Firefox 3 and the Mac (Second, er... Third Chances)

I've never particularly liked using Firefox on a Mac. To be honest, I really only use it for the DownThemAll! extension, which is a perfectly silly reason. Maybe it's because I've been too lazy to import my Safari bookmarks. Most likely it's because I've never gotten comfortable with the graphical user interface - even themes designed to look like the metal/brushed metal/unified metal "Mac style" didn't seem quite right.

So when I read that Firefox 3 was going to have 'native' skins for each operating system, I thought "Hey, maybe I'll give it another chance. Maybe it's changed. Maybe it'll keep its promises this time. Maybe I won't get my heart broken... again."

It's just not meant to be. Here's a look at the navigation bars in Firefox and Safari (this area being where interface differs the most - in-line forms, submit buttons, and other features on webpages aren't too much of a concern).

Tab bar in Firefox 3 [Mac]

Tab bar in Safari 3 [Mac]

Part of the problem seems stem from the fact that I'm still running 10.4 instead of 10.5 - there's a distinct color difference where the Firefox navigation bar meets the Mac window bar. Leopard isn't that old. There are plenty of Mac users out there that haven't upgraded yet. I don't know if the solution necessarily means separate skins for each Mac OS, but it means less familiarity - even if it's a somewhat tiny detail.

The other part is something that Alexis at Design vs Art talked about this morning: the treatment of tabs.

The tab metaphor works with browsers (and in other areas as well) because everyone knows the physical implementation - the file folder. We know what it means and how it works - the label on the tab of a file folder shows us what's inside, and when we access that tab, we reveal its content. It's simple enough and it works easily in design.

What Alexis noticed was that in the Mac OS 'native' FF3, tabs aren't attached to their windows, but rather, they are attached to the bookmark/navigation bar. This breaks the metaphor. It's no longer intuitive that a 'tab' in a browser works the same way as a tab on a physical file folder.

Here's the thing, though. Safari has upside-down tabs as well. They too 'belong' to the navigation/bookmark bar instead of the appropriate content. And while there has been some discussion of the issue, it's certainly never been a point of contention for me. I've never opened up Safari and thought to myself, "You know what. I love Safari, but these goddamn upside down tabs drive me bonkers. I sure hope it's fixed in Safari 4."

Upper: Firefox tab closeup. Lower: Safari tab closeup.

Which is not to say that's true for Firefox 3. The issue here with the tabs is way more noticeable because there's more depth to them. The bookmarks bar is 'puffy' and there's actually a shadow cast on all the inactive tabs. In addition, the Firefox tabs are distinct from one another - there's 3 pixels in between each tab, as well as between the tab and a few pixels between the bottom of the tab and the top of the webpage area. Safari's tabs sit right against each other, and there's a smaller gap between the tab bar and the webpage.

It's just a few pixels, but the attention that Firefox's tabs draw to their... um... 'tabbiness' by casting shadows and distinct separation makes it all the more jarring that tabs are actually attached to the top bar instead of the content it's referring to.

Firefox 3 isn't ugly. But those few small details are inconsistent enough with the carefully tuned Mac UI that it still feels 'wrong' to use it. Maybe I'm just picky, but I don't know if I can really get used to Firefox on a Mac.

What's this mean? It means that for now, for me, Firefox is still my secondary browser, fired up only when I come across some service that doesn't support Safari, or to test out sites with the Web Developer plugin. Like (some?) relationships, it's never completely over. I'm not going to just let it go - but at the same time, Firefox doesn't add enough to my life that I need to make it a central part of my browsing habits.