be motivated by the latter; usability is an afterthought. Aurora may be the other way around, we’ll see.

There’s a dangerous concept here in that they take screenshots of pages and store them so that you have a visual representation of the page while sorting through all your bookmarks, history, etc. The problem with that, as you’ll see yourself in the first Aurora concept video, is that were it not for the very large timestamp on the screenshot used for the weather station web page how would you know that the page you were looking at was out of date?

The bookmark/history demo is a mess. The bookmarks are, again, thumbnails of the web site. But once your bookmark library grows to a few hundred web sites the interface becomes problematic. Each web site’s thumbnail is little more than a few pixels of color. It’s like filling your Windows desktop with a couple hundred icons. Some people swear by it because they know where everything is, but to someone who doesn’t know where everything it’s an impossible interface to use.

What saves the users with this bookmark interface is a search mechanism. Thing is Firefox 3 already lets you do this at the address bar. Why bother with a bookmarks interface at all?

Being privacy minded I don’t let my browser keep a history of those web sites I’ve visited. This is something I think people will become more aware of over the next few years and the history function of the browser will become useless.

For example this web site will guess your gender based on your browsing history. It’s a simple hack. While you can’t directly access a browser’s history you can generate, say, 10,000 links and check to see which ones have a visited status. In fact you can do something like this with CSS which I’ll talk about later. Point is, there’s a lot of information a web site can take from your browsing history. They can profile your gender, your tastes, your interests, and maybe generate targeted advertising or attempt some kind of con to get you to click on a malicious link or install some bad software.

Keeping your browsing history disabled is the only way to browse.

The mobile interface is interesting, although I wonder how readable it will be on a small PDA. Some of the buttons are certainly smaller than some of our fingertips. I do like the idea of using the whole screen for the web page, but gesturing left or right should only have one action, not two. If you gesture only so far to the left you bring up the address bar as well as the back, forward, and bookmark buttons. Gesture farther left still and you zoom out. How often are people going to go to open the address bar and zoom out? And how annoying will that get after a few minutes use?

One other thing I want to touch on is the general-purpose nature that browsers are heading towards. In the demo there’s some text-messaging and voice chat going on. This appears to be happening in-browser (perhaps via a plug-in for AIM or Skype or whatever). You need to be careful with doing things like this. If we start building everything into the web browser then the web browser becomes our OS. But we’ve already GOT an OS. So maybe we see the browser become deeply integrated with the desktop. But Microsoft started doing that years ago and all that did was create lots of new vectors for attackers to take control of computers.

You want separation of applications. If one application fails or is vulnerable you can remove it without destroying the other applications.

Imagine you’re in the middle of some important work (say, writing for your blog) and someone starts spamming the hell out of your IM account (say someone posted your screenname on some popular teenage message board and say “HEY, EVERYONE, IM MY FRIEND”.) Well now you’re properly screwed. You can’t close the IM client because it’s built into the browser. You have to close the whole thing, which loses you the work you’ve put into your unfinished blog post.

Or, imagine there’s a big virus blasting its way through Skype’s network. If you don’t shut down your skype client you risk getting infected yourself. And this is a nasty virus that immediately wipes your drive and destroys your data. But you can’t close Skype, you’ve got to close the entire web browser. No web access until a patch is fixed. But you can’t get the patch because you have to open up your web browser to get it.

See what’s happening?

Separation is GOOD.

Browser. IM. Voice. Image browser. Word processor. KEEP THEM SEPARATE!

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