posted by Kroc Camen on Sun 16th Jan 2011 13:52 UTC
IconA mini-tempest has been raging across the web with anger at Mozilla for removing the RSS icon from the Firefox 4 toolbar by default (and moving it to the bookmarks menu). This has been going on for a couple of weeks now, and I had avoided writing about it on OSNews since the recent furore is often cited to have begun around a personal blog post I wrote, but now things have come to an impasse: "No matter how loudly you shout, what you see in the beta with regard to the feed auto-discovery button is what will ship in Firefox 4". When Mozilla can say they are open to input, but refuse to change in the face of near universal disagreement, we all lose, not just me.

The story begins on the Mozilla Blog of Metrics, where using TestPilot, Mozilla’s data-collection programme, Mozilla conducted a five day test of 10’000 users’ interactions with the various toolbar buttons and widgets in the Firefox user interface.

The results of this data were presented as a visual heat-map, showing what areas of the Firefox UI were most, and least, used.

Heat-map of Firefox UI usage

Of this, some interesting statistics arise, such as the horizontal scroll arrows almost never being used, yet the vertical scroll arrows being used relatively common. The RSS icon, sits at just 7.3% usage, just below the site identity button (click the favicon), and above the custom new tab button that one can drag and drop onto the toolbar.

From this data, and the general design direction of Firefox 4, Mozilla opted to remove the RSS icon from the location bar, and move it to a menu item in the bookmarks menu (which would get its own button on the toolbar), and to an optional toolbar button users could drag back into place.

Despite that having been back in July, and there being plenty of heated discussion on the bug, it wasn’t until around the third of this new year that a big stink kicked up about this decision. I’m not sure what set it off in me, but after having been ill with the flu for a week, bored, and hit with a depressive episode, I wrote a direct assault on Mozilla’s decision to hide the RSS icon from plain view. (The title was very badly chosen which, if anything, furthered the spread of the argument)

If RSS isn’t saved now, if browser vendors don’t realise the potential of RSS to save users a whole bunch of time and make the web better for them, then the alternative is that I will have to have a Facebook account, or a Twitter account, or some such corporate-controlled identity, where I have to “Like” or “Follow” every website’s partner account that I’m interested in, and then have to deal with the privacy violations and problems related with corporate-owned identity owning a list of every website I’m interested in (and wanting to monetise that list), and they, and every website I’m interested in, knowing every other website I’m interested in following, and then I have to log in and check this corporate owned identity every day in order to find out what’s new on other websites, whilst I’m advertised to, because they are only interested in making the biggest and the best walled garden that I can’t leave.

If RSS dies, we lose the ability to read in private

With a title like "RSS is Dying", it went around all the tech blogs, as could be expected. However, my point in the article was that Mozilla would be doing more harm by removing the icon than they would by leaving it there.

Anyway, what all that promotion served to do was to a: bring to the fore a number of innovative ideas and b: allow tech rags to write a load of crap and get a lot of traffic. I therefore aimed to write a reply that would cover the topic how I should have in the first place. There was no likelihood that it would attract as much attention, but I owed it to myself to show I could write in a reasoned and responsible manner.

RSS: A Reply is my best attempt at painting the picture of how important RSS support is in browsers and the harmful effect of not only Mozilla’s decision, but rather their whole attitude.

Firefox and Chrome are only as open as Mozilla or Google are open to your ideas. Mozilla have bluntly refused to restore the RSS button by default, despite pressure from users. We have to first change the attitudes of Mozilla and Google if we are to change their code

Removing the RSS icon because few people use it is drawing an inference that is not there. I pay my bills only once a month, but that doesn’t infer that don’t need pay my bills at all. If the RSS button is not used often, it’s not because users don’t need it to absolutely be there when the situation arrives.

All of this has been playing itself out on blogs across the Internet and has had little to do with OSNews up until this point, I won’t detail my blog posts further here, you can choose to read those, but when the official word comes from Mozilla then we should be covering it.

Today, Mozilla Corp. Leslie Michael Orchard, syndicated through Mozilla’s Planet blogroll, answers "What happened to feed-autodiscovery in Firefox 4?"

Unfortunately, all this answers is that they have made a decision, the specifics of it, and that they are not open to reversing it.

No matter how loudly you shout, what you see in the beta with regard to the feed auto-discovery button is what will ship in Firefox 4. But, that’s not the end of days for feeds, by any means. I’ve got some more thoughts about this, and I’m hoping others have interesting things to say about what comes next.

Mozilla have every right to do this, they have their users interests in their minds. It’s the attitude and approach that strikes me as hard-faced. In almost the exact opposite fashion, Opera’s Haavard who does Desktop Q&A at Opera (that same Haavard who responded to Google’s H.264 move a few days ago) contacted me via Twitter to ask about RSS:

Interesting thoughts on RSS. We'll be doing some stuff with RSS in Opera in the future, but maybe we can do more?

I proposed to Haavard that Opera bake RSS into their Speed Dial feature, as hinted upon in my blog, such that Opera would automatically follow the RSS feeds of your Speed Dial pages, and highlight when they have new items, so that when you open Opera, you can instantly see if any of your common sites need visiting or not. It would be good to extend this functionality so that you could read the articles on the Speed Dial page itself, without having to go to the site unless you wanted to comment, or find out more.

The sheer difference between approaches has left an impression on me.

As I know OSNews readers to be technical, capable and creative I have brought the discussion to OSNews to find out more about how you use RSS and if you have any concerns (or none at all!) at what Mozilla is doing.

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