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Asa Understands Normal Users and Firefox Users

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It’s always refreshing to know that the folks working on some of the highest profile open source projects realize that they (well, “we”) live in our own bubble…

There have been a lot of people accusing me of hating Opera. They’re simply wrong. I don’t hate the Opera browser at all. I think it’s moving in the right direction and for my use (and I suspect for many power users) it’s the second or third best browser available — depending on whether or not you have access to a Mac.

I have had every version of Opera on my machine for the last 7 or 8 years. I was promoting Opera on my personal website (and so was my wife) well into my Mozilla involvement (which began about 6 years ago.)

Like I’ve said in previous posts, Opera can be a very powerful tool for the most sophisticated of web users, but until very recently it’s also been overwhelming in terms of user interaction complexity. I applaud Opera’s move with 8.0 to simplify the user experience. That will certainly help attract some of the less sophisticated audiences (necessary if Opera wants to break out of the low single digits in market share.)

This was also the case for Mozilla. It wasn’t until we made the move from the ridiculous complex UI (primarily the chaotic and overloaded menus and the franken-preferences) to Firefox with its powerful but lean feature set, that our growth rate among the less savvy web users started it’s dramatic rise. The Mozilla Suite peaked at just a couple percent market share, down near Opera’s territory. It simply wasn’t going to ever be the right browser for a large enough audience to take share away from Microsoft (something that Firefox has been much more successful at.)

I’m a power user. So are most of you. We’re all extremely sophisticated and appreciate all kinds of configuration and control. We love spending time learning about how to use our browsers more effectively. There is a market for browsers that cater to people like us — it’s us ;-) We love having our Firefox+extensions and our Opera browsers. We’re an ideal target market for Firefox and Opera. Unfortunately, we’re a very small market, and getting smaller as a percentage of the overall web population.

You and I are nothing like the overwhelming majority of browser users. Nothing. Most browser users (approaching a billion of them) don’t need or want all kinds of configuration and control. They want to get on the web, take care of what they got on to do, and get off — without difficulty, and most important, without having to learn new features to accomplish that. They understand the basics of entering addresses, clicking links, adding pages to their bookmarks/favorites, using the primary five buttons, and that’s about it. They’re not interested in learning a whole lot more. They want it to “just work”.

As browser makers, Mozilla and Opera can do a lot to make the web a better place and to improve the experience that these users have when they get on the web. But most of that won’t be accomplished by adding more user features and more complicated user interaction. Take pop-up blocking. When implemented correctly, pop-up blocking shouldn’t require any user interaction 99% of the time. That’s a great feature that should “just work” for the user. Anyone moving from pre-XPSP2 IE to Firefox or Opera will have a vastly improved experience of the web and they won’t have to learn how to dig through menus or press buttons or anything like that. The more we do to make these kinds of improvements for “normal” users, the better we’ll do at growing our user bases.

The big difference I see between Firefox and Opera today is that Firefox, like Opera can satisfy most of the power user audience (by virtue of the nearly 700 available Firefox extensions) but unlike Opera, Firefox is also ready to go, comfortable and capable out of the box, for “normal” users. Opera has made good strides with Opera 8′s out of the box experience, but it still has a ways to go if it wants to attract users who fall into the biggest piece of the pie.

I don’t hate the Opera browser. My criticism of the feature set and user interaction complexity is not intended to “bash Opera” as many seem to think. I’ve pointed out what I think needs to improve if Opera is to gain a significant user base. If you’re paying much attention, you’ll see that the people making the Opera browser also believe that it needs to be easier to use. The move away from complexity, between the 7.5 app and the 8.0 app, seems very much in line with making Opera easier to use and I think makes Opera viable to a somewhat larger audience. A bit more cleanup, and removing the advertising or dropping the cost much closer to 0, I think are necessary (though not sufficient) steps to becoming a mainstream browser. If Opera can start taking significant market share away from IE, I will be cheering right along with the Opera users.

Firefox isn’t there yet either. We’ve got plenty more to do to make the web easier to use. We’ve also got a ways to go on improving our distribution channels. The next year is going to be crucial for Firefox and while I’m confident we’re up for the challenge, we’re not yet where we need to be.

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Jeremy Zawodny is the author of the popular Jeremy Zawodny’s blog. Jeremy is part of the Yahoo search team and frequently posts in the Yahoo! Search blog as well.

Visit Jeremy’s blog: Jeremy Zawodny’s blog.

Asa Understands Normal Users and Firefox Users
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