The Problem With Themes

Sep 14, 2006

With Firefox 2.0 RC1 on the horizon (the branch apparently froze last night for check-ins), I think it's time for another of my opinionated views on the new Firefox theme. I have mentioned before that the new theme looked pretty bad, and apparently a number of people agreed. Thankfully, the theme was revamped in the September 11 nightly builds, and it looks a lot better. But people are still complaining. I like the new 2.0 theme much better than the previous attempt, but I still feel the Firefox 1.5 look and feel is ideal. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

So this leads to my main point: themes (or skins, whatever you want to call them) just seem wrong. So much time, energy, and development effort gets put into how stuff looks. Couldn't all of that be better spent in making Firefox better than it is today? Let's have faster start up times. The Places feature looks cool. And I'm sure there are other great ideas on the horizon. Can't we work on those instead of arguing about the icon used for the "Home" button?

At some level, a certain look will always have problems. One can't please everyone all the time, especially when it comes to looks; everyone's idea of beauty is different. So, set a look that most everyone agrees on (e.g. the current Firefox 1.5 theme) and leave it alone! Put all of the development effort on cooler features, not on shinier icons. In the end, I think everyone will be happier.

1 Comment
kip
7:58 AM on Sep 15, 2006
I think the value of a visual theme is hard to nail down. When Windows 95 came out, there were many who did not like the new style. Again, when Windows XP came out, lots of people thought it just looked bad, but how many people do you know that actually run Windows XP with the themese turned off (so it looks like Windows 2000)? I haven't seen many (although I know a lot who prefer the silver theme over the blue one). New themes always look bad to a lot of people at first, because it changes what they're familiar with. But given some time, most of them grow to like the new style (no one wants to go back to a Windows 3.1 theme, even if it would free up some CPU cycles), and the old style just feels plain. Apple has made a comeback in the past five years or so, thanks in a large part to their unique style (both software and hardware). I think I remember reading that for Firefox 2.0 they wanted a new theme to give it a "new car smell", so that users will instantly know they are using a whole new version, not just an incremental upgrade. It's all about making people feel like they are using a great piece of software, even if they don't understand anything about how the software works. Disclaimer: I have not seen the new Firefox themes you're talking about.
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