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I love you just the way you were

April 17, 2000
by Zac Belado

Netscape finally released a public "Preview" of their upcoming Netscape 6 browser. This has been a long awaited release. Especially from users who are unsatisfied with the way that Microsoft plays fast and loose with web-based standards. In the last year, Netscape has gone from being a competitor to Microsoft for browser market share to a company in danger of losing their second place position to a company like Opera. So what do you do if you are Netscape and you need a new application to rebuild the whimpering heap of statistics that used to be your stranglehold on the browser market? Do you add new features? Do you build a super-slim, sleek death beast of a rendering engine? Do you make the browser totally standards compliant?


What you do is make a browser that has a UI that doesn't resemble any popular consumer interface (unless crappy IRC skins are an industry standard) and then clutter what little space that remains in the application with links to AOL and Netscape services. Basically you make a application that is at once an ad for AOL and also an homage (or eine Anerkennung if you will) to the whimsical world of Linux interface design.

X what?

You have to admit that it's a gutsy move. Instead of just making Mac or Windows users uncomfortable with UI conventions pilfered from one platform or the other, Netscape has managed to produce a product that is guaranteed to alienate almost every single user... with the exception of the 6 people who use a GUI under Linux. What better way to ensure that you have a consistent user experience regardless of the user's Operating System?

The new UI in Netscape 6 is actually based on Unix interface standards. Well maybe standards isn't the right word. The Open Source movement has definitively proven two things. That 1000 programmers working independently can build amazing software and that programmers shouldn't design interfaces.. Anyone familiar with X Windows will already have suffered through this enough to know the truth of this.

Think of all the "make do" interfaces you've built in your projects while you were coding them. Now imagine an entire interface like this. Scary isn't it?

And if that wasn't bad enough, this bubble gum and chicken wire UI is actually being billed as a feature because you are able to modify it, or "skin" the app as it is commonly known. Of course you'll only need to learn XUL, an XML based interface description language that is used to define and position the elements in the browser's UI. The files for the browser's basic UI comprise 49 files and all the XUL files (and supporting files like images) for the entire UI number more than 680. The system also uses JavaScript and HTML code as well. This means that the UI you build, or modify, for one OS will work on all platforms with little to no additional work.

And since this was primarily designed by Linux programmers it means that you need to use a command line argument to change the skin that Netscape uses. And what if you're using an OS that doesn't have a CLI? Well on the Mac you need to put the arguments in a text file, with a specific creator code and then either launch Netscape with that file or drag it onto Netscape. And you need to do this every time you start Netscape as the fine folks that programmed it decided that something as basic as remembering what skin you want to use wasn't worth actually writing to a prefs file... if Netscape 6 even uses them at all. Once more I am tempted to check my calendar to ensure that it is still the year 2000 and that I haven't inadvertently plunged into some H.G. Wells story involving a poor programmer pulled back into time to 1986. Hell, even Windows users don't expect this sort of half-assed program design.

It also means that the UI is slower than an app built with platform specific code. Anyone who uses DreamWeaver 3 (with its bevy of JavaScript generated interface elements) knows the price you pay for this cross-platform portability. Interpreted code runs slower than native code. And then there are the aesthetic issues to look at. For every good example of a Netscape skin there will be another that is, to be polite, less than optimally designed. And you know that it is only a matter of time before someone comes up with a Hello Kitty skin. It boggles the mind to think that someone thought it would be a good idea to spend more time giving users the ability to create buttons that looked like their favourite Dr. Who villain and less time making sure that users didn't have to take a graduate level course in XML design in order to remove the Shopping pop-up menu from the interface.

Now don't get the mistaken impression that I think that this XUL system is to UI development what the Black Death was to rat appreciation during the Middle Ages. XUL will be a boon to those people that want/need to take the time to learn it. And XUL will also mean that developers and designers will be able to customize Netscape 6 and add new features and tools with little work. But that doesn't mean that Netscape/AOL should not deliver a useful and workable UI for the browser. Because for every person that wants to learn XUL there are going to be 30,000 who just want to use the app. Managing to learn a variant of XML should not be a usage requirement of an application.

Love it or leave it

But the problem is that you are almost forced to redesign the Netscape 6 UI. Well that is the only other option unless you want to suffer with all the AOL/Netscape branded features and functions that adorn the default interface. Perhaps it's just me. Perhaps I'm some deluded fool who thinks that a web browser should just be that... an application that retrieves and renders HTML pages. Obviously this radical opinion is not in the fore at Netscape (or Microsoft for that matter) as the designers of this most recent offering seem to think that I need one application to read mail, read news, plan my meetings on a calendar, get maps, do instant messaging and plan my retirement by checking up on my stock portfolio.

And please... why is Composer still included in the basic Netscape installation? Does anyone actually use Composer? It's an HTML authoring package that makes FrontPage seem like a sleek, intelligent piece of software, and yet it gets forced down the throat of every Netscape user? I swear that we will yet see reported cases of people developing embolisms from having to view pages opened accidentally in Composer.

And for all the forethought and planning that went into the Netscape 6 browser, the application is amazingly stupid for something that can parse all that XML. Even if you don't download the Netscape news, mail and IM components, the icons and menu items for them are active in the default interface. You can click the mail icon at the bottom of the browser window and it doesn't do a damn thing. No error, no alert telling you that you haven't installed the mail components. Hell, it doesn't even crash. Certainly while the application is starting up and parsing those 680+ files to build the interface it could spend a few processor cycles seeing if it needed to display the icons for components that aren't even there.

Ironically enough, the first result I got when searching for "a better browser" using the Netscape 6 search function was for W3M - Text mode web browser, a text based browser similar to Lynx.

Who says the gods don't have a sense of humour?

Zac Belado is a programmer, web developer and rehabilitated ex-designer based in Vancouver, British Columbia. He currently works as an Application Developer for a Vancouver software company. His primary focus is web applications built using ColdFusion. He has been involved in multimedia and web-based development, producing work for clients such as Levi Straus, Motorola and Adobe Systems. As well, he has written for the Macromedia Users Journal and been a featured speaker at the Macromedia Users Convention.

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