24 Jun 2011

The Future Browsers: No URL Bar

Netbook and tablet users looking for more screen space to display content from their favorite websites are getting some help from a pair of popular Internet browsers.
Google and Mozilla are testing versions of the Chrome and Firefox browsers that hide the bar used to show the URL of websites you visit. The features are experimental and it's unclear if they will become part of the mainstream. Web surfers who want to always know where they are may have security concerns. 
Being able to type the address of a website is one of the most essential features we expect from web browsers today. Yet it is the URL bar and its purpose that is now being reconsidered by both Google as well as Mozilla for Chrome and Firefox. The next major revision of web browsers will include options to hide the URL bar. Further down the road, it is inevitable that the URL bar will become what it is supposed to be: A tool – not more and not less.
Chrome has always been a minimalistic web browser that may not have hit the general taste back in 2008 when it was first released. By mid of 2010, however, Google had taken a closer look at the Chrome UI and improved the menu bar beginning with Chrome 6. Google trimmed unnecessary features and merged buttons to save space and give web content more room. Both Mozilla and Microsoft followed an apparent trend and flaunts reduced interfaces designed for a new Internet era that gives web content the priority. In this rivalry, every pixel counts, and we may be seeing the most dramatic change to web browsers since their invention in 1993.

NCSA Mosaic from 1993, running under Windows 3.1
Mosaic, the web browser that is generally credited with bringing web content to the masses, was released more than 18 years ago by scientists at NCSA. The original Mosaic was a revolutionary application that gave Internet content a mainstream GUI and was ergonomically designed, as far as the Windows environment of the early 1990s allowed. Back then and until recently, the browser’s main purpose was navigation. In fact, the original Mosaic browser had two URL bars – sort of. The first field was reserved to display the document title. The second was the URL bar as we know it and it is one of just a handful other elements of the original UI that survived until today.

A Trend For 2011
Following the UI cleanup of Chrome in 2010, we first reported about Google’s intentions to kill the URL bar in February of this year. The first version of the idea is now implemented in Canary versions of Chrome 13. When enabled via a flag feature, the user can hide the URL bar via an option the tab context menu. A click on a tab reveals a URL bar that is attached to that tab and will disappear again when the mouse pointer moves away or the user does not begin typing. Google says that the elimination of the toolbar gives web designers 30 more pixels to work with – which is substantial on smaller screens such as tablets or netbooks (which is why we wonder, once more, why Google does not offer Chrome for Android and tablets. There are countless optimizations for a touch UI in Chrome, yet the browser is not offered for touch devices.)

Chrome Compact Navigation

The hidden URL bar in Chrome may not be the best design possible. Occasionally you do want to know the URL where you are and it can be quite annoying, if you have to move the cursor simply to get the URL. There are also security risk factors such as an increased danger of phishing attacks, as the user will not see the URL of a document by default and could be tricked into believing that a certain page is authentic much more easily.
Mozilla Labs followed up with an experimental add-on for Firefox 4 and Firefox 5 that also aims to killing the permanent URL bar. Less Chrome HD 1 has the same effect as the hidden URL bar in Chrome, but it is displayed as soon as the cursor is moved to the top of the screen. It is a simpler solution than Google’s version: The Chrome team has redesigned the user interface with some navigation features left in the tab bar, while Mozilla removes everything with the exception of tabs. Less Chrome HD 1 also comes with a rather painful side effect that the Firefox menu cannot be opened when the browser is used in maximized view. Chrome’s URL-less interface also has problems as it lacks a search field that should be part of the tab bar. Both approaches have their advantages and both are far from perfect.

Firefox without URL bar

Still, having played with the reduced Chrome interface, we are now convinced that this is the path browsers will take. Removing the URL bar may sound outrageous, but it is a decision that makes sense, in the end. We are clearly moving to a time where navigating the web isn’t the problem anymore. Visualizing content, especially new types of content such as specialized apps in as much space as possible is becoming more and more an issue as we are working with multiple web-enabled devices with different screen sizes. Entering the address of a web site is merely one task of many – and once you are at your destination, there is no need to permanently display the address (with the exception of security concerns, which will need to be addressed.) The additional space gained can benefit web applications that now look like they can be run in full-screen mode by default.
From a user perspective this approach makes a lot of sense. Web site owners may see this differently as their URL is suddenly devalued. The URL bar has been a marketing tool which turned web addressed into brand names. When the URL bar is gone, what does it matter if your site has a .com, .tv or .biz address, as long as a search engine will find it and give you a high ranking? When the URL bar is removed, there will be another challenge for Internet marketing managers. Keep in mind, this is a matter of when, not if.
There is no doubt, removing the URL bar will be most substantial change to web browsers since the release of Mosaic, the first publicly available browser.

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