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The Future of the Web: How Firefox Panorama and Aza Raskin will shape the Web

When I visited the Mozilla offices in Mountain View, California, I met with three very important Mozillans. Aza Raskin, Creative Lead of Firefox; Vladimir Vukićević, Principal Engineer of Firefox; and Nick Nguyen, Mozilla's Director of Add-ons. Together, they form the spearhead that drives both the creative vision and development of Firefox, a browser that's now used by over 400 million users.

I picked the brains of all three and each offered up very different points of view -- different, but ultimately aligned. I don't know if an energizing thunderbolt struck down from the Board of Directors, or whether the appointment of Aza as Creative Lead made the difference, but one thing's for sure: Mozilla now has a unified vision of what Firefox is and what it can become.

This is a series of posts about the future of Mozilla and Firefox, and ultimately how a bunch of innovative open-source dinosaur-loving hippies will affect the Web. First up, we're going to look at Aza Raskin's new brainchild: Panorama.

Aza RaskinThere's a fundamental and very basic tenet in good itnerface design: failure is not the user's fault. When you push a door that's meant to be pulled, it's not your fault -- it's the designer's.

When you are designing and creating a browser that's used by 400,000,000 users of the Web, it goes without saying that a lot of responsibility lies in your hands. A crippling bug or fundamentally flawed user interface not only turns people away from your browser, but from the entire Internet. When a geriatric user with Window Me and IE6 announces that they can't make a website work, it's not their fault. It's not the Web's fault either: it's the browser! Fortunately, a rather gifted designer is at the helm of Firefox.

"We now spend more time in our browser than in our car; more time in our browser than with our family," Aza Raskin tells me with a sad smile. It's his job to make sure Firefox is as usable as possible, and to ensure the user experience is smooth and predictable -- in essence, it's his job to make sure you enjoy the Web.

Aza wields a double-edged sword, controlling the online lives of 400 million people. With one broad stroke he can either break the Web, or revolutionize it. Take one of Firefox 4's big new features an example: Panorama. Just two days before my meeting with Aza I had attended the Internet Explorer 9 launch, where its UI was extolled as the pinnacle of research and extensive usability studies. And it's true, IE9's interface is incredibly refined and a joy to use, but it's not innovative. "You can never let your data dictate design," Aza said, in response to Microsoft's finding that very few people use more than eight tabs. "If you do, you end up following what people currently do and never innovating."

Panorama, then, just like the introduction of tabs so many years ago, is about changing the entire Web paradigm. Today, Panorama is simply a workflow and productivity enhancement that sits on top of Firefox, but imagine the future; imagine what Panorama could be like with 'touch' controls -- pinch-to-zoom, flicking tabs between groups -- or with social connections. Imagine what it'll be like when, ultimately, everything you use on a computer is a Web app. "The ramifications for what it means to have a physical, spatial understanding of all of your online workspace are about to become apparent," Aza begins. "When you zoom out, you won't see just your own tabs; you'll see your friends' tabs. You'll see social interaction; links coming in from your friends on Twitter."

"We're at the very tip of this iceberg." He's almost boiling over with anticipation at this point. "It's like going back to GUIs, the first very time. 'What's going to come out of the GUI?' Nobody knew. You have this basic idea..." Our PR rep signals that the meeting has come to an end and Aza quickly changes tack: "Firefox is going to continue to lead in this sphere because other browsers are going on this glut of removing everything, instead of innovating." If those words don't fill you with confidence for the future of Firefox, I don't know what will.

The introduction of Panorama in Firefox 4 as an optional, out-of-the-way feature is genius. There's still the Chrome-like, minimal interface, but Panorama will be there, completely out of the way, just begging to be discovered by those that are feeling the more-than-10-tabs grind and looking for a reprieve.

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Not played with Panorama tab sets yet? Grab a beta build of Firefox 4 and hit Ctrl+Space to begin!

Tags: aza raskin, AzaRaskin, firefox, firefox friday five, FirefoxFridayFive, interview, panorama, spatial, tabs, user experience, user interface, UserExperience, UserInterface