In a post earlier today, I was suggesting a couple of features that exist as parts of add-ons today that I think, (personal opinion here,) should be folded in to the mainline Firefox. A rather exciting discussion ensued but because it was somewhat off-topic, I'd like to open it up to a full post and have a more focused discussion here.
This wouldn't be the first time we've incorporated features from add-ons. As a matter of fact, tabbed browsing and the pop-up blocker both started out as Mozilla extensions. This was before we had a real extension/add-on system but the idea was the same. Not too long ago, we added a spellchecker to Firefox, a feature previously only available as an add-on. More recently, we incorporated parts of the popular session restore add-on into Firefox. That's all to point out that we think one of the values of the amazing add-ons ecosystem is that it provides a R&D lab for the larger Mozilla project and it helps to prove out not just the idea and the implementation, but also the usefulness and desirability to people using the Web.
Today, I think there are two features that have gotten quite a bit of visibility as add-ons which have demonstrated both general usefulness and provided some strong direction for implementations. I don't believe that either of these features are right for Firefox as they are implemented today, but the value they provide to large numbers of users is, in my opinion, worth incorporating in some fashion into Firefox.
The first, and probably most controversial, is ad blocking. Let me again reiterate that I'm not talking about incorporating Ad Block Plus or any other existing ad blocking add-on. I'm talking about incorporating the user value not the particular implementation.
What do users get from ad blocking, or content blocking to be more precise. First, improved usability. The primary reason that we implemented a pop-up blocker in Firefox (one that worked without fuss, right out of the box,) was that pop-ups were a massive usability pain in the ass for pretty much everyone on the Web. That was not some jihad against advertising. It was about providing a better experience for users. By eliminating distractions from the task at hand, people will have a more usable experience. Second, potential performance gains. If the browser is focused on retrieving and displaying just the content that the user wants, performance should be improved. Finally, control. Just as users should be able to access content that some might find objectionable, so should users be able to protect themselves and their families (especially children) from any content they find objectionable.
Today, Firefox, IE, and Safari, the three browsers with significant market share, all block pop-ups "out of the box" so to speak. People aren't distracted, they can get things done faster, they're safer, and they're more in control of their Web experience. The Web is a better place because unrequested pop-up advertising has been mostly banished. There are lots of other annoyances and usability issues on the Web, but, based on the popularity of content blocking software, ads seem to rank pretty high on the list.
The arguments against incorporating some form of ad blocking that I've heard so far are 1) most ads aren't a security threat like pop-ups were. 2) ads today aren't as much of a usability/annoyance as pop-up ads. 3) pop-ups are not ad or ad-network specific so blocking them is fundamentally different from blocking other ad content. 4) it would lead to the end of free/subsidized content on the web or the Web would come to an end. 5) Mozilla would get sued. 6) Website owners should be in control of the user experience, not the users.
So, should Firefox offer users additional content-blocking features? Could usability of the Web be improved if users had more control over this aspect of their online experience? And, assuming the answers to those questions were mostly "yes", what should this new capability look like?
I'm going to share more of my thoughts on this in a later post but I'm curious to hear yours.
The second feature, and I thought it would be less controversial but I was apparently wrong, is video downloading, or more precisely, saving multimedia content that's displayed by the browser. Once again, I want to say that I'm not particular to any existing approach or implementation. I'm just talking about the idea of making it easy for people to save video, and all of the content they're looking at in their browser window.
Why should users be able to download videos? Well, why shouldn't they? They can save images they're looking at. They can save the text they're looking at. They can save the entire page to their hard drives. Every browser in existence that supports text and images allows for saving of that content. What's different about video, or audio, or any of the other types of content that have become more popular in more recent years?
I don't think the current situation makes sense to people browsing the Web. People who don't understand the technology that powers the Web (and shouldn't have to) must wonder why it doesn't "just work" when they go to save one particular piece of content in a Web page. The content is right there in their browser, just like the text is, just like the images are, just like the little animated buttons and icons, but for some magical reason, it's just not the same and can't be saved.
I think that's plain silly and I can't imagine why the fact that browsers haven't yet caught up to these new content types means that they shouldn't try.
The arguments I've heard for not making video and audio (or other "new" content) on the Web as usable as text and images are 1) audio and video technologies on the Web are content protection schemes, not just content, so making it possible to save the content would be illegal or at least invite legal scrutiny. 2) people don't actually want to save audio and video content like they do text and image content so it should remain an add-on. 3) There are other, more important things to change in Firefox than this.
So, should Firefox make multimedia content a first class citizen in the browser by allowing users to save it like they can any other content in the browser? How would this feature be exposed to people using the Web browser?
Again, I'll share more my thoughts on this in an upcoming post. What do you all think?
There is already some great discussion in the earlier post, here, so do check that out. But please make sure that you comment on these issues in this post rather than that one. Thanks.