June 7, 2007

Kazehakase brings innovation to the browser

Author: Bruce Byfield

Nowadays, half the free software world seems to be building Gecko-based browsers (and the other half writing plugins for them). With so many available, you might think the Kazehakase browser would hardly rate a mention. However, Kazehakase breaks away from the pack by being one of the few browser projects that is actually thinking of new features and ways to enhance old ones. From its interface to its features for bookmarks and tabs to its customization options for keyboard shortcuts and mouse gestures, Kazehakase is crammed with nonstandard features. You may not want every new feature offered by Kazehakase, but chances are you'll appreciate some of them.

Compared to Firefox (or IceWeasel), Kazehakase resembles a stripped-down Gecko browser like Epiphany. However, the browser installs with three basic interfaces, graded by complexity: Beginner, Medium, and Expert. You can chose the level you like either in Edit -> Preferences -> General -> UI Level or from View -> UI Level.

The Beginner level offers a stripped-down toolbar and set of preferences. The toolbar contains only the basic Forward, Back, and Reload buttons for navigation, and a button for printing, while the Preference window displays general, language, font, and proxy tabs. The list of items in each menu is also strongly curtailed, and the Tab menu does not display at all.

As you go up each level, Kazehakase adds more complexity. The Medium level adds another seven tabs to the preferences, including options for tabs, keyboard shortcuts, and history, as well as a menu with a basic set of tab commands and such options as a sidebar. The Expert level adds relatively few features, but extends users' ability to customize the browser window.

Kazehakase - click to enlarge

This gradual introduction of complexity seems ideal for learning Kazehakase without being overwhelmed the way some users are by the full set of choices in most mainstream browsers. For new or basic users, it also eliminates a clutter of choices in which they have no interest. Even Kazehakase's Expert level UI is less busy than Firefox's, but it nicely highlights the browser's innovations.

Bookmarks and tabs

It has always annoyed me that Firefox's interface for subscribing to an RSS feed is different from that for creating a bookmark, although both links are created and handled in the same way. Kazehakase does what Firefox should have done long ago -- it calls feeds "remote bookmarks" and places them in the Bookmark menu. You can define more choices for feeds than you can for ordinary bookmarks, such as update interval, user name, and password, but the two are otherwise treated identically. For both, you can specify the number of characters in the bookmark title to display, which eliminates annoyingly truncations, and display the titles in the sidebar.

Kazehakase takes tabs to an even higher level of browsing convenience. The state of each tab -- loading, loaded, or normal -- is color-coded, and you can specify tab width, which tab the browser reverts to when the current tab is closed, and whether tabs have a close button on them. Another option (placed for no good reason in the Tab menu rather than in Edit -> Preference -> Tab) is to place tabs on any side of the browser window. The Tab menu also includes options for closing all inactive tabs, or those before or after the current tab, and -- just in case you make a mistake -- offers a list of recently closed tabs so that you can reopen them. If you choose, you can also display tabs in a sidebar, either in a normal view or in a tree view that shows how you got to the current tab. All these features advance the concept of tabbed browsing, reminding me of a slightly less configurable and more stable version of Tabbrowser Extensions, a personally indispensable but historically flaky Firefox plugin.

Keyboard shortcuts and mouse gestures

You can customize both keyboard shortcuts and mouse gestures from Edit -> Preference. The keyboard shortcuts interface offers two approaches: after selecting the action for which you want a shortcut, either you click the box for one of the control keys (Shift, Ctrl, Alt), then type another character, or you click the Grab button and then press the key combination you want to define on the keyboard. The interface has some shortcomings, including the lack in the first method of a box for function keys, and an inability to select more than one control key or one ordinary key for the shortcut, but the basic design is clean and efficient.

Gestures, for those who don't know, can be summarized as shortcuts for the mouse. Consisting of a series of mouse movements, they are supported by Mozilla-based browsers, but remain largely unused. Kazehakase gives them new emphasis with an interface similar to the one for keyboard shortcuts. However, in the case of gestures, the interface allows you to define a series of motions consisting of sequences of left, right, up, and down motions. By making gestures prominent and by having them customizable, Kazehakase might very well introduce them to more users.

Other features

Those are just the more obvious features of Kazehakase. The browser is actually full of useful and unique innovations. The link extractor, for instance, saves all links on the current page to a text file, while the clip selection tool saves selected portions of the page. You can also elect to edit a page in the editor of your choice. Other interesting features include drag-and-drop downloading to the sidebar, and the ability to view your history as a series of thumbnails, or to have a thumbnail pop up when you hover over a visited link.

Kazehakase Preferences - click to enlarge

Despite all the evidence of original thinking, Kazehakase is very much a work in progress. Help is almost entirely nonexistent. Another minor annoyance is that its pop-up windows lack a button for closing them; instead, you have to go into the File menu or know the keyboard shortcut. Also, while Kazehakase apparently supports different rendering engines, the current version is confined to GTK+2.

More seriously, a large array of features that Firefox users take for granted, ranging from automatic blocking of pop-up windows and disabling JavaScript and Java to password management and encryption, are not available in Kazehakase. Moreover, in testing on my Debian system, the current version proved prone to random crashes, making it unsuitable for daily use for the time being.

Yet, for all these flaws, Kazehakase remains an application worth watching. At a time when every Web browser seems to have the same features, it's one project that is actively trying to rethink what users need.

Bruce Byfield is a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge, Linux.com, and IT Manager's Journal.

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