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Essays/News On New Web Platforms, Smart Browsing And Technology

Essays

Web Browser Face Off

browsers

The last few weeks have been packed with browser action and the two market leaders, Internet Explorer and Firefox, have launched major new versions. So to round out our recent browser coverage, we present the Web Browser Faceoff – looking at how all the main browsers compare with each other in terms of features and innovation. We are basically looking for what is unique, interesting – and missing – in each browser.

Right now Microsoft still holds onto its huge market lead, but Firefox is gaining more ground every month. Probably more importantly, there are other major innovators in the browser space – such as the social browser Flock (a Read/WriteWeb sponsor) and the perennial innovator Opera. The Mac browser Safari of course has many passionate supporters, while new kid Maxthon is one to watch.

Regardless of who will prevail in the ‘browser 2.0 wars’, the users will win. While fighting each other, the browser makers innovate and simplify. They increase our productivity by integrating into the browser web concepts such as search, RSS, OPML, microformats and more. The core browsers are getting slimmer and faster, while extensions that cover a wide range of services are being developed by external parties.

Internet Explorer 7.0

Internet Explorer 7.0 is a major release from Microsoft, after nearly 5 years of silence. We just recently profiled this browser and concluded that it is solid – and even an exciting release, at least compared to its predecessor. Clearly Microsoft felt great pressure from Firefox to come up with the upgrade.

This release is mostly good. There are major improvements like Tabbed Browsing, beefed up security, support for RSS, built in search engines and better interfaces for bookmarks and history. Oddly, there are still some leftovers from IE6 – the major one being the in-page search box, which is nearly impossible to use.

Pros: Big improvement over IE6, nice user interface, very good RSS support.
Cons: Leftovers from previous release, performance is not great, not fully compliant with standards.
Faceoff bottom line: Solid release, which is going to help Microsoft maintain the market leadership in the near future

Firefox

Firefox just launched its 2.0 release. We covered the launch extensively with a Firefox 2.0 product review, an interview with Mozilla exec Chris Beard and a Firefox marketing discussion post. Firefox 2.0 impresses with its speed, stability and coolness. Mozilla has managed to create both a thriving community and strong extension ecosystem, that drives both improvements and market share. Firefox also has many great productivity features – like search engine integration, in-page search, simple RSS integration and tabs. It excels in overall usability, security and accessibility.

Pros: Great performance and feature set.
Cons: No built-in RSS reader, no hugely innovative features (like Flock) – so arguably not distinct enough from IE7.
Faceoff bottom line: We think that Firefox is going to continue narrowing IE’s lead, but await with interest the next major version!

Safari

No browser faceoff would be complete without Safari, the browser for MacOS. Like all things Apple, Safari has cool features – but it still feels like a ‘web 1.0′ browser. The most impressive feature is RSS integration. For each page that contains an RSS feed, Safari presents a handy search bar which allows the user to find entries by date, category and many other criteria. It also has built-in spelling – a feature that was just recently added to Firefox. The bookmarks and history are nice, but unexciting. The tabs are not enabled by default and no integrations with web services.

Pros: Simple, relatively fast, good RSS support.
Cons: Lacks web service integrations and productivity features.
Faceoff bottom line: It’s a clean and simple web 1.0 browser, but needs a major feature boost in order to be a contender even on the Mac.

Opera

Opera 9.0 is an interesting browser. It has a lot of good features, nice add-on infrastructure and a strong community. In terms of basic features it is not far off from Firefox. It is also fast and responsive, which makes us wonder why it is not used by more people. The answer, we think, is due to a couple of things. First the default skin and some UI elements are bit contrived. They look like a blend of future and past – and overall there is a lack of harmony.

The marketing of the browser has not been as strong, at least for desktop – since this browser has been focusing primarily on the mobile space lately. On a positive note, there is fairly complete RSS integration – including a built-in RSS reader. The URL toolbar and home buttons are done in a very clever and convenient way. Tabs are done well (and as a R/WW commenter noted recently, Opera had tabs even before Firefox). One other interesting thing about Opera are the desktop widgets. We found them to be cool, but somewhat unrelated to the browser since they run on the desktop.

Pros: Rich feature set, RSS integration, fast
Cons: Lacks coolness factor of Firefox, not as well known – but maybe an unfair comparison since Firefox is open source
Faceoff bottom line: We can see why fans like this browser, but a bigger future depends on spicing it up and poring in the marketing dollars.

Flock

Flock is the newest and perhaps the most exciting browser on the market today. This Firefox-based browser has taken the concept of browsing to the next level by radically integrating support for web services. For example, stock browser feature bookmarks have been replaced in Flock by integration with del.icio.us. Flock also features support for online photo sharing sites like Flickr and Photobucket.

Flock comes with a built-in Blog editor, which supports many blogging services including WordPress, Blogger and MovableType. There is also a built-in RSS reader, which is one of the best RSS readers on the market in our opinion. The innovation goes beyond the service integration, since Flock also includes interesting new UI elements like TopBar – which is an improved search box and scratch area for storing web snippets.

Pros: del.icio.us and Flickr integrations, built in blog editor, RSS reader, cool UI
Cons: Cloned Firefox code base
Faceoff bottom line: Great productivity browser for web 2.0

 

Review of Firefox Recommended Add-ons

This week the spotlight is on Firefox as it launches its milestone 2.0 release. We’ve covered the launch with a Firefox 2.0 product review, an interview with Mozilla exec Chris Beard and a Firefox marketing discussion post. Today we bring you a review of the top twenty add-ons (aka add-ons) selected by Mozilla for the Firefox 2 launch. We’ve categorized the add-ons and analyzed them, to bring you what are hopefully the pick of the crop.

Thriving ecosystem

Since its inception, Firefox has been a great platform on which web developers can build on top of. Recognizing that the core browser must be lean, the Mozilla team put together the infrastructure for creating add-ons. In this single decision, Mozilla created not just a fine browser – but a thriving community and a free marketplace, which links add-on developers directly to browser users. The developers are free to be creative and the users are free to choose the add-ons that they like. Such an ecosystem gives rise to innovation and helps Mozilla shape the future of web browsing.

Add-ons point to the future of the web browser

Looking at the add-ons that were selected for the Firefox 2 showcase, in some ways they show us what the browser of the future may look like. Indeed that is something that Chris Beard himself alluded to – they view add-ons as a kind of test bed, pulling ideas from the best of them into the core product over time.

The majority of add-ons are focused on integrating web services into the browser, to boost user productivity. In a nutshell, add-ons are about shaving off clicks – but to be fair they do so much more. They create an enhanced, smarter, better browsing experience and ultimately save users’ time.

Music, Weather and Maps

The FoxyTunes add-on integrates with your favorite music player and allows you to control the music you are listening to, right from within the Firefox status bar. There are a lot of handy features, my favorite being the ability to change the language and encoding – so that if you are listening to music in a language other than English, the title and the artist are displayed correctly.

Forecastfox brings the weather channel right into Firefox. On the install you select the zip code or city and the add-on does the rest. It relies on AccuWeather.com to bring you the latest current weather conditions, as well as a forecast of the upcoming weather. It is highly customizable and just perfect for the status bar.

Maps+ uses the Yahoo! Maps API to help the user look up addresses. To see it working, highlight any address – we tried a restaurant on this page – then right click and select View map from the context menu. The layered popup with the map appears right next to the address. You can control the zoom level of the map and customize the add-on in various ways.

Bookmarks 2.0

Storing and sharing web content is one of the most fundamental online activities. del.icio.us started the web 2.0 revolution by introducing tagging and social bookmarking. Since then del.icio.us itself and many other companies have enhanced bookmarks in many different ways. Let’s look at the latest add-on advancements featured in the top twenty add-ons – and note there are a lot of bookmarking services amongst the add-ons.

Yahoo! released an updated version of the del.icio.us plugin, which replaces browser bookmarks with a view of del.icio.us posts. The StumbleUpon add-on is essential for fans of this service – it features a handy toolbar that lets the users rate and discover web sites. The Clipmarks add-on lets you clip pieces of the page, instead of bookmarking them. This is useful when you are not interested in the entire page but just want to store a paragraph or an image.

The Foxmarks add-on is seemingly simple – it synchronizes your bookmarks between all your Firefox browsers. What’s great is that it works in the backround and does not require any input from the user, beyond creating an account. The JetEye addon in some ways is similar to Clipmarks, because it allows the user to collect clips. But it also enables arranging these clips by topic. Yoono is a social recommendation engine for discovering interesting or related sites. The BlueOrganizer add-on, developed by my company AdaptiveBlue, helps users to interact with books, music, movies, restaurants and other everyday things.

The developer add-ons

The showcase also contains three add-ons that help Firefox developers.

FireBug is an essential debugger which supports JavaScript, CSS, HTML and much more. GreaseMonkey is an add-on that lets technically savvy users customize the look and feel of web pages. It has been very popular with the community, as it brings impressive possibilities for creativity. The Web Developer add-on contains an entire toolset, which are must haves for anyone who is doing web and add-on development for Firefox.

Blogging and RSS

Performancing add-on is a fully fledged blog editor built right into Firefox, which integrates with TypePad, Blogger, WordPress and LiveJournal (amongst others). Sage is a powerful feed reader – with the ability to subscribe to feeds, manage them and import/export via OPML.

Utilities

There are some very nifty utilities that can be integrated into Firefox:

Other add-ons in the showcase

  • Pronto is comparison shopping add-on which alerts you to potential price savings
  • Jaja wires telephony right into the browser
  • LinkedIn integrates the popular professional social network into the browser
  • Cooliris lets the user preview a page by hovering over links
  • Answers is a time saver add-on that lets you lookup information on Answers.com

Fun, useful and exciting

This Firefox showcase is full of interesting and useful add-ons that focus on helping users save time, by integrating web services into the browser . These add-ons point in the direction of smarter, better browsers – that will be more aware of the patterns and use cases of interacting with information online.

Firefox 2.0 Review

https://i0.wp.com/img.clubic.com/photo/00FA000000227249.jpg

Current browser market

In just a few years, Firefox has taken the previously dormant browsing market by storm and woken the slumbering giant Microsoft. The Mozilla browser now owns 12-14% of the browser market (the number varies depending on the source – see Wikipedia for more). The Firefox brand is also making an impact, thanks in part to the Spread Firefox campaign. For example, last year Firefox was voted the #7 global brand by brandchannel.com. But the question is still up in the air: will Firefox ever get close to Internet Explorer’s market share?


Firefox share, Feb 04-July06; Source e-janco

IE: you snooze, you lose?

A recent post about IE7 on TechCrunch generated a lot of comments complaining about the lack of innovation in the Microsoft product. The timeline between IE6 and IE7 has been unusually long by software standards, so it was reasonable to expect a decent amount of innovation. But despite major improvements and work towards standards support, IE7 looks like a Firefox wannabe.

So one would expect that Firefox has a chance to further cut down IE’s lead in the browser market, by introducing further innovation and continuing to improve the browsing user experience. Let’s look and see…

User interface improvements

The first thing that stands out in the new Firefox is the more modern, snappier look and feel. Everything is more shinny, more playful and more clickable.

Tabbed browsing was a major innovation that Firefox introduced – and in version 2.0 there are further improvements to this. By default, the links now open in a new tab instead of a new window and each tab has its own close button. There is also a new handy way of switching between the tabs, via a pulldown list of all open tabs.

All these improvements are subtle, but good productivity boosters for the user.

Search improvements

Search is probably the most fundamental thing we do online and Firefox excels at integrating search engines in a very smart way. With this new release, Firefox adds the search completion mechanism, which works just like Google complete. As soon as the user starts typing, potential search phrases show up.

This feature has been also added to the Firefox search engine format, allowing each search engine to support it.

RSS Reader integration

Perhaps the most interesting new thing in Firefox 2.0 is the integration of RSS Readers. Since its early days, Firefox has made a commitment to usability and ease of use, which implies integrating all things web right into the browser. Wiring search engines into the browser is one example. In Firefox 2.0 we now see similar integration done with RSS readers.

When a user navigates to a page which contains an RSS feed, the RSS icon in the URL bar lights up. If the user clicks the icon, she is given a choice to subscribe to the feed using either LiveBookmarks or one of the popular online readers like Google Reader. This is a nice and clean integration, but one can’t help but wish to have an RSS Reader built right into the browser. Flock, for example, features one of the best RSS Readers and it makes a big difference for end user experience (note: Flock is a R/WW sponsor).

Other notable improvements

There are a number of software improvements in Firefox 2.0. Some of them are:

  • Fixed memory leaks and improved performance
  • Built-in phishing protection will warn the user of suspicious sites
  • Persistent sessions will restore the session after system restart
  • Smart spell checking for web forms
  • Live Titles and microsummaries help sites convey the latest interesting content
  • Improved add-on manager helps the users manage extensions and themes
  • Enhanced security and localization support for extensions
  • Support for JavaScript 1.7

The Firefox 2.0 release notes have more details.

The social news faceoff

social news

This post looks at the main players in the Social News space, to try and identify their characteristics and understand the dynamics of the market. The sites we analyze are digg, Netscape, Newsvine, and Reddit. While there are many other social news sites around, a great number are clones and so we believe the above four represent the cream of the crop (admittedly Netscape is a clone of digg, but because of its size and history as a mainstream portal – it obviously warrants closer inspection).

What makes the social news space particularly interesting is that there are a variety of different approaches. Even without doing the analysis, we know that Digg is going to be the most popular site. But if you’ve ever taken a quick look at Newsvine, you’ll know that the future dynamics may not be so clear cut. What works for a technical audience might not, in the long run, be what is going to become a mainstream format. So will this market split? Will Newsvine become more popular than digg? Does Netscape stand a realistic chance of catching up? In this side by side comparison, we hope to find some answers.

Estimating the number of users

As we have done in previous faceoffs, we approximate the number of users in each social news site using Alexa’s daily page views. While Alexa is not perfect by any means, it is a good comparative measure in this case. As the baseline, we have used Digg.com’s official user base figure of 325,000 users. We also use an additional metric – number of votes for two different stories (one tech and one politics). The technology story that we used is the recent YouTube video where the founders of YouTube discuss the Google acquisition. For the political story, we choose the BBC article about US granting North Korea nuclear funds.

The faceoff chart


Digg

Netscape

Newsvine

Reddit
Users 325,000 55,000 (estimate) 60,000 32,500 (estimate)
Alexa rank 91 397 3,130 1,020
Alexa daily views
(Per million)
450 75 12 45
Google
blogsearch
links
198,500 46,800 8,230 29,000
# votes on 1st story 996 5 1 1
# votes on 2nd story 266 82 0 0
Focus Techies Web savvy /
mainstream
Mainstream Techies
Categories Technology,
Science,
All
Politics,
Technology,
All
All None
Profile and history X X X X
Flexible views X     X
Friends X X X X
Comments X X X X
Comment rating X X X x
RSS X X X X
Related stories   X X X
Recommended/
Handpicked
  X X X
User Interface – Clean
-Simple
-Great
– Nice, not great
– A bit too packed
– Ads are huge
– Channels should
be a pulldown
– Exceptional
user interface!
– Minimalist
Interesting/
Unique
features
– Flexible filters
Nice use of Ajax
Very well designed
– Lots of smart
little things
– Comments
by type
– Related stories
– Great demo!
– Users
contribute
content
– Lots of smart
little things
– Recomm
– Personal-
ization

Research notes

Some things we found interesting while doing the analysis.

  • The front pages of Digg and Netscape had very little if anything in common. We infer from this that they have very different demographics.
  • Netscape was the only site to have a ‘related stories’ feature. Not sure if it works well – or how exactly it works – but the idea is definitely good.
  • Newsvine has an outstanding user interface. A lot of thought went into it and it is brilliant. This site illustrates that a lot of features and a lot of information can be presented in a simple and digestible way.
  • Reddit has a feature called subreddits, which supposedly resemble categories – but it’s done via a separate subdomain. Perhaps this is cool, but it could be confusing.
  • Reddit has a recommended stories feature, which is a simple filter based on the stories that the user likes. This is a very good idea and other sites should add this sort of personalized view, because voting on stories reveals user likes and dislikes.

Traffic Dynamics

We can gain additional insights by looking at the traffic dynamics over the last year. Reddit, for all its innovation, is struggling to be a serious contender in the social news space. Perhaps they need to revamp their user interface, because compared to the others it is fairly minimalist. Based on Alexa traffic trends, it appears that Newsvine is not gaining much momentum. It is not clear why, since their user interface is great. Perhaps it’s just an uphill battle to sway away traffic from the likes of CNN, Google News and topic-focused blogs.

The chart below focuses on the Netscape vs Digg race. As we can see Netscape is not catching up – it is in fact losing some of its early gains. We think they should revisit their user interface and usability.

Conclusion

There are really no surprises here – Digg is the king of social news. It is simple, elegant and very very popular. The question is what will happen going forward? Comparing digg with Netscape, note the difference between the number of votes on a technology post vs. a political post. For the technical post there is a huge gap between the two sites, but it is not as big for the political one. So digg remains the premier social news site for technology news – but in other categories that are geared more towards mainstream, there is not as much activity.

The question is will the digg model work for mainstream? It might be too plain, which is why Netscape jumped into the game – and this may be why Newsvine has a chance to be successful. But as it stands, and for foreseeable future, Digg rules!

 

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