Zenji: towards a simpler web browser (from 2007!)

Robcee and I spent a bunch of time thinking and talking about alternative browser designs back in 2006/2007. He recently posted his idea from back then, so I figured I’d dig through the archive and post mine. I call it Zenji.

Note: Where it says “[EMPTY PAGE]” that’s where the actual Web content or Dashboard would be. So that’s just a lie.


Zenji was an attempt to re-envision the browser as something smaller and simpler. Some of the ideas have actually shown up in modern browsers, which is gratifying. Other ideas are just terrible (no back button? whuck?). Were I to sit down now and put together ideas for Zenji 2, I would do a lot of things differently.

That in mind, here’s a quick overview of Zenji. The long version is a 13 page PDF which you can download.

The primary goal of Zenji was to be “as simple as possible, but no simpler.” It encompassed a pared down feature set that would let most users use the vast majority of the Web without being overwhelmed.

While Zenji was to be as simple as possible, it also had to be able to grow with the user. Novice users become expert users over time, and what they need in a browser evolves as well.

Features and UI

What Zenji doesn’t have:

  • Traditional tabs
  • A URL bar
  • Any form of bookmark organization
  • Back/forward buttons (2010 editorial comment: yeah, what?)
  • A “home page”
  • Context menus
  • Most preferences or customization options
  • Traditional “addons”

What Zenji does have:

Search: Search is the primary focus of Zenji, with the main search bar stretching across the entire top of the window.

Toolbar: The Zenji toolbar does not appear at the top of the window, but rather on the side. Default toolbar buttons are: Dashboard, Stars, Timeline, Subscriptions, Zoom, Widget bar. Additional buttons include: Downloads and Archives.

Dashboard: The dashboard was envisioned as a new breed of “start page” that is local on the users’ machine, but that pulls information both from the browser and the web. It could include things such as: recently starred pages, most frequently visited pages, latest subscription updates, Zenji tips & tricks, help/support info, new widget promotion, user polls & feedback requests, etc.

Stars: Stars are Zenji’s simplified bookmarks. Clicking the “Star” button opens/closes the Stars sidebar, which includes the user’s starred pages sortable by recency and/or frequency. Includes a search box.


Timeline: Timeline is a hybrid of history & tabs that can be viewed as a list (with favicons) or thumbnails.


Subscriptions: Subscriptions are essentially fully integrated feeds. If you subscribe to a page, Zenji shows you the most recent updates to your subscriptions in this sidebar.


Zoom: Apparently I thought zoom was important enough to have on the main toolbar. This would probably be different now 🙂

Downloads: Sidebar of stuff the user has downloaded through Zenji, all neatly organized. Everything goes into a single directory, which can be sorted in Zenji in various ways.

Archives: Archived pages (basically saved web pages) are stored in a single Zenji archives directory.

Widget bar: This is where the user can add things to Zenji’s UI and functionality. Widgets were envisioned as a new breed of add-on, being small, very task-specfic, and allowed to change nothing about Zenji’s UI beyond, at most, displaying a panel when clicked. Examples would include: Gmail bookmark/icon with new message count overlay, Facebook w/ overlay, Current weather + temp, Flickr RSS stream and uploader, Personas, etc. Widgets would be a simple drag/drop to install and uninstall.


Page actions: Star, Subscribe, Archive.


And et cetera. There’s more detail (and more craziness) in the PDF. Turns out thinking about browser design is a lot of fun 🙂

Check out the Mozilla Labs Chromeless browser experiment if you haven’t — the team is working on making zany experiments like this as fast and easy as possible, which I think could lead to an amazing period of exploration and innovation.


8 thoughts on “Zenji: towards a simpler web browser (from 2007!)

  1. Rethinking things is much more than this. You’re throwing away good and proven designs for the sake of novelty. That’s no good, and that’s why Chrome’s UX is so awful.

    I think the future of web browsers is going to dictate what people use the web for. You’d think it’d be the other way around, but I disagree. Chrome doesn’t have an RSS reader, so people can’t read RSS feeds. Chrome doesn’t have a search bar, so people can search properly with their browser (no drag and drop, no easy switching…). No browser has an integrated home page (a la iGoogle or something), so people will tend not to care for such thing. No browser let’s the user app-ify a webpage yet, so users won’t do it.

    That’s why HTML5 is so important and why the browser war has so much potential: there’s so much room for inventiveness! Firefox 4, the proposed one, was some brilliant software. Now, it’s basically Firefox 3.7, but still, there’s still room for improvement, and Mozilla’d better hope Google doesn’t suddenly get some brains in their heads and start taking advantage of their uniquely geeky userbase and start leading the web to an unknown Mozilla can’t follow them into (because they will always be one step ahead).

    Also, in my opinion, web browsers in 25 years will have killed internet advertising as we know it today, and will be more like database readers than anything. All thanks to standard technologies like CSS and so on. It’s stupid that we still need to put up with stupid flash video players, a different layout for each site, different ways to handle text and images, different ways to login, to register and so on. In the future, the web will be ours (as long as Mozilla doesn’t abandon Firefox 4.0 – the proposed one – with its account manager and home tab and so on), and we will see it and read it and use it our own way. That’s the future.

  2. Ignore Tiago; he’s fast becoming a well known Mozilla community design troll.

    These sort of re-thinks are *very* important because they force us to ask questions. Why do we have a location bar? What’s it for? No, really, what do you use it for? Why do we have tabs? Or history?

    Some good meat in this blob of old ideas. Every reason to get interested.

  3. Random comments:

    The vertical toolstrip down the side. That’s killer, especially if you could autohide the URL bar.

    The lack of a Back/Forward pair of buttons doesn’t seem that bad if the history panel is super easy to get at, though you’ll probably find you need them ultimately.

    No bookmark organization! Why bother? Just search for ’em!

    No tabs? Really?

    The Subscriptions feature makes this almost a specialized type of feed reader. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, either. It seems to promote reading over browsing around. This is especially interesting as we seem to be demoting RSS feeds deeper into the browser UI.

    Archives as a first-class feature is also kind of interesting, though I don’t see myself using it much (but maybe I should?).

    Widgets for people who never leave the browser. I’ve wanted to have some kind of well-defined widgety thing for Firefox forever. I like desktop widgets.

    Anyway, interesting ideas. It’s good to think about these features in a different way for a change rather than, “Of course it’s got to have feature X”.

  4. Anything on the side is just wrong. I still run on a CRT monitor at 1024X800… Anything on the side would make most webpages not render right, or want side scrolling too.

    Other things on the side have also failed.. and I dunno why chrome is experimenting with tabs on the side…

    I don’t know anybody that used the old sidebar apps with the old mozilla suite/netscape 6 stuff… and I don’t know anybody that used it for bookmark things either.. the drop down from the menu has always been a better experience as it does not ruin the webpage you are currently viewing…

    netbook sized monitors have been around for several years now.. and lots of programs have not even changed their prefences/options windows so that they fit on the screen.

    I think its just generally a symptom of developers having high end cutting edge computers… and they don’t realize what the vast majority is using for hardware.

  5. Argument for bookmark organization: if I’m doing some research into (say) a holiday, I have eight or ten tabs open on different sites. I want to stop that research, do some work and come back to it later, so I want to remember the set of pages I was on. I could star them all – but what search would I do to make sure I get back exactly that set of eight (or was it ten?) and don’t miss one?

    “Bookmark This Group of Tabs”, putting all the bookmarks into a folder, solves this problem. I guess you could possibly solve it with tags too, if you remember the tag you used (was it “holiday-research” or “2010-holiday”?)

  6. Nice! Anything that makes people think about design instead of just accepting things the way they are, is great material in my view.

  7. Tiago is actually a good example of someone from the community starting out as an eager beaver and turning jaded when he can’t figure out how to work within it. It’s not fair to dismiss him as a troll.

    He does make at least one interesting point, which is kind of a web browser analogy to the idea that language determines thought: the web is only what your web browser lets you do with it.

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