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An epiphany in browsing

by Edd Dumbill -- 2003/02/17

A new browser has emerged for the open source GNOME desktop platform. Epiphany, created by Marco Pesenti Gritti, seeks to live up to the claims of its name in terms of simplicity and intuition.

Epiphany's manifesto is definitely aimed at simplifying the browsing experience:

Epiphany aims to utilize the simplest interface possible for a browser. Keep in mind that simple does not necessarily mean less powerful. We believe the commonly used browsers of today are too big, buggy, and bloated. Epiphany addresses simplicity with a small browser designed for the web -- not mail, newsgroups, file management, instant messenging or coffee making. The UNIX philosophy is to design small tools that do one thing, and do it well.

Never able to resist the lure of newness, I decided it was time to take Epiphany for a spin. Compiling Epiphany on my Debian GNU/Linux system was relatively straightforward with a CVS checkout of the source code and the right development packages installed. There are also prebuilt packages available, see the end of this article for links to those.

First impressions

		  browser, click to enlarge For those used to fancypants browsers with large numbers of toolbars and other nifty features, the initial reaction you get is "Uh? There's nothing there." While I don't mind losing a lot of the unnecessary chrome (it's easier to carry around a mental map of the London Underground than navigate Mozilla's preferences) I did wonder where some of the more useful features I had from my previous browser, Galeon, were.

One of the things I use most in Galeon are "smart bookmarks." These are little text entry widgets that sit on the toolbar that take you straight to the result of a search. I have various ones of these set up, including one for Google and one for the Debian bug tracking system.

It was the smart bookmarks that I missed most initially. However, as the Epiphany manifesto says, simplification doesn't necessarily mean loss of power. I soon found out that I could use the main location bar for accessing smart bookmarks. I typed my query phrase into the location bar and a drop down appeared containing a list of the smart bookmarks to apply, as shown in the screenshot below.

Using smart bookmarks

In a similar style, a lot of functionality has simply been collapsed down into a simpler interface. It's there if you want it, but not in the way if you don't. One of the problems with the dedicated-widget approach to smart bookmarks was the restriction on toolbar real estate: you could only practically have 3 or 4. The drop-down approach avoids this issue.

Breaking out of hierarchies

The most radical change Epiphany makes to the conventional attitude to browsing is that throws out the tree structured hierararchy normally used for browser bookmarks. Your first reaction to this is likely to be negative ("Where's the bookmarks menu?") but then you'll start celebrating.

My experience with hierarchically organized bookmarks is that, once bookmarked, a page would be forgotten, as I'd never remember quite where I'd placed it. I just don't want to invest the time to maintain a strict tree of bookmarks, it's not the way I work. The other more practical problem was that using menus for navigating long, often deep, sequences of menu items is just plain unwieldy.

Epiphany takes a different approach of keyword and free-text based access to bookmarks. You simply type into the location bar part of the bookmark name of URL and possible candidates appear in the drop-down, as shown in the below screenshot.

Direct bookmark access

The keyword system takes the place of the folder-based approach to bookmark organization. You simply allocate one or more keywords to a bookmark. These bookmarks will appear if you type the keyword into the location bar, and they also appear as "folders" in the bookmark manager. (If you import your bookmarks from Mozilla or Galeon you'll find all your folder names turned into keywords.)

I absolutely love this way of managing bookmarks: suddenly all those URLs I had squirrelled away in forgotten folders are useful to me again. Epiphany does for bookmarks what iTunes did for MP3s.

Initial conclusions

Even after a few days of use, I'm a confirmed addict. The incremental search approach to bookmark/history navigation has me entirely hooked. The typed word, the command line, is still one of the best ever interfaces to computers.

Epiphany does nothing new for web browsing per se, dependent as it is on the Mozilla project's rendering engine, but it does a lot for the simplicity and usability of browsing within the GNOME environment.

It's great to another application breaking out of the boring and inefficient tree-shaped mindset, let's hope more follow suit. (It occurred to me that I'd benefit greatly from a similar approach to email access, as I have over 650 separate mail folders...)

Technical details

Epiphany is very much still in development, so users shouldn't expect a bug free experience. However, I've found it stable enough to switch right away to using it as my primary browser.

Epiphany, like its ancestor Galeon, uses the layout engine from Mozilla, Gecko, for rendering HTML pages. It does that very well. This means you get nicely anti-aliased text and benefit from all the usual Mozilla-compatible plugins.

RPMs for RedHat 8 are available, as are Debian packages (built by the author as a by-product of his excitement at finding Epiphany!).

  • Unofficial Debian repository (Epiphany should appear in Debian unstable soon.)
  • RedHat 8 RPMs.
  • Epiphany's home page has links to its mailing list and other download locations