Web View: Netscape Goes Skinny Dipping

People love a race, whether it's between Olympic swimmers or Web browsers. Now that Netscape has dauntlessly stepped up to the blocks, challenging Microsoft to another battle for browser domination, it's time for the latest heat in this ongoing struggle. And so after I commented on Netscape 6's rocky start, readers flooded my mailbox.

Nearly everyone who wrote to complain told me that I was dead wrong to pan Netscape's new, cool interface, because the user has the option of changing the interface via a skin, which changes the aesthetics of the interface without changing the way the program actually works. This interface swap is possible because Netscape shares code with an open-source project, Mozilla, and thus will eventually share Mozilla's capability to switch skins.

Hearing from such an enthusiastic contingent raised a few questions. What is the relationship between Mozilla and Netscape when it comes to skins? Do skins merely change the way an application looks, or do they permit users to learn and customize an application's functions? Is there any consistency among skins, or will using an application change dramatically each time I change skins? Most importantly, does the average web surfer have the knowledge to use skins as a means by which to optimize his or her web browsing experience?

Starting with the Basics

Skins are similar to style sheets in that they use different options to specify how something is going to look -- in this case, that something is an entire application. For open-source folks, Mozilla and skins are as natural a combination as peanut butter and chocolate; the open-source code means that developers can modify the code as they see fit, and the skins (and their underlying standard, XUL, an XML-based language used to describe window layout , means that developers can modify the application window's appearance to their hearts' content.

Mozilla is the umbrella name for a group of people writing an open-source browser-like tool as well as the code package which they produce and refine. Much has been made of Mozilla's use of skins; it's only fair to point out that comparing Mozilla's skin trade with Netscape's is like comparing apples and turnips. Netscape is an end-user browser, whereas Mozilla has recently repositioned itself as a web-based application platform. Translated into English, this means that Mozilla isn't just a browser, but a tool that can be used to build a browser or another application that users access via their browser.

Mozilla is perfect if you're looking at the Web as a way to use applications. But because most of us are still working on the Web-site-as-a-series-of-hypertext-documents model, let's look at a browser and ask if skins work to maximize the way you personally work with a hypertext browser.

Browsing Habits Make All the Difference

It depends on how you use a browser. For some people, firing up the browser once a day to surf a few sites is about as rigorous a workout their copy of Navigator or Internet Explorer gets. For others -- Web site developers, or application developers doing a lot of web-based work, or those who perhaps spend an inordinate amount of time surfing -- working with a browser is different. After spending a lot of time in a browser, power users may notice that they're doing a few tasks repeatedly, such as grouping related or serial tasks in one area of an interface. They'll want to change the interface so they get those tasks done quickly and efficiently.

Canny interface developers anticipate this task clustering, which is why the "back," "forward" and "home" buttons are all grouped together on a browser's navigation bar. Even cannier interface developers allow people to develop their own task clustering: the first thing I did when I installed IE5 was to change the toolbar to reflect my most common chores.

Ideally, skins should let you do this kind of useful interface manipulation without sacrificing the consistency and intelligence of a good basic interface. Skins, however, tend to go the extra mile and cede all interface control to the user, thus letting them choose how they'll work within the skinned application. This works well if your user is comfortable with an application's underlying functions, but if they're relying on simply scanning the interface in order to figure out how to perform tasks, they'll be lost without a trace. How many casual web surfers possess a deep and intimate knowledge of usability or interface theory, or are willing to wrestle with a piece of software until they understand it enough to modify its interface?

Sure, even beginning computer users will display a compulsive need to change their desktops. But that's not the same as asking a user to pair form and function in an application.

This doesn't mean that skins are bad, or that letting users control the interface is bad. Computer users have long been frustrated by GUIs that seem to not make sense, and that goes double for Web-site surfers. The real issue is degree of control per user.

Some folks -- those who have fearlessly dived into Linux or approached new operating systems and applications with the same fearlessness as The Crocodile Hunter -- will argue that the best approach is to adhere to the current model of maximum user control and let the user sink or swim.

Consider it browser skinny-dipping. Given the obstacles presented by companies that try to impose their development and interface standards on Web users and developers alike, maintaining an open-interface browser philosophy is understandable.

Some people, when told to sink or swim, simply end up walking on the bottom of the pool. Don't be surprised if these folks forgo the thrill of user control for the browser equivalent of using arm-floaties; they'd rather be safe than savvy. The real challenge for browser and skin developers will be helping the typical user keep his head above water without relegating him to the application's shallow end.

Macworld.com Senior Editor LISA SCHMEISER ( lisa_schmeiser@macworld.com ) has written for Suck, Salon, and TeeVee, among other Web sites. She has also worked for several Web publishers and design firms, and writes our Web View column.

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