Mozilla looks to turbocharge Firefox's new-tab skills

Prototype add-on uses wasted space to show thumbnails, RSS feeds, single-click buttons

Mozilla's research arm wants to speed up tasks in Firefox that typically start with a blank tab, like searching, reading Web mail or navigating to a new site, a company official said Wednesday.

"What do people do, what are they trying to do, when they open a new tab?" asked Aza Raskin, head of user experience at Mozilla Labs. "They're starting a new task. They certainly don't want just a blank page."

To make it easier to shift gears from an active tab to a new, blank tab, Mozilla has come up with an extension, simply called "New Tab," that puts likely destinations in a column down the side of the screen. Unlike rival browsers, such as Google's Chrome and Apple's Safari 4, which fill a new tab with thumbnails of the most frequently-visited sites, Mozilla's prototype mines the database of Places, the integrated history and bookmark feature that debuted in Firefox 3.0.

"We put up the sites that people most often visit after they open a new tab," said Raskin.

Likewise, the small thumbnails are shoved to the side of the screen, out of the way of the user's direct line of sight. Raskin called it "polite," in that it's meant to avoid distracting the user and load faster. "If you're going to a blank tab to get to another site, you don't want Firefox to get in your way," Raskin explained. If we start loading up the [new tab] page with large thumbnails, that slows down the 'feeling' of speed. What we don't want to do is break [the user's] train of thought."

Some of the thumbnails sport up to five lines of content that the add-on grabs from the domain's RSS feed, then lists beside the image. If Computerworld.com is one of the thumbnails, for example, the lines would show the last five stories added to the site.

"We thought, hey, you shouldn't have to know what RSS is, we should be able to take those feeds and put all that information in there automatically," said Raskin. "It's not just about making it easy to get to a site, but to get you directly to the content on that site."

The New Tab extension also positions what Raskin referred to as contextual elements in the upper corner. If the user has selected and copied "Steve Jobs" in a live tab, perhaps because he or she wants to search the Web using that name, and then opens a new tab, a large button is displayed that reads "Search for 'Steve Jobs'" in the upper right. A single click executes that search.

After selecting and copying a URL, the new tab shows a button that will open that address, while copying a street address displays a new tab button to map that location.

The prototype works only on the under-development builds of Firefox 3.1 -- which is slated to be renamed Firefox 3.5 in the coming weeks -- and is rough around the edges. Keyboard shortcuts, for instance, are non-existent for navigating the thumbnails, something Raskin said Mozilla is working on.

It's unlikely that this will be baked into Firefox anytime soon. "It's absolutely an add-on," Raskin stressed. "Although it may be in a future edition of Firefox, that's a Firefox team decision."

New Tab can be downloaded from Mozilla Labs' site, and requires Firefox 3.1 Beta 2 or later, which can also be downloaded from Mozilla's site.

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Gregg Keizer

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