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MozillaZine on Skins

by CHRIS NELSON | I've had numerous conversations regarding Mozilla and skins over the past week. I was of the opinion that the lack of a native widget set would not necessarily be the death of Mozilla, but it would cause some heartache as usability proponents railed about Mozilla's defying of convention. From the looks of the reviews of Netscape's PR1 release, I wasn't far off.

I now believe, however, that there has been a fundamental misunderstanding of what Mozilla is, where it's going, and indeed what direction the Web and its "standards" are leading us. Key to an understanding of Mozilla is a defining of its scope and capabilities.

Mozilla is not a browser, and this became quite clear from my meetings with developers over the past few days. I won't quote anyone directly, but one rather prominent developer remarked, "Mozilla is a platform from which a browser can be easily made, but it isn't a browser". I would add to that, "it's a platform from which many Internet-ready applications can be created and deployed in a cross-platform manner."

Mozilla is a new way of thinking about the Internet -- it's actually more a set of enabling technologies than an application. These core components can be utilized individually as part of other apps, or in concert to create full cross-platform standards compliant applications. However, with this capability comes a UI that is shared across platforms. Similar to how CSS allows a web page to define the look of form fields and buttons, Mozilla's interface is a similar abstraction of common UI elements, and can likewise be transformed by CSS and XML.

The lack of native controls is an unpleasant reality to some, but Java suffers from this same issue, as would any attempt to bridge the platform gap in standardized way. There might be better options for those people who refuse to accept the possibility of a cross-platform world. But, as we've seen, with a closed-source project you're never sure what you're gonna get.

The web page itself has moved away from native controls, due to aspects of the CSS spec that are not compatible with most native widgets. Web standards are already dictating that the webpage designer be able to alter the widgets on a Web page in direct contradiction to the native widgets of the operating system. This has not caused an issue for users, who seem to be able to grok buttons and scrollbars in whatever form they take. Surprisingly, there has not been an uproar from the usability crowd regarding this capability.

Over the past few days, I had to sit behind an iMac at a CompUSA to access my email account. Although the iMac hardware itself is a usability disaster, I had no problem using the MacOS (coming from a Windows world). But I noticed that the UI has changed significantly from the UI I had experienced on the Mac just a few years ago. And the Aqua UI seems likely to be an even more drastic change. Yet I suspect that people will adjust to this new paradigm with little or no suffering.

The usability gap between various platforms seems to be shrinking, but at the same time companies are taking chances, and allowing the user more control over the appearance of their environment. This can be attributed in part to the Web itself. Each new page can contain an interface different from the last. Flash animations can contain scrollbars, drop-down menus and buttons that have little in common with widgets that the general user would expect. I believe people are learning to think of the computer interface more in terms of generalities than concrete representations. And this is allowing companies to open up their applications to new methods of customization.

Mozilla takes this customization to a new level. It is going to open up a whole new world of possibilities to Internet users across a wide range of platforms and localities. Complex, interactive Internet services and applications are now within the hands of a standard Internet design team. Using standards-based, customizable interfaces, they can create new services that have never been contemplated before. What I found from the Developer Meeting in Mountain View was that there are many developers who have already started thinking "outside the box", and are looking to push Mozilla into realms that even Mozilla's developers had not considered.

Mozilla is providing an open view of our Internet future and asking us all to participate. Unfortunately, where they're headed might not be the direction that many people had hoped Mozilla would go. They have many options available. They can strike out in their own direction, from the Mozilla code available (they could, for example, embed the rendering engine inside a wrapper application that uses native widgets, turning Mozilla into "just a browser" -- something that many seem to want). They can strive to make the existing Mozilla work better. Or, they can resort to leaving themselves at the mercy of a closed-source world. They have all these possibilities at their disposal. Before Mozilla, what choice did we have?

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