Kill your browser's address bar? Pros and cons

Chrome and Firefox may downplay the browser's address bar to maximize screen space

Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox are working on deemphasizing your browser's address bar to maximize screen space and put the focus on web apps instead of websites.

Both browser makers are looking to web app stores that offer one-click navigation to your favorite sites as a new way to interact with the web. Google also has an extra incentive to push web apps since that is the only way Google's new Chrome OS laptops due out in June would be useful.

But is pushing the URL bar into the background a good idea? Sure you get a little more screen space -- about 30 pixels in Chrome -- but you also have less control over how you navigate the Web. Is that a tradeoff you're willing to take?

How It Works

Right now, Google is only experimenting with pushing the URL bar into the background in early builds of Chrome on Windows with a feature called "compact navigation."

Once the option to hide the URL bar is enabled, you only see it when you click on a tab at the top of your browser. Firefox is currently offering similar functionality with an add-on called LessChromeHD that hides the address bar until your mouse pointer hovers at the top of the browser or you open a new tab. If you follow a link in a news story or from a friend on Twitter, the URL bar stays hidden. (Also see "Chrome, Firefox Experiment With Hidden URL Bars."

Evolutionary, Not Revolutionary

Truth be told, the idea of hiding the URL bar isn't really all that new, and will be familiar to anyone who has used a browser such as Chrome or Internet Explorer in full-screen mode.

To try this, hit F11 in Windows or Shift-Command-F in OSX to see what it's like. The difference is that in the experimental implementations from Google and Mozilla you don't need to be in full screen to hide the URL bar.

The App's the Thing

Google's motivation to reduce your dependence on the URL bar is clear, since the company would rather that you think of using the web the same way you use your iPhone or Android device.

As Google sees it, the Web isn't a collection of sites such as nytimes.com, mail.google.com or Facebook.com. Instead these are all software applications called The New York Times, Gmail, and Facebook that happen to live online instead of on the desktop. So forget about typing out that URL and just click on a any number of icons saved on your web browser's start tab.

And if you ever need a new web app to edit photos or create a document, you can just turn to Google's Web Store for free and paid options instead of searching online.

Phishing Phrenzy

The downside of hiding the URL bar, however, is that it reduces your ability to know where a link is taking you.

Most of the time that may not be a problem, but this method makes it much easier for scammers to direct you to a phony site where you can be tricked into handing over your bank account or credit card information. Blindly following a link is one of the most insecure things you can do online.

On the other hand, phishing sites also capitalize on user error by snapping up domains that are slightly misspelled versions of popular Websites. Today, for example, I typed Google.com incorrectly and ended up on a blank site with a persistent pop-up. The pop-up had only one button on it and the site was preventing me from quitting Chrome.

But even when I forced Chrome to quit using the OS X Terminal, the site didn't die and I had to force-quit Chrome a second time. I didn't stick around long enough to examine what the site was doing, but it's pretty clear this domain was up to no good. So removing human error from Web navigation could also add a little more safety to your browsing experience.

It will be interesting to see if people adopt ideas like web app stores instead of manually navigating the Web. All of the top 20 web apps in Google's store have more than 100,000 users, and many are closer to 200,000. This suggests a good number of people are adopting the web app concept.

But considering about 163 million adults are online in the United States alone, according to the Pew Research Center, web apps have a long way to go before they become the primary way people use their browser.

Connect with Ian Paul (@ianpaul) and Today@PCWorld on Twitter for the latest tech news and analysis.

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Ian Paul

PC World (US online)
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