Mozilla plans to 'ribbonize' Firefox

Will hide menus by default in refresh of dated look-and-feel on Windows

Mozilla plans to "ribbonize" Firefox for Windows Vista and Windows 7 to reduce clutter and free up space for the browser display, according to company planning documents.

"Starting with Vista, and continuing with Windows 7, the menu bar is going away," said Mozilla in its published plans for revamping the Firefox user interface. "[It will] be replaced with things like the Windows Explorer contextual strip, or the Office Ribbon, [which is] now in Paint and WordPad, too."

As Mozilla noted, Microsoft has extended Office 2007's ribbon-esque "Fluent" user interface to Windows 7 with the latter's "Scenic Ribbon" framework. In both those designs, a wide ribbon-like display at the top of a window replaces the traditional drop-down menus, small icons and toolbars that have standardized Windows applications' look-and-feel for decades.

Last month, Microsoft confirmed that it will offer Windows 7's ribbon application interface to Windows Vista users in an October update.

Calling Firefox's current Windows look "dated and behind," Mozilla said it would hide the menu bar by default on Vista and Windows 7 as of Firefox 3.7, a minor upgrade expected to ship in March 2010.

The move will let Firefox developers use "Glass," the Windows 7 interface theme, and will free up vertical space, a concern of netbook owners, who face smaller screens.

Although the scheme has been approved by Mozilla's user interface designers, it's not a done deal. "This direction is at the [user interface] team proposal stage, to be approved by drivers and subject for constructive community feedback," the company said.

According to Mozilla's plan, Firefox 3.7's menus will be hidden under a small number of buttons or tabs, much like Google's Chrome and Apple's Safari do now. "They don't always agree on which item should go in which menu, but the general principal is sound," said Mozilla.

Although Vista and Windows 7 users running Firefox 3.7 would see the changes, people working with Windows XP -- by far, still the dominant version of Windows -- will not. "Windows XP would retain the menu bar by default, as would Linux and, of course, Mac," Mozilla said.

Vista and Windows 7 users will also be able to view the full menus by holding the Alt key, which will act as a toggle between on and off.

Mozilla's changes may be unwelcome to some users. Office 2007, for example, faced serious resistance over the ribbon when it launched, although that has subsided over time. More recently, complaints mounted over plans by OpenOffice.org to overhaul the interface of that open-source productivity suite, with some blasting the group for parroting Office 2007's appearance .

For its part, Mozilla tried to preempt criticism in its planning documents.

In a two-question FAQ, Mozilla said that the menu-less interface is the look of the future. "As of Windows 7, the most popular user-facing, prepackaged applications, and Office, ship with the menu bar off by default," the open-source company said. "Whether Photoshop or AutoCAD ship with menu bars isn't necessarily relevant. For one, they are different types of applications, and for another they don't have a ubiquitous competitor ship with the operating system."

That last was a reference to Internet Explorer (IE), which Microsoft will bundle with all copies of Windows 7 except those sold in the European Union. There, Microsoft has proposed letting users "vote" for their default browser when they first try to connect to the Internet.

Mozilla also denied that the change is its attempt to copy Chrome, Safari or IE. "We are not trying to make Firefox look like any other browser," the company said. "Firefox is Firefox. Similarities between browsers are unavoidable. They all have shared lineage and are ... all trying to solve the same problems, so evolutionary ideas that are similar are inevitable."

Firefox 3.7, currently scheduled for release in March 2010, will be preceded by Firefox 3.6, another minor upgrade that's now slated to ship in November.

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