Mozilla plans to ship Firefox’s new interface Photon, out with Firefox 57, without a search box for new users of the web browser.
Mozilla notes however that the search box won’t be removed entirely in Firefox 57. It remains visible for existing Firefox installations where it is displayed on, and remains also an option in the customize menu so that users who want to use it can add it to the main Firefox toolbar.
Mozilla’s reasoning for the change is summed up in the latest Photon Engineering Newsletter #5.
The location bar now can do everything the search box can, and more. So at this point the search box is a vestigial leftover from how browsers worked 10+ years ago, and we’d like to remove it to reclaim precious UI space. Today, no other major browser ships with both a location field and search box.
Lets take a closer look at the claim. It is true that neither Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge, or Microsoft Internet Explorer ship with a search bar. In fact, all three of the browsers don’t support an extra search box.
Other browsers for Windows, Vivaldi or Opera for instance, ship with search box functionality, but it is turned off by default. Some stats on how many users of these browsers (in percent) activate the search box would be useful in this regard.
It should not really matter however what other browser developers do or don’t do. That’s where the second part of the argument comes into play.
Mozilla wants to “reclaim precious UI space” by removing it. This is understandable, as the UI is used not only by core navigation buttons and the address bar, but also by a growing number of icons that are either placed by extensions there, or by the Firefox browser natively.
If you check out the screenshot above, you will notice that the icons on the address bar take up more space than the search bar, and about the same space as the address bar.
Three of the icons have been added by extensions, the remaining icons are default buttons of the Firefox browser.
Firefox offers better controls than Google Chrome when it comes to toolbar buttons. Google Chrome users may move the buttons to the menu only for instance, while Firefox users may remove them entirely from the browser UI.
The future of the search box in Future
Mozilla runs user studies right now to understand better how users of the browser search, and to make sure that Firefox’s location bar matches the search needs of the user population. The organization launched on-off search functionality recently for instance in Firefox’s address bar for searching using non-default search engines.
The organization does note however that it discusses internally what to do when it comes to the search bar for existing users.
Photon won’t be removing the search box entirely, you’ll still be able to add it back through Customize Mode if you so desire. (Please put down your pitchforks and torches. Thank you.) We’re still discussing what to do for existing users…
The last sentence may make Firefox users nervous who use the search bar, because, what is there to discuss? Mozilla states that it won’t remove the Search Box entirely when Firefox 57 comes along, so that new users may add it to the browser, and existing users will continue to have access to it.
While it could mean disabling the Search Box by default for existing users of the browser as well, it could also mean considering to remove it entirely from Firefox at once point.
The latter seems more likely, especially if the user tests come to the conclusion that the functionality provided by the location bar replicates the core functionality of the separate address bar.
The next paragraph can be interpreted in that way as well.
There’s a trade-off between proving a fresh, clean, and modern experience as part of the upgrade to Photon (especially for users who haven’t been using the search box), and removing a UI element that some people have come to expect and use.
I have to admit that I don’t use the search box in Firefox as I run all my searches through the location bar (using keywords for the most part if I need to run a search using search engines that are not the default).
I’m pretty sure that there will an an outcry by users who use the Search Box if Mozilla decides to remove it entirely. There is the question whether that is worth it, or if it would make more sense to keep the option if the cost of maintaining it is not unreasonably high.