What on earth are Places? :-)

A while back, on IRC, Mick Curran of the NVDA project posed an interesting question that led me to this blog post. Those of you who have been following the Firefox 3 press coverage have probably stumbled upon the term “Places”. Let me try and explain a bit about the concepts and accessibility implications.

So what are Places? Well, the satyrical answer to that is: it depends on who you ask. For some, it is a religion. For others, it is a philosophy. For QA people, it can be a curse because if a new Places checkin comes into a nightly build, it might cause regressions.

In all seriousness, though: Places is a technology built into Firefox 3 to store history, bookmarks, downloads and a bunch of other data in an SQLite database. In previous versions, Firefox would store the user’s bookmarks in one format, namely an HTML file, and the browser history in a different format, and these formats weren’t compatible to one another. Moreover, HTML is not a file format you naturally would store data in; It was meant for a different purpose. So this approach had severe limitations in extensibility and flexibility.
The new database-like format, on the other hand, allows for all kinds of interesting features to be implemented. For one, since the data is now stored in a relational database, one can perform database queries on it, allowing for very generic and flexible search and filtering capabilities.

So how does the user benefit from this change? The answer is: In a wide variety of ways.

The new Location bar, AKA the “Awesome Bar”

The first thing anyone who launches Firefox 3 will be presented with, aside from the default start page, is the new Location bar, also known as the “Awesome Bar”. Earlier versions of Firefox allowed you to type in addresses, and depending on whether you had already visited those addresses, would show you suggestions to auto-complete the address you had started typing. This capability is still there, of course, but it has been emensely enhanced. As soon as you start typing, Firefox will search for matches not only within the address (URL) of a page, but also within the titles of pages that it has in its storage. The auto-completion popup will offer items based on the search results, giving both the title and the URL of the found item, and visually highlighting where within the information the text you typed was found. For screen reader users, in each list item, the title will come first, followed by the URL. In addition to that, tags, and keywords for bookmarked pages will be searched. More on tags below.
Along with the title and URL, the search result will have different indicators depending on where the match was found:

  • If the page is bookmarked, it is indicated both visually and through accessibility.
  • If the match is a tag, it will be indicated.

In other words, once you typed in something you know you have in your bookmarks or browser history somewhere, you can use the auto-complete dropdown to actually find out whether you have the page bookmarked, or whether the term you entered is a tag that can be on multiple bookmarks.

Bookmark tagging

I mentioned tags in the paragraph above a couple of times. Tags are a new feature for Firefox 3 bookmarks. They allow you to categorize your bookmarks, and through the use of the Awesome Bar, retrieve all bookmarks belonging to that category. Some might say “I’ve my bookmarks sorted into folders, what do I need categories or tags for?” Well, I had the same reaction at first. Let me give you an example:

Say you want to collect information about IAccessible2, ATK/AT-SPI, and Universal Access. You have both reference pages for these, as well as links to mailing list archives. You can now sort everything IAccessible2 into one folder, everything AT-SPI into another, and everything Universal Access into a third folder. However, at the same time, you can tag each reference page with a tag of “reference”, and every mailing list archive page with “archive”.
Now, say you want to look for something in the references of AT-SPI and IAccessible2. What you can do now is to type in “reference” (without the quotes) in your new Location bar, and it will show you all bookmarks that have the tag of “reference” on them. You do not have to remember the title, nor do you have to dig through your bookmarks menu to find the bookmark for either IAccessible2 or AT-SPI. How cool is that!

The Library dialog

The Library dialog, which is called Show All Bookmarks on the Bookmarks menu, is where you edit, move and otherwise manage your bookmarks and tags. A very convenient and intuitive dialog which you should feel very familiar with once you get in there.

Adding a bookmark

The way to add a bookmark is to press CTRL+D on the page you want to bookmark. You can immediately press ENTER to save the bookmark, or you can edit tags, or the folder where to store the bookmark. If you press CTRL+D on a page you already bookmarked, you can remove the bookmark.

I hope this lifts some of the mysteries concerning the new Places system in Firefox 3!

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