Google Gets More Cozy with Firefox

As the default start page and built-in search utility, it's no surprise that Google wants Firefox to succeed in a market dominated by Microsoft's Internet Explorer. But the company has recently pulled closer to the open source Web browser, funding usability testing and launching a Firefox affiliate program.

In a post to his Web log late last week, lead Firefox engineer Ben Goodger -- who began working at Google in January -- reported on efforts to improve the browser's tabs. Tabbed browsing makes it possible to open multiple Web sites in the same window, but the concept is still fairly young.

"The challenges that face us building the Firefox UI is how to make Tabbed Browsing useful to those who want it, discoverable to those whose lives would be made easier by it, and transparent to those who don't need it," Goodger wrote.

To that end, Google, not Mozilla, held usability studies to figure out how people responded to tabs in Firefox 1.5 Beta 1. One of the results, according to Goodger, was that people have trouble with Back button behavior as opening a new tab resets the history. Closing of tabs was also difficult for some.

"At Google, we are constantly bit by the z-index issue since we use a lot of web apps," Goodger explained. "When you have targeted links open new windows, when you close the opened window the page you came from is usually the window behind it, so it works out nicely. With tabs, not so much."

In response, Google, which employs a handful of Mozilla developers, has built experimental versions of Firefox with changes to the way tabs work. It's not clear if any of the modifications will make their way into the official Firefox release, but Goodger has requested public feedback.

Cutting paychecks to Firefox engineers and helping improve tabbed browsing aren't the only things Google is doing to aid Mozilla. The company recently unveiled a new "Referrals" program as part of its AdSense advertising service for webmasters.

By placing a special button on their pages, site owners can earn $1 USD every time someone downloads Firefox. With the upstart browser recently surpassing the 100 million download mark, however, Google says it will only pay "for the first time" a user runs the Web browser.

"We're very excited about this program and hope to see more similar programs available to web publishers in the future," said Mozilla developer Asa Dotzler.

In addition to cozying up with Firefox, Google has also established ties to the OpenOffice.org program through an agreement with Sun Microsystems. Google will pledge resources to help the open source productivity suite in its quest to offer a capable, free alternative to Microsoft Office.

But how will the Firefox community respond to an encroachment by the corporate search giant? Some users remain skeptical of Google's intentions, but many are welcoming the extra support as Firefox continues to chip away at IE's Web dominance.

"I think it is great that Google invest the time and money to improve Firefox usability," one user wrote on Goodger's blog. "Why do they do it? Maybe they just want the best possible transporter for their services? Besides, Google are the good guys..."

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