Browser Speed – Perception IS Reality

I have maintained for most of my life that the perception of something is the working equivalent of reality. It is that way with so many things, and anyone in the advertising world knows exactly that.

It looks as though the people over at Mozilla Foundation are more than a little fed up with the fact that their software, no matter how it changes, has of late been perceived as slow, especially at start up.

As someone who uses Opera, and to some degree, a couple of Chrome derivatives, I would say that the reasons I dropped the use of Firefox had little to do with speed, or its perception on my machine, but on the way the browser worked, and the fact that Opera made so very many things easier for me to do. (I immediately think of how well the right-click to selectively fill in information online works – better than anyone else’s implementation of this, and it allows me to enter things as I see fit, not in blocks, as other browsers do.) I never held up a stopwatch and measured. As I recall, I started using Opera before the speed wars began, and because I was fed up with the way that many extensions were not kept up to date, did not work as they should, or were being hawked for money, as an adjunct to an open source browser (not that I won’t pay for the add-ons to an open source project, but the amount paid was seldom within reasonable limits for something that was only marginally useful).

The story I read yesterday in ComputerWorld details the changes that might be coming, to use the same methods (I won’t call them tricks, because they are apparent to the careful user – they are hardly hidden from the ability to observe).

An interface designer interning at Mozilla has suggested that the company mimic gimmicks in Google’s Chrome to make users think Firefox starts up faster.

In an entry on his personal blog that was reposted to Mozilla’s über-blog, Planet Mozilla, John Wayne Hill, an Indiana University master’s student interning this summer at the open-source company, spelled out changes that would give users the feeling that Firefox starts quicker.

"Firefox is fast, no doubt about it. But for many people it feels pretty slow when starting up," said Hill, who is studying human-computer interaction and design. "Chrome, while only marginally faster than Firefox at starting, feels much faster. By analyzing videos of these start-up processes we can start to understand what makes Firefox feel slow."

Along with Alex Faaborg, a Firefox principal designer, Hill put Firefox and Chrome through speed trials that showed Google‘s browser finished most start-up tasks milliseconds faster than Firefox, in some cases because the former skipped steps. Hill then compared how both browsers handled specific start-up tasks or informed users of start-up progress.

For example, while Chrome simultaneously draws both the browser window and its "chrome," or interface, before rendering the opening Web site, Firefox does each of the three tasks separately and sequentially. "Chrome seems to do everything at once [which] allows Chrome to feel fast because once the window is [drawn], everything is pretty much ready to go," Hill said.

Google’s browser also uses a smaller page-loading indicator — the animated circle at the left side of each Chrome tab — while Firefox splashes the word "Loading" across the entire tab.

"This is visually ‘bloated’ and makes Firefox seem slower," Hill said. "Furthermore, because Chrome’s loading icon animation goes ‘around’ faster, Firefox’s loading icon takes more time (seemingly) to get ‘around.’ "

Other pluses for Chrome include its practice of displaying the page title only when the site has been drawn, whereas Firefox fills in the title as a page renders. "This is a simple trick that allows Chrome to feel faster in that once the title is shown, the page is ready," Hill pointed out. "In Firefox, a page’s title makes it seem like a page has loaded but in fact the page isn’t ready to be interacted with quite yet and [so] the user has to ‘wait longer.’ "

To better compete with Chrome on perceived start-up speed, Hill recommended that Firefox copy some of Google’s tricks, including drawing the browser window and chrome at the same time, not sequentially; reducing the "visual weight" of the page-loading icon and animating it faster; and delaying the display the page’s title until the site has loaded and can be used.

He also suggested that Mozilla update Firefox when the user closes the browser, not when it’s first opened as is currently the case.

"With just a few changes in the Firefox start-up process, we could greatly enhance the feeling of Firefox’s speed," Hill argued.

Mozilla has already devoted resources to reducing Firefox’s actual start-up time, as opposed to Hill’s suggestions to give users the illusion of speed. The start-up team publishes gains-losses metrics weekly on the Mozilla site, and blogs about its progress almost as frequently.

I actually think that the Firefox interface needs work now, as it is a bit stodgy, and the standard color-scheme sucks. I know that it is easily changed, but the first perception is one of great sucking, and to my way of thinking, has always been. I can remember how I thought Firefox 1.x was very bad in the looks department, and only used it because it performed in a superior fashion to Internet Exploder (and by that time, Netscape was not really even in the running)

Firefox has long been bashed as sluggish compared to Chrome and other rivals, with various benchmarks being used to illustrate Firefox’s lethargy. (In fact, the Mozilla-maintained Are We Fast Yet site that monitors the progress of its work on boosting Firefox’s JavaScript speeds shows Chrome and Safari far faster.)

Let’s not forget Opera, which is faster than Chrome by and large. Those guys at Opera keep wringing out perceived, and actually measured, gains, and how they do it is something of an amazement to me.

As I have said before, if you like to tinker, Chrome is your baby. If you like to have things smooth, relatively easy, and all within a standardized way of doing things, Opera is for you. Either is far superior in looks, and Firefox, while a great browser still, is looking a bit long in the tooth.

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Quote of the day: (just day?)

A bore is a man who deprives you of solitude without providing you with company.

– Gian Vincenzo Gravina

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