Firefox risks user backlash by adding search box to new tab page

Firefox 31, just released to Mozilla's beta channel, apes Chrome by pushing search in another UI location

Mozilla has pulled a "Chrome" by adding a search box to the new tab page in Firefox 31, which reached beta status yesterday and is slated to ship in final form on July 22.

Along with the nine thumbnails representing the user's most-frequently-visited websites, the new tab page in Firefox 31's beta sports a search field near the top of the window. Typing a search string in the box initiates a search on Google, unless the user has changed the default search engine. If the Firefox user has changed the search engine -- say, to Yahoo or Microsoft's Bing -- that choice is also used in the new tab page's search box.

"We know that many users don't know/use the search field in the UI or the Awesome Bar," wrote Philipp Sackl, a senior interaction designer at Mozilla, in the first entry on a Bugzilla thread that kicked off the change in January. "Providing a search field on the new tab page would make their search experience more fluid."

Firefox's new tab page appears when users press Ctrl-T (Windows) or Cmd-T (OS X), or when they click on the "+" symbol in the tab bar. All browsers offer a similar feature that, at a minimum, shows thumbnails of the user's most-visited websites. The new tab page appeared first in Opera -- which called it "Speed Dial" -- and has since been adopted by all browsers, including Firefox, Google's Chrome, Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Apple's Safari.

With the introduction of a search field in the new tab page, Mozilla users now have three different places in the browser's UI (user interface) where they can begin a Web search: In the address bar (called "Awesome Bar" by some at Mozilla) and the separate search field, both at the top of the window, and on the new tab page.

That may be a problem for some users if Google's similar change was any indication.

In September 2013, Chrome 29 added a prominent search box to its new tab page. And users howled.

"Fail, fail, fail," said one Chrome user at the time.

"If you're on Chrome, why wouldn't you just use the omnibar?" asked another, using an alternate name for "omnibox," Google's label for the combined search-address bar at the top of the browser window.

For several months, Google offered a workaround that stripped the search box from Chrome's new tab page. But the company dumped that option in February 2014, again riling users.

In the Bugzilla entry that launched the new feature -- Bugzilla is Mozilla's bug- and change-tracking database -- there was no commentary about possible user resistance. Nor has Mozilla added a setting in the browser's options to eliminate the search box.

One commenter did raise the issue in a different Bugzilla entry. "I'd like to propose a hidden pref, where season[ed] users can just hide the search box by default anyway," wrote Paul Rouget, a Firefox engineer and Mozilla technology evangelist, on May 9. There was no reply addressing Rouget's proposal.

Computerworld could not find an obvious setting in Firefox's semi-hidden "about:config" section that disabled the new tab page's search field. Users can access those advanced settings by typing "about:config" in the address bar, then clicking "I'll be careful, I promise!" in the ensuing dialog titled "This might void your warranty!"

Firefox users can dispense with the new tab page's search box by clicking the small icon at the upper right, but that also eliminates the useful thumbnails, resulting in a completely blank new tab page.

Adding another search option to Firefox -- even if some object -- may make business sense for Mozilla. The company relies on contracts with search providers, notably Google, for almost all its revenue. In 2012, the most recent year for which financial data has been made public, 98% of Mozilla's income came from search deals, with 90% of that from Google.

The Mozilla-Google search contract expires in November. Mozilla is in a tighter spot than in 2011, the last time it negotiated with Google: According to analytics vendor Net Applications, Firefox's desktop share is down by 25% since it inked a deal with the search giant.

Firefox 31's beta can be downloaded for Windows, OS X and Linux from Mozilla's website.

Firefox 31, now in beta, adds a search box to the new tab page, aping Chrome's similar design change of last year.

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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