Banishing Browser Address Bars — a UI Step Too Far?

Contributing Editor

Google wants Chrome to be a clean distraction-free browsing experience. They’re possibly about to take their most radical step yet. Interface minimalism will reach it’s ultimate zenith with the removal of the address bar.

Madness?

Perhaps. But Mozilla are considering the same UI move.

The idea has received an overwhelmingly negative response from technical users. However, before you reach for your soapbox, be aware that it’s only a proposal which may never see the light of day. If it does happen, it will almost certainly be an option and “compact view” might only be permitted on application tabs. When enabled, the user may have to double-click a tab to view the URL.

So why does Google think a 30-pixel gain is so important? It would provide an extra 5% of space on some tablet and netbook screens, but there are deeper reasons…

I use the address bar. You probably use it too. But many users don’t. Non-technical users rarely understand URLs; it’s plainly obvious when you observe them type www.whatever.com into Google’s search box. So why retain a feature few people use?

We should also consider how web use is changing. We know the browser is a separate application but it’s likely to evolve as operating system vendors attempt a more integrated approach. Icons, application tabs and pinned sites are just the start. The distinction between online and offline is already blurred and, within a few years, users won’t know or care where an application resides.

There’s also been a noticeable shift in internet marketing. While companies still promote their URL on advertising media, many now publish more memorable search keywords for Google or Facebook.

Finally, there are commercial incentives. Without the bar, users must resort to a search engine; they’ll aways see a page of results and revenue-paying adverts before reaching their destination.

But what about the drawbacks? If you can’t see the address bar, it’s more effort to enter a URL. If users really don’t want the bar, it can usually be hidden or they can switch to full-screen mode (F11 in most browsers).

Web developers also depend on the URL — especially when testing web applications or REST services. Removing the bar will make our lives more difficult.

Finally, without the address bar, it’s more difficult to ensure you’re on the correct site or check security settings. Those involved in phishing scams will be eagerly anticipating the UI change.

The idea makes me uncomfortable. Users may not understand URLs, but removing the bar won’t help them learn. I’m sure many car drivers don’t understand hydraulics but that’s not a reason to remove their brakes (OK — bad metaphor, but a web without URLs is not without danger).

I’m all for UI simplification, but this seems like a step too far. If it happens, Google should rename their browser: “Chrome-less” would be more apt.

What do you think? Should the address bar go? Could it be an option? Are the risks too great?

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  • Kevin Albertson

    I have to agree, I use the address bar all of the time. Not just for web development, but also for regular search. If chrome or firefox do decide to remove it, I hope they make it very easy to click an option to bring it back.

  • Matt Norton

    This is a HUGE mistake and this is why….

    I understand your point… “before you reach for your soapbox, be aware that it’s only a proposal which may never see the light of day”

    However the fact that it is even a proposal at all is truly bothersome. Companies who “pride” themselves in making the web easier for the visitor is almost like moving backwards. Mozilla especially should tread with caution after they pissed of several users with their Firefox 5 update.

    Another point… what about people who contribute to direct marketing Billboards, Commercials, Business Cards. Should they now completely remove their www. website address? Google is already making it near impossible for new website owners to build a business / brand. They are forced into the social media market simply because they have no choice.

    I can see why google would do it. They are forcing people to use their search. Mozilla on the other hand, I am stunned.

    It comes with shock and disappointment that Google or Mozilla would even consider it an option let alone have it goes far as leaking the idea to the community.

  • http://twitter.com/Nicekiwi Ezra Sharp

    Big Mistake, the security problems this would raise would surly be too great to risk. The “n00b” ever trusting user would be instant prey to any form of online attack/scam.

  • Tom Wardrop

    I’d have to concur with the paragraph at the end of the article. I hate hiding or dumbing things down simply because most users don’t “understand”. Trying to educate my parents for example on the address bar, and the fact that Google is simply a web page like any other, is difficult enough as it is even with the address bar.

    It’s important though that users understand these basic web fundamentals, as otherwise they can get easily lost and confused, without the necessary knowledge to get themselves out of trouble. It’s why I had step-by-step hold-your-hand tutorials. They don’t empower the user at all. As soon as something unexpected happens (e.g. something not mentioned in the step-by-step tutorial), the user is screwed. My mum for example opened a new tab in Firefox the other day (by pressing the plus) and was utterly confused when she was presented with a blank white page. I explain why the page was blank and what she was intended to do with the page, and on she went on her merry way, but had she already understand those web fundamentals I was talking about, she probably would have worked out what was going on herself. The empty address bar with the blinking caret would have been enough of a clue I’d imagine.

  • http://www.tyssendesign.com.au John Faulds

    If they’re going to do this they *have* to give you the option to put it back if you want.

  • http://twitter.com/michaelstrelan michaelstrelan

    “I’m sure many car drivers don’t understand hydraulics but that’s not a reason to remove their brakes”

    A better analogy might be removing street signs or letter box numbers. You might know where you are but the street signs still serve a purpose. Or you might think you know where you are but is probably a good idea to double check.

  • Alex Hall

    Why, oh why, oh why?

    It’s not like it’s a small UI change either. I just don’t understand where the thinking comes from for thing like this. Needless to say, it won’t happen. At least, not by default

  • http://twitter.com/catbarnes Catlin Barnes

    AGREED! Users (even non-technical) would be losing control of how they navigate the web. Imagine only app buttons floating around everywhere as a user’s only access to sites. It’s kind of like corralling all the lemmings to me and pointing them this way and that. Scary!

  • http://twitter.com/GeorgeKovats George Kovats

    I get that the future of browsing the Internet will move less like a technically savvy, browser-based experience to something more app-like. I get that part of the appeal of apps is that it’s all the benefits of browsing rich web content without the rigid feel of ubiquitous back, forward, refresh and home buttons with a big ugly url hanging at the top. I get the appeal for the move.

    But it’s wrong to foist that as a default. Make it configurable, add to as part of a “Beginner’s” browser profile, and let them go to town. We can even bring the Microsoft paperclip back to talk the user through the browsing experience and completely water down what’s actually going on. But I’d argue we’re moving past the learning curve of browser mechanics, beyond the point where people are still getting comfortable with the typical browser console. Moms and Grandpa’s are catching up, and kids know just what a browser is.

    You might please a few artsy purists by auto-hiding all browser controls, but for the rest of us, URLs are part of the Internet experience we know and expect.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for sharing such a unique information and I totally appreciate it that how to use address bar in URL without showing to the users and REST services.

  • http://www.insurancegofer.com/auto Auto Insurance Online

    Banishing Browser Address Bars — a UI Step Too Far? A step way too far! I would never even consider something like that

  • Anonymous

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  • http://twitter.com/UncleDaveM_IFM Dave Mainwaring

    Early signs that the era of PC’s is dying off.

    • Anonymous

      Are you retarded or do you just eat everything Steve Jobs says like it’s candy? Unless they quit selling the parts, there will always be a PC with a physical keyboard in my home.

  • Dan Kueck

    Don’t worry. If the URL bar is removed, there will be a plug-in to add it back =)

  • http://twitter.com/joezim007 joezim007

    Are you kidding me? Just because someone knows someone who uses Google to type a web address into, doesn’t mean anything. I personally have met one person who does that and hundreds of people who actually use the address bar. I know a much higher percentage of people who don’t use tabs, but you don’t see them discussing removing tabs. You know why? It’s nonsense to think we’d be better off without them. Same thing with the address bar.

  • http://blog.avangelistdesign.com Andy Parker

    when have you ever used full screen?
    I’ve never used it unless the browser forces it, like video full screens for example.

    I have no problem with this evolution. When Chrome was first released with the ability to use that one input field to type full url’s or search terms I choked on my cornflakes it was so good. Simple but why didn’t anyone do that years ago!?

    So yeah, no get rid of it, or make it a hot spot on the screen, the only thing it will screw up is top navigations. Oh… that’s quite a big problem.

  • Anonymous

    What will [F11] do then? Poor [F11]…

    On a more serious note, this will make things even easier for phishermen. Although, the average user likely never sees their address bar, but what about the power users?? Don’t we matter?

  • http://www.chrisfarrellmembershipsitereview.com/ Steve Balliett

    Completely removing the address bar is unwise.

    I understand about the space issue. However…a choice… must be given so that users can decide for themselves…what is best for them…and not someone else.

    An option to hide it or not should be given for better ease of use.

    I love the address bar. It is an awsome tool.

  • Ethan

    What they need to do is have a setup option. For example; when the new update occurs (if it even does) they need to keep the URL at the top and have a main “themed” page such as Google Chrome does when opening a new tab. In that page they should have decently large text and pictures explaining the situation. And right there the user can adjust whether or not they want the URL or not. Then once set, the user can always simply change their mind by changing the URL display option in the browsers settings. If they did it like that, then I don’t see a problem with it at all.