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Review: Alternative (to Firefox) Linux Web Browsers [Feb. 25th, 2010|11:21 pm]
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Since I've been blogging about Perl a lot lately (trying to maintain and advance my Planet Perl Iron Man status), I've been neglecting to blog about other things. So here's a new entry not about Perl, not even about programming - but about web-browsers.

I've been using Firefox (now at version 3.6) as my primary browser on my Mandriva Linux Cooker system for a while now, and have been mostly happy with it. Today I wanted to edit this wikibook titled "How to Write a Program". It had been written awfully (see the discussion page), but I was introduced to it after it was made a prerquisite of a different wikibook which I've written, and decided that the dependency should be kept (assuming "How to Write a Program" would be written better). Now, I could either throw away "How to Write a Program" and start from scratch, or revamp it to submission. Right now, it seems like it would be a combination of both.

In any case, after editing it, I've ran into a long-term bug in Mandriva, or in my Mandriva setup (which is exhibited in any Firefox that is running directly on it.), which I've finally reported there (though I believe I had reported it in the Firefox bugzilla too) and so had been unable to use Firefox for it.

So I've been looking for an alternative browser. I ruled out Konqueror because KHTML has been suffering from a lot of bug report, and Konqueror is just plain annoying. (WebKit has been forked from KHTML, and it proved to be more popular.). I initially ruled out Opera because it's not open-source. So that left me only with WebKit-based browsers. I asked for recommendations and people on #ubuntu-uk (great channel, BTW) recommended Chromium and GNOME's Epiphany, and some other more obscure browsers. I've decided to check them out.

I decided to go with SRWare Iron as my Chromium browser. The first thing I noticed was that the Linux download link led to a web forum post - very unprofessional. After downloading and unpacking the archive, it refused to run - /home/shlomi/apps/iron-linux/iron: error while loading shared libraries: libbz2.so.1.0: cannot open shared object file: No such file or directory. A symbolic link to libbz2.so.1.0.0 (done by root) fixed that problem, and then it crashed with an X error. However, it started the second time and seemed to run fine (don't know what the problem was). I noticed Chromium was indeed very fast, but then I ran into a few glitches:

  • No menu bar. WTF? All desktop applications, including web browsers had menu bars for generations. And I'm used to invoke the File menu and select "New Window" and "New Tab". But Chromium does not have any menus, and it appears to be by intentional design (but probably a crappy one).
  • If this wasn't enough, there was another more minor but still irritating annoyance: after clicking on the URL bar and pressing double click, only the current word is selected as opposed to the Firefox behaviour of selecting the entire URL.

So I decided to look at Epiphany. Slower than Chromium, but maybe it will work. Or maybe it won't. The first thing I noticed was that it looked ugly - very unaesthetic and several widgets in the main window were slightly out-of-place. Its URL bar also behaved unlike Firefox in the double click respect, which was also annoying.

So what can I do? I eventually decided to use Opera for editing Wikimedia wikis until the Firefox-influencing bug is resolved. It is fast, it has a menu bar, and double click in the URL bar selects the entire URL. Very nice. It's not open-source, so I'm trying not to get myself used to it, but seems like I'll need to use it.

If you haven't done so already, I suggest you read the "Joel on Software" "must-read" books recommendations page. I haven't read all the books there, but the page itself is also good. Quoting from it from our context:

A few months ago when we released CityDesk, I got an email from a customer complaining that he was used to doing Alt+F, Alt+S to save files. Unfortunately due to a tiny, unnoticed bug, that keyboard shortcut saved the file and then closed it, irritatingly. I had never noticed because I'm in the habit of doing Alt+F,S to save files, not Alt+F,Alt+S -- a tiny difference -- and Alt+F,S worked fine.

Once you get into the habit of doing Alt+F,Alt+S to save, it becomes so automatic you don't think of it as Alt+F,Alt+S. You think of it as save. And when you push the "save" button in your brain and the file you were working on goes away, it makes you feel like you're not in control of your environment. It's a small thing, but about the fourth time that it happens, you're going to be seriously unhappy. That's why I spent several hours tracking down this bug and fixing it. In a bizarre application of Murphy's Law, this fix led to a cascade of events that caused us to waste something like a week, but that's neither here nor there. It was worth the time spent. This is what it means to be concerned about usability. If you still think that something as small as how long you hold down the Alt key when you activate a menu command doesn't matter, well, your software is going to make people unhappy. These tiny inconsistencies are what makes Swing applications so unbearably annoying to use, and in my opinion it's why there are virtually no commercially successful Java GUI applications.

If I can't go to "File → New Tab" in the menubar to start a new tab then I'm going to be unhappy. If I have to triple click the URL bar in order to select the entire URL, then I'm going to be unhappy. These tiny things are why I can't use either Chromium or Epiphany. (And frankly, a lack of a menubar is a huge UI screw-up, not a tiny one).

At the moment, I'm just ranting, but I am planning on reporting these bugs to the bug trackers of the appropriate projects. I just hope Google won't think the lack of menu-bar in Chromium is a feature. "Welcome to Google UIs". (Welcome to Google Hell…).


[User Picture]From: shlomif
2010-02-26 09:06 pm (UTC)

Re: One war late

IE8 does have a menubar. I checked it on my Windows XP SP 3 VM and it has it alright. And I realised Chromium does have a File and an Edit menu (invokable using Alt+F and Alt+E) only they are:

  1. Hidden behind unintuitive icons.
  2. Found at the right side of the window.
  3. The Edit menu is to the left of the File menu instead of to the right, as it has been for years.

Regarding the "+" to the right of the tab bar - that's great, but I'm used to doing File->new Tab. So Chromium won't win me as a convert, because that's what I like to use. Welcome to Google UI Hell.

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From: (Anonymous)
2010-02-28 07:18 pm (UTC)

Re: One war late

Who uses menu bars anymore?

ctrl+t to open a new tab, ctrl+w to close it, ctrl+s to save. learn your keyboard shortcuts :) Chrome for linux is very fast - very stable, and handles flash a whole lot better than firefox could ever think about doing. Chrome is a very unique design to encourage "speed and less bloat" (imho). So all the useless toys you dont really need have infact been hidden. Can we say "scope creep". The idea behind chrome's ui is that the available space on your desktop should be available to the website and not hogged by the browser.

Infact IE8 does hide its menu bar by default, however you can re-enable it by right clicking and choosing 'Toolbars -> menu bar' or just simply 'menu bar' depending on how many "accelerators" you have installed.
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From: el_pato
2010-02-28 08:52 pm (UTC)

Re: One war late

I disagree with you and Joel Spolsky on this.

I understand your frustration and annoyance with Chromium and other browsers. However, what you are really saying is that every program must look and behave exactly the same. Every program must have the File and Edit menu on the left side of the screen "as it has been for years". Every browser must handle the URL bar exactly the same.

Sorry, but if every program looks and behaves exactly the same, then there is no reason for there to be more than one web browser (or word processor or whatever) and you might as well live in a world where there is only one operating system (Windows XP) and one browser (Internet Explorer). The fact that you aren't used to doing something a certain way is your problem, not a problem with the program.

You need to get over it.
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[User Picture]From: shlomif
2010-03-01 05:27 am (UTC)

Re: One war late

Hi el_pato!

Thanks for not commenting anonymously (as opposed to most other commentators here).

Unfortunately for you, you are confusing have a standardised user-interface with competing based on feature-set. A program can distinguish itself from its competition by adding extra features (or incorporating other aspects of high software quality) without having to deviate from the standard UI that people are used to and comfortable with. Firefox was able to take market share away from Internet Explorer, while its UI was fully standard, because it was better. In fact, its standard UI contributed to its success, and not detracted from it.

Furthermore, like you said, there are different programs for different things: a word processor is different than a spreadsheet program, which are different than a web-browser, which are different than a C compiler, which are different than Perl/Python/Ruby/etc, which are different than an audio player, etc. etc. You can pick different niches.

However, inventing an unorthodox UI that will annoy all non-technogeeks (or even many technogeeks) is one way to make sure that your program is not as popular as it can be.

As a punishment, I'm giving you the task to read Joel's UI Design Book and the book the Design of Everyday things so you'll learn how to design a user-interface that doesn't get on people's nerves.
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From: (Anonymous)
2010-03-01 03:51 pm (UTC)

Re: One war late

I am not confused at all. I understand quite well the difference between a standardised user-interface and a feature-set. That is not the point.

An automobile has a standardised user interface. The accelerator pedal is on the right, the brake pedal is on the left, etc.... But if you've ever driven more than one automobile you have discovered many differences -- the location of the windshield wiper controls, headlight switch, fuel gauge, etc.... I drove the same automobile for many years and it was very annoying when I finally bought a new one and had to get used to a completely different control layout. But it does not mean that the different locations of controls is wrong. It is only different.

There are many examples. I thought the user interface of Windows 7, compared to Windows XP, was horrible. I had used Windows XP for many years and found Windows 7 to be extremely annoying. I thought the people who designed Windows 7 were complete idiots. But now that I have used Windows 7 for a few months, my opinion has changed. I am used to it and now when I use a computer with Windows XP it seems primitive and limiting.

Different can be very annoying, but it is not necessarily bad.

As for Joel's book, he is not the UI and Usability God that he proclaims himself to be, as evidenced by the absolutely horrible design of the forums on his website.
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[User Picture]From: shlomif
2010-03-01 04:12 pm (UTC)

Re: One war late

‎To me it seems like you don't understand it. But I'm not going to argue any further.
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