Happy birthday Netscape 4.0

Scott Andrew LePera has created a tribute to Netscape 4.0 for its fifth birthday:

“Happy birthday, Netscape 4.0
Now please go away.”

Some tribute, Scott.

Despite its limited standards support, we should still try to accommodate Netscape 4.x. Yes, this goes against the philosophy of the resurrected Web Standards Project and many developers will think I’m crazy. Here’s some of the reasons that Netscape 4.x should still exist and be supported:

  • It’s in the best interest of the Web to have viable alternatives to the dominant web browser from you-know-who. How well Netscape 4.x is competing is subject to debate, but an argument can be made for supporting it. Stats I have seen indicate that Netscape 4 still have greater usage than Mozilla and derivatives combined, depending on the site. As other web designers and developers will affirm, it is getting more and more difficult to convince customers and bosses to support anything other than IE. And I don’t see the trend toward supporting standards, I see it toward being IE-specific. In commercial sites it makes no sense to turn away part of your audience, though, so this may even out, especially if AOL actually moves to using the Gecko engine.
  • Netscape 4.x in notable areas still has better usability than Mozilla 1.0 and derivatives: a navigation bar that is not combined with the URL bar, bookmarks drag and drop that works as expected, fewer preferences, text widgets that work as expected with platform cursor positioning, a stop button that stops image animation, a find in page that positions the found text so it is reasonably visible, etc.
  • Netscape 4.x may be somewhat less resource intensive than Mozilla on older machines. And Netscape 4.x has a pretty good security record as compared to IE. For security concerned users, IE isn’t a reasonable choice and Mozilla/Netscape 7 may be too bloated.

I look forward to improvements in Mozilla usability and performance and I hope for more diversity in web browsers. If we can gain diversity as on the Mac while at the same time increasing the available standards support, it will be terrific.

Happy birthday, Netscape 4. Go Mozilla!


So close and yet so far.

It seems the bugzilla administrators want to snatch defeat from the jaws of success. Perhaps they’re trying to make bugzilla as confusing as the browser by adding multiple ways to search. The default search interface should not be the broken old version. We know the old version intimidates newbies and causes them to skip looking for existing bugs. This leads to duplicate bug reports and time wasted. Having to scroll the old form to get to the submit button also wastes time.

I should have expected this type of leadership. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a product make a huge overhaul of a feature like this and then hide it behind the old interface. We know that the new design is the better one, otherwise it wouldn’t be planned for it to be the default interface in the future. Let’s hope the future is soon.

A better bugzilla

Sometime today, mozilla.org will update bugzilla to version 2.16. This version should have the greatly improved query page thanks to design work by Matthew Thomas. Among other changes, the most commonly used fields are now at the top of the form and submit buttons are conveniently placed at top and bottom. The submit button change allows you to once again complete the form by pressing Enter in Mozilla and IE. Accessibility for checkboxes and radio buttons is improved: you can click the text labels.

The query page changes provide tremendous usability improvements. But people are now used to the pain, and unbelievably want to keep the old query form. As mpt says:

“When something has an inefficient design, people get used to the inefficiency, and complain when it becomes efficient. As a result, more user preferences get added, making the interface worse.”

Myk Melez makes an interesting observation about the user impact of website redesigns:

It’s bad form to significantly change an interface to which users have grown accustomed without giving them time to switch to it. In the desktop software world, users can forego upgrades or run two versions of a program at the same time until they have the time to retrain themselves on the new version. Web software should provide a similar mechanism.

In this case, I believe the redesign is so much improved that everyone should just be forced to use it. But I understand the sentiment. I’ve noticed that many website redesigns are far worse in usability than the original.

It is terrific to see usability improving in bugzilla, even if it took more than 6 months for b.m.o to update. This gives me hope that Mozilla’s usability will also improve over time and probably with drastic changes when it does.

Tweaking mozilla 1.0

If you’re using Mozilla 1.0, you’ll notice that every window has a blue blob in the upper left corner. (Is that supposed to be a gecko?) It’s much nicer to have real icons that vary per component. You can fix this: go get the Grayrest/Giovanni icon set. You’ll be glad you did.

I was surprised what a big difference this made. It makes Mozilla feel more polished and really helps when you have multiple components such as the browser, JavaScript console, DOM inspector, and IRC chat all open at the same time.

Grumble grumble…

Brendan Donohoe on May 1, 2000: it’s all the little “minor” details that make a product feel good. Skip the minor details and you wind up with a rather frustrating product…. Just registering my UI vote so these things don’t slip through the cracks.

Me on October 1, 2001: So does this mean the attached patch is just getting thrown away? I’d much rather have some dialogs automatically do the default text selection than none, <rant>especially if it means waiting another year until some progress is made</rant>.

No, Mozilla still does not select the text. Here: try it out. This bug makes some bookmarklets painful to use.

Parallel Design

Human Factors International describes the benefits of Parallel Design. In parallel design, user interface designers first consider as many alternative designs as possible. They then select the best one and begin an iterative refinement process. By evaluating many alternative solutions first, the result is often better than iterations of a single design. Interestingly, they found that by evaluating multiple designs, the designers were able to rapidly find consensus on the optimal design approach.

Leggo my Lego

I took a few days off after the birth of Teresa to care for her, my wife, and boys. Playing with Lego bricks with the boys, entirely from memory and with basic Lego bricks and plates I built a pretty good version of my favorite Lego set of all time, the Galaxy Explorer. (I found that very groovy site with building instructions for almost every Lego set created prior to 1999 just tonight. Lego Fans are awesome!) It’s been gnawing at me for a while now, but why aren’t there more great Lego sets? With few standouts, Lego sets are now mostly about branding or odd-shaped and useless pieces. It used to be that Lego sets were about the bricks and a child’s imagination. Since I built a reasonably solid and functional hinge out of three bricks, I know that many specialty pieces are not that important. I have to agree with Allan Bedford: Lego has lost its focus.