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[personal profile] blufive

(With apologies to members of the choir who've heard this sermon before)

If you use the Internet a lot, you need to check out Firefox 3 when a flavour appropriate to your personal pre-release-software-comfort-zone is released (Beta 5 is out already, Release Candidate 1 is due soon, Final release is due in June). Here's why:

The primary methods that people use to return to sites they've visited before are the location bar autocomplete and Google. Which is crazy, because browsers have features to help with that - history and bookmarks (IE calls them "favorites"). Unfortunately, bookmarks are a pain to use, especially if you have lots of them and can't be bothered to organise them. I have at least hundreds, and only really do a cursory sort when I get pissed off at the mess they've become. I gather that makes me far more organised than most people. It's better than nothing, but a pain to use.

(Personal history diversion: One of the main reasons I stuck with Netscape 4.x almost to the very end1, and swapped to the Mozilla Suite (now known as SeaMonkey) when I did leave, was bookmark handling. Back when NN3.x/4.x was my browser, search engines sucked (this was in the dark days before Google) so using bookmarks quickly became a habit if I ever wanted to find stuff again. In essence, the competition's bookmark handling sucked. Netscape/Mozilla's sucked as well, but was less sucky than everybody else's.)

I am somewhat boggled that this area has been neglected by browser manufacturers for so long. The Mozilla people reached the same decision some time ago, and decided to do something about it.

In summary, they've made bookmarks much more usable for both normal people and power users, and added loads of cross-linking between the address bar and history/bookmarks so that the autocomplete is scary-good at finding stuff you've visited in the past.

This work was known within Mozilla as "places". In essence, it's a complete overhaul of the way the browser handles history and bookmarks. It includes internal work to replace the mind-meltingly-awful Mork2 data storage format that Mozilla inherited from Netscape with something sensible (SQLlite, for any techie readers) but also includes significant UI work to make the browser's internal history and bookmarking system more useful and usable for normal people, as opposed to organizationally-obsessed people prepared to spend an hour or two a month keeping everything neatly sorted and filed.

Places was originally slated for release as part of Firefox 2, but got dropped when it became clear it wouldn't be ready. Well, for Firefox 3, it's ready, and it's been surfacing gradually in the later betas.

There are lots of little changes, most of which sound trivial, but they add up to something that has changed the way I use a browser3 (and I'm still learning my way around the new stuff).

First up, the so-called "Awesome Bar"4. They improved the way the address bar autocomplete works. Like I said, it sounds trivial, but it ain't.

Essentially, rather than being a simple URL autocomplete, in FF3, the location bar now matches on all parts of a URL (not just the start of the domain). It doesn't just search URLs you've typed, it searches URLs in your history and bookmarks too. And page titles from your history. And Bookmark names. And any tags you've applied to bookmarks (of which, more in a minute).

It then sorts all the results based on match quality, how often you visit them, and how recently you last visited. I think it even pays attention to which items you picked from the list last time, and uses that info to try to guess better next time. Mozilla's Deb Richardson has a post explaining it in more detail. After a while, it becomes almost psychically good at finding the page you're looking for.

This rocks enough that it almost earns the right to have me use such a silly name as "Awesome Bar" with a straight face. Seriously, once you get used to it, you can't go back.

Secondly, general bookmark handling. You can bookmark with one click. A couple more clicks let you file it sensibly, or one click and some typing lets you apply tags to give you tag-style organisation.

The bookmark organiser, while superficially unchanged, has lots of new features to deal with tags, and includes the ability to build and remember queries across your bookmark library. Want a folder on your bookmark bar that dynamically includes all the bookmarks you've tagged with "wibble"? Easy.

Again, Deb Richardson has a post outlining bookmarking and smart folders.

Disclaimer: I'm only just starting to play with smart folders - despite it being on my wishlist ever since they added tagging, I only just found the relevant button, and I'm still bouncing off things - my initial experiments have been a bit bumpy, but I suspect that the problem is with my mental model of how it works, and it'll all go more smoothly once I get used to it. If/when it does work properly for me, it'll rock.

Like I said, if you spend large chunks of time on the web, you need to check these features out. I've never been a huge fan of tabs, so I don't regard them as a killer feature like some people do. The "awesome bar", however, is a serious contender for that description.

1I think I bailed somewhere in the 4.7x series. I wasn't a web developer in those days, so I didn't realise just how bad The Scottish Browser was when it came to page rendering and CSS.

2ex-Netscape engineer Jamie Zawinski, aka [ profile] jwz, said: "[Mork] is -- and I do not use these words lightly -- the single most braindamaged file format that I have ever seen in my nineteen year career." The primary sins are enumerated in comments in the perl source code he hacked up to read the beastie.

3The scary thing is, that's what an awful lot of people are saying. I don't think we're pod-people.

4This name sucks. But it's semi-official, and thus we're stuck with it. At least it's short, memorable and easy to spell, thereby beating many product/feature names I've had to deal with over the years.

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