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Google, Mozilla spark debate over browser address bar

Gregg Keizer | May 23, 2011
Experts split over significance of new options that eliminate venerable URL space in Chrome, Firefox.

The browser address bar isn't going anywhere, an add-on developer and former contributor to Firefox said today.

"Who would have thought that the humble browser URL bar would spark so much interest?" Matthew Gertner, the CEO of Salsita Software, said in a blog post Sunday.

Gertner, a lead contributor to the now-defunct Mozilla Labs "Prism" project and a developer whose company creates custom Firefox, Chrome and Internet Explorer add-ons for corporate clients, was reacting to news reports that both Google and Mozilla are experimenting with options that will let Chrome and Firefox users eliminate the address bar to free up more space for content.

The address bar -- called the "location bar" by some -- is the part of the browser where users type in URLs, and where the browser displays the current site.

Saying he was "stunned" by the interest in the no-address-bar option in Chrome and in the Firefox plug-in that Mozilla released last week, Gertner credited the heated competition among browser makers as the reason for the attention. "This is more about the browser wars than anything," Gertner said in an interview Monday. "People like to focus on areas where browsers are copying each other."

Which is what he thinks is happening here. "I see this as another example of Chrome going after Firefox by eliminating even more of the browser," Gertner said. "This is another shot across Mozilla's bow."

In the "Canary" build of Chrome for Windows -- Canary is the label for very-early versions of the browser, earlier than even Chrome's "dev" channel -- users can enable a "Compact Navigation" setting via the "about:flags" option screen to hide the address bar by right-clicking any tab.

Google has been talking about Compact Navigation since at least February.

Mozilla reacted by releasing the "LessChrome HD" add-on for Firefox 4 on Friday. The add-on automatically hides all toolbars, including the address bar, until the user "hovers" the mouse pointer atop a tab.

LessChrome HD also works in Firefox 5, which reached beta status last week.

Al Hilwa, an analyst with IDC who monitors browsers, agreed with Gertner on the browser competition angle, but complimented Mozilla for reacting so quickly to Google's option. "I am impressed with how quickly Mozilla was able to respond to what Google is doing with Chrome, showing that the timelines for browser innovation has truly shifted," said Hilwa in an email reply to questions today.

While Gertner scoffed at assertions such as "removing the URL bar will be most substantial change to Web browsers since the release of Mosaic," he said there are bigger issues in play.

 

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