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Apple

Journal: The Usable Browser

Journal by Chucker23N

What really surprises me with all the recent talk about "That Finder Thing", The "Spatial Finder", the Mac OS X Finder and even replacing it altogether, is that nobody complains about the UI of browsers.

Sure, mpt has spent dozens of weblog entries about Mozilla "suckiness". There have also been tons of arguments about Camino's and Safari's Usability problems. There is a pile of tools trying to "fix" Safari's UI. (I think it looks even worse as a de-metallified app, though. What about using NSToolbar, Safari Team?)

But these particular problems aren't today's topic. In my opinion, all browsers have major UI issues, beginning at their handling of links. By the way, even the innovative approach Cyberdog took didn't nearly go far enough. The graphical web browser is the only software category I know of that requires contextual menus, requires a toolbar and requires regular arguments about the UI, because people fail to find a compromise for solving problems.

I wish I had access to one of those old NeXT cubes, or at least to a machine (virtual or real) running a version of NeXTSTEP on top of which I could execute WorldWideWeb.app, the very first browser. Judging from this screenshot, it looks like it was the only browser that actually treated links in what I consider the right way: as objects - with an icon that tells the user about the kind of target (local, relative to the current site, outside the site) and about its file type (Markup, image, etc.). The icon would have the same height and width as the current line's height, so it wouldn't mess up layouts. Clicking the icon, or the text to the next of it(which should be distinguishable in style from normal text), would select it. The "Links" menu would let you follow the hypertext reference (which also works by double-clicking the link), find out more about the link ("hreflang" attribute: language, "title" attribute: title of the target page, etc.), download the link, add it to your bookmarks, and so on. This sounds odd to those having used graphical web browsers for years, yet it's far more sensible.

But what is a bookmark, even? When you read a book, you put one or more physical bookmarks in it to mark sections you consider important. A browser bookmark doesn't do this: it just stores a link to the whole web site or page. The equivalent would be a bookmark in your kitchen that tells you where an old dusty book is to be found in the living room - useful, but not necessarily the kind of information you were looking for.

Few pages make clever use of anchors for sections. Those that do, however, almost never visually show it. Glazou's weblog is a notable exception: the permalinks of his blog are anchors that highlight the whole entry, using CSS's "target" selector (example). This makes bookmarks much more useful, as you'll immediately understand which particular section you meant to store a link to. Therefore, a usable browser's default style sheet should have a meaningful implementation of the "target" selector.

A bookmark is also something universal. When you've given up trying to understand a particular book, remove the bookmarks and put them, one after one, in a different book. There, works. Try to use a OMNIweb bookmark in IE - conversion might work, but that's not how it was intended, right? When the OS provides a system-wide feature that works well, why not just use it? I'm talking about the Favorites folder.

Mac OS has had it since version 8.5, yet it never became popular or regularly used by any application I know. In fact, Camino's developers rejected this feature suggestion, not seeing its use.

Generally, a usable browser should treat HTML markup as markup, not as flashy, boring multimedia show. Television is annoying enough. Schools are starting to promise the world wide web as a universal and always up-to-date source of information - the browser should support this by simplifying needlessly complicated web sites where it's harder to find the actual content than to curse and leave.

Nothing is impossible for the man who doesn't have to do it himself. -- A.H. Weiler

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