Making the Look of Firefox OS-Specific is Bad

Details of Firefox 3.0’s visual updates have emerged. I have mixed feelings about their plans to create OS-specific interfaces. As a techie I think what they are doing is cool. However, as a system administrator that supports multiple platforms (Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux) I have some concerns.

Beyond being a good web browser, the big reason I like Firefox is that it is basically the same on every platform. Web applications can be tested once, and documentation can be written once (especially if it has screen shots). If the look changes I am going to have to maintain separate documentation for each, or rely on the user to translate the documentation (bad idea).

If the feature set diverges between OSes, like the plans for Mac OS X (where they are looking to add things like Cover Flow for add-ons), I will have to document everything multiple times. I’ll also have to maintain three separate testing environments, as well as keep three separate environments available to the Help Desk staff. We’ll be buying a lot of Macs and copies of VMware Fusion. It also means more platform-specific problems, as things diverge.

I understand that tight integration with the OS is desirable. It keeps users from thinking that Firefox is some kludgy bolt-on to the OS. Nobody likes a kludgy bolt-on, though in IT we’re more concerned about supportability and functionality than looks. That’s where converging on Firefox as a client was a big win. Changing the application’s behaviour between platforms changes the game, though. It is too early to tell, but if Firefox ends up as three different browsers on three different OSes it might be less work to use whatever comes natively with the OS.

That’s not Firefox. It’s IE7 and Safari, if a competing cross-platform solution like Safari doesn’t entice us away first.