Firefox UI revamp sparks complaints, searches for alternatives

New 'Australis' look prompts some users to abandon browser or ask how they can restore the old UI

Some Firefox users, cranky over the browser's user interface (UI) overhaul, have scrambled to find ways to make the latest version look more like older editions.

Two weeks ago, Mozilla launched Firefox 29, the first production-grade version that sported the new "Australis" UI. The visual redesign, the most dramatic for Firefox since March 2011, was Mozilla's attempt to both streamline the browser's look-and-feel and standardize it across all platforms, ranging from the desktop to mobile.

Many of Australis' visual changes were subtle, with more rounded tabs, inactive tabs that faded deeper into the background and a revamped customization panel. Australis also dumped the orange-colored Firefox menu in Windows, an element that first popped up in Firefox 4.

Some balked at the changes.

"After updating to [Firefox] 29.0.1 I could barely use Firefox," complained a user identified as pdrummond on May 9, writing on MozillaZine, a third-party discussion board. "It's taken me an hour to get the UI back to a usable state and I'm more than a little annoyed."

"This is useless, please do not copy the Google Chrome," said imdawe yesterday, also on MozillaZine. "WE DO NOT WANT GOOGLE CHROME UI. If we want that then we would use Google Chrome."

The this-looks-a-lot-like-Chrome complaint against Firefox's Australis has been widespread, and pre-dated its appearance in Firefox 29.

Others cited more specific gripes, all tied to changes in Firefox's UI and a desire to restore older visual and navigational elements, like the page-reload button, the tab bar's position -- now above the address and search fields, not below them as before -- and the from-one-side-to-the-other relocation of the Firefox menu.

Some were quite explicit in their criticism. "Please add function to restore UI prior to 29.0 ... new UI is horse****," said bokstav on MozillaZine May 9. A few compared Mozilla's redesign, which they felt was forced on them, to Microsoft's radical renovation of Windows with 2012's Windows 8. Those were not compliments.

Many commenters on MozillaZine, as well as on Mozilla's official support discussion forum, suggested installing Classic Theme Restorer, a Firefox add-on that spins back the clock by reverting many of the Australis changes.

Others recommended grabbing SeaMonkey, an open-source, volunteer-created suite of programs, including a browser; or Pale Moon, a Firefox-based browser for Windows and Linux. Both look much more like earlier versions of Firefox.

Some users weren't hearing any of that, and said they are moving on. "Control Panel, Uninstall, gone," said Ray-in-Kingwood of yanking Firefox from Windows. "Used Firefox for many years and loved it. The new update was a total cluster****. So ... I am on Chrome now. At least it works."

Firefox 29 defenders weren't absent from the discussions. They alternately chided others for being luddites and pointed to resources that explained how to customize the new UI -- Mozilla trumpeted those skills when it shipped the browser April 29 -- to restore an older feel.

One of those resources, a message on MozillaZine titled "Australis Guide for Normal People," was recommended by several users who said they're sticking with Firefox.

It's not unusual for users to howl at UI changes to long-familiar software -- Microsoft knows that better than most after Windows 8 -- but Mozilla can little afford to lose large numbers of users because of Australis. The browser, which once had a solid lock on the No. 2 spot in Web metrics company Net Applications' measurements of user share, slipped behind Google's Chrome in March. At the end of April, Firefox accounted for 17% of all desktop browsers, while Chrome had a user share of 17.9%.

Firefox has lost 3.3 percentage points of user share in the last 12 months, representing a decline of 16% from its April 2013 standing.

The Classic Theme Restorer add-on will return some, but not all, of Firefox 29's UI elements to their previous positions, including the main menu that had lived on the left side of the windows since 2011.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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