Mozilla taps Toronto Web design shop to work on Firefox 2.0

A Toronto software development company has been selected by Mozilla to design the user interface and improve the usability of the next version of Firefox.

Mozilla formed a team to develop a default theme for Firefox 2.0 earlier this year. In May, the team selected software development company Radiant Core over two other companies.

“They decided they needed to bring in some external firms to do some visual refresh for Firefox 2.0,” said Jay Goldman, president of Radiant Core. “They chose three firms that they felt were capable of doing the job recommended by Mozilla employees.”

Radiant Core, which has been working for Mozilla for about a year on other projects, was one of three vendors that the team asked to submit proposals for a new theme. The others were Meta and Raiz Labs. Theme criteria for the proposals included that they respect native OS look and feel (Firefox runs on Windows, Macintosh and Linux platforms), that the themes appear modern and contemporary with current Web and client apps and appear consistent across platforms.

Slated for release in October, Firefox 2.0 will focus on four priority areas, according to Mozilla. These include search bar, icon polish, tab strip and buttons in textboxes. To date, Mozilla has already released a beta version of Firefox 2.0, which does not include Radiant Core’s theme changes, and is scheduled to release another beta in early September. That version will include some of Radiant Core’s changes, according to Goldman.

Since its birth two years ago from a group of techies led by Blake Ross, the open source browser experienced phenomenal growth in 2004 and 2005, thanks to users who were fed up with viruses that plagued Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. With the upcoming release of Firefox 2.0, Mozilla is faced with the challenge of continuing that momentum and competing with Microsoft’s next version of Internet Explorer, which is already out in beta form.

While Microsoft still has the lion’s share of the market when it comes to browsers, Joe Wilcox, a senior analyst with Jupiter Research who has looked at the new IE 7, said Microsoft has introduced a lot more complexity to improve security.

“There’s a lot more going on visually in the browser interface, which can be very distracting and confusing,” said Wilcox. “People get little notices telling them they need such and such Active X control.”

When it comes to usability, Wilcox says browsers should focus on two things: simplicity and hidden complexity.

“Simplicity is about making everything easy to get and to use,” he said. “Hidden complexity is about bulking up the features but without putting it right in the user’s face.”

With the search bar, for example, Goldman said there were some usability concerns in that people don’t know it’s actually a search box.

“Part of it was visual design and part of it was also usability,” he said.

Goldman added that his company also spent some time working on the tab strip, which is a row of tabs used for multiple tab browsing.

“Some of the things around the tab strip in Firefox 1.5 were platform-specific,” he said. “For example, on the Mac it wasn’t clear when the tab was in the background that it was a tab and not just part of the background of the tab strip.”

Unlike Microsoft, Goldman pointed out, Mozilla and designers like him have to worry about the fact that Firefox runs on more than one platform. This, in turn, creates a challenge when it comes to usability because what the browser looks like on one platform may differ greatly from what it looks like on another.

“There’s a desire for the software to appear to be native when it’s running on an operating system,” said Goldman. “There is also a desire that it’s recognizably Mozilla and not some other Web browser.”

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