Common browser experience

As many techies and/or bloggers I am often forced to use multiply browsers. Even if I am completely committed to Opera as my main browser, I do not really mind going out of that comfort zone.

However there is one thing that bites me every time – I seem to expect all browsers to have some baseline set of functions and interface conventions. Sometimes they do, but more often they don’t. And should they at all?

Common in interface

It is hard to go wrong with main area where page is displayed. It is about sites and only thing browsers do here is render (as best and fast as they can).

However there is much more to modern browser than displaying page. It must also provide:

  • on-site and between-sites navigation;
  • bookmark management and other integrated tools;
  • embedded services (such as updates or sync);
  • extensions/widgets.

These can be done in many ways. Some conventions (main menu or address bar) seem stable… Right until some browser throws them out of the window.

There is also plain eye-candy factor of looks. Browser can choose to blend with GUI of platform they run on or to go for completely self-sufficient looks. On top of poor usability this can also have major performance impact.

Common out of interface

Aside from how browser looks there are also a lot of details how it works. Things like hotkeys and tab behavior aren’t visible but are large part of experience.

When I did my browser memory benchmarks I had coded in Ctrl+W to close tabs. Worked like a charm in Opera. Worked like a charm in Firefox, until it reached last tab and closed it for good.

Such differences are much harder to even spot. Making them standard seems not only hard but completely out of interest to browsers’ developers. But for users the more specific functions and paths you use – the higher probability it will misfire on another browser.

Choice of common

Commonalities ease browser switching. Marketing and fanboy crowd may scream about bogus market share numbers, but in reality people rarely make a personal and consistent browser choice. Even if they do on personal computer, at work that choice is most likely made for them.

Interface and functionality baseline is highly important to make transition between browsers unobtrusive. It makes choice of browser brand less relevant and browsing experience more generic.

Choice of uncommon

Unique decisions allow browsers to get an edge. Better layouts, tightly integrated extras, aesthetic appeal – these make browser stand out. But they also make everything highly specific.

Doing things in unique way is like a flower with thorns. It attracts users that like the way browser does things, but at the same keep away users that don’t want to re-learn how to browse.

Overall

While there is clearly visible core of common elements and functions, browsers seem to wander further and further from it. To some degree it is compensated with drift of popular features, but some core elements are major enough to never be adopted by competition.

Do you expect browsers to have certain baseline experience? Do they meet or fail such expectations for you?

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12 Comments

  • The fact they are all so different is good in that their development pulls in different ways and concentrates in different areas.
    It would be nice to see more basic things like tab functionality and hotkeys made the same as it is a struggle for myself using different browsers for different tasks..
    For quick research or a quick lookup aswell as all things google i use chrome. For everything else Firefox. Chrome isn’t extendable enough yet to make me jump permanantley.
    I keep dipping into Opera but this is one browser (that I know you love) that just doesn’t feel right for me…I’ll give it another go….

  • @Jonny

    I wouldn’t say that development is really that much different. Sure there are a lot of marketing spins… But boiled down each browser is just rendering engine plus interface plus extras.

    Each of those is important, but marketing tends to only highlight strongest sides. And for same marketing reasons it is improbable to hear in the open how something was copied or adjusted to be in line with other browsers. :)

    I think in few more years when as mush as possible of IE share will be cannibalized completely we may see shift from less marketing to more standards in interfaces and such.

  • I don’t mind getting out of the comfort zone either. But, Opera definitely feels a lot more pleasent than other browsers. It may be a bit unconventional, but everything just feels right. It’s amazing how they managed to pack in so many features without making it bloated and cluttered.

  • @Pallab

    Well, conventional would be Internet Explorer. And it has terrible bulky interface. Maybe that’s why browsers differ so much, because most common is not something they want to be in line with.

    Microsoft clearly can afford to develop decent browser but they seem to lack any resolve for it.

  • Here’s a detail. One thing I missed in Opera (9/10.x) was WOT, the Web Of Trust extension that adds safe site/unsafe site markers in search results pages.
    Just today I found out that WOT actually can be installed in Opera, by putting a WOT javascript in Opera’s Userscripts folder. The scripts marks 5 different security levels and will work for the results pages of over 20 different search engines.
    Source link:
    http://my.opera.com/PH`/blog/2009/11/13/wot-for-opera

  • @Henk

    Opera could do better with userscripts… Way to use them is obscure and there is no standard that guarantees scripts made for Greasemonkey and such to work in Opera as well.

    btw I am not a fan of WOT and its concept. I think it is plain case of “enumerating badness” which is dumb security idea.

  • I have been using Maxthon for years. I did stop updating about a year ago though. Somehow they decided to drop the window frame around the browser. This seems more common lately (Adobe actually managed to totally f*ck this part up in Photoshop CS4). I really hate it when applications use their own style, one more reason I don’t like Chrome. I think I’m not the only one with this problem (judging by the Maxthon forums, having the window frame back must be number one request).

    Now, for the first time in years I’m actually trying other browsers to see if I can get a better and pleasant experience. Another reason for this is that Maxthons render engine is still IE7. I have IE8, Firefox, Chrome and Opera installed anyway for testing while doing web development.

    The problem is that I’m expecting certain behaviours which often do not exist Here are my findings so far:

    – Firefox
    Pros: A lot of add-ons which make it possible to somehwat get the same experience as Maxthon.
    Cons: Slow… extremely slow (15 sec. start up time!). Not as customizable as Maxthon.

    – IE8
    Pros: Nothing wrong with general experience.
    Cons: Hardly any add-ons, by far not as customizable as Maxthon. Dragging a link does not open it in a new tab (Maxthon behaviour). No mouse gestures.

    – Opera
    Pros: Has mouse gestures like Maxthon (not changeable though?). Quite customizable.
    Cons: Not being able to re-arrange toolbars makes getting the tab bar underneath the addressbar quite difficult. A lot of add-ons, but none of them really appeal to me to get a better experience. Dragging a link does not open it in a new tab (Maxthon behaviour).

    Chrome
    Pros: about as fast as Maxthon.
    Cons: Alternative window style. Not customizable. No mouse gesturess. No opening new tab after dragging link. Didn’t check any further as these are absolutely essential for my experience.

    SO what’s my verdict? Well I decided to upgrade Maxthon to the latest version and do some customizing of the menus to get a somewhat pleasant experience. Still on the lookout for good browsers though.

  • @libeco

    Personally I never got into IE derivatives, I do not like Trident engine much – alternatives are faster and are developed more actively.

    Won’t comment on other browsers, maybe someone else will chime in.

    As for Opera:
    – mouse gestures are customizable Tools > Preferences > Advanced > Shortcuts > Mouse setup > Edit
    – toolbar order seems pre-defined indeed. I have address bar at the bottom so it never bothered me
    – right-click-drag down gesture opens link in new tab; myself I just use middle-click – easier than drag

  • @Rarst

    I must say that Maxthon the fastest browser on my laptop, even Chrome which is supposedly the fastest is a little slower.

    Thanks for the mouse gestures! Too bad I can’t seem to be able to create a gesture for the left mouse button fro the dragging. For me dragging is much faster, my finger rests on the left mouse button anyway and simply dragging it a few mm is enough to open it in a new tab in Maxthon.

  • I’ve been using IE8 more and more often as FF is giving me grief. Slow! Sometimes, for no reason I can discern, it takes forever to load a page, then if I close the tab and try again it pops right up. Irritating. IE doesn’t do that. BUT I don’t really understand how to use IE’s tabs – they don’t seem to work the same as FF’s – And, just like your article suggests, I don’t/won’t bother to find out? Who wants to read instructions?

    I confess to being prejudiced against Chrome. Why? Who knows. Maybe because it’s Google. I am thinking of installing Opera. but then, I’ve been thinking about that for a long time now. I’d probably have to read How To . . .

  • @kalmly

    I have to use IE8 at work for some tasks (joys of crappy and expensive corporate software) and couldn’t agree more about tabs. I feel they are supposed to do something smart with those color-coded groups and next-to tabs… Well – they fail miserably.

    I stay away from Chrome because of very raw early releases and overall crazy development process. It makes me feel like lab rat. Since I am content with Opera I have no pushing need to try alternatives.

    btw you should really give Opera a try. Speed is decent (or wait for 10.50 which will be updated to faster engine) and there is a lot of thought put into interface and general usability.

  • I used to love Maxthon and used it when it was the only good free browser around, pre firefox etc. Like Rarst though I am not prepared to use a trident (IE8) derivative. All Maxthons early innovative features were absorbed by other browsers and I’m not keen on the way it looks neither.

    Personally the Chrome design I love.. I hated it at first but the Maximised screen area is awesome, something I could achieve with Firefox but I have a couple of necessary toolbars taking up space. It loads super quick too… No matter what I do with Firefox (trimming unused extensions, using fasterfox, optimizing sql tables) it is still bloated.

    If only there was a good way of migrating passwords into Opera.

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