And so Mozilla gave us tiles

Updated: December 29, 2014

In mid-November, sponsored tiles were finally unleashed unto the world, and first-time Firefox users got a unique and exciting new experience with the new tab page. Just kidding. But words like unique and exciting are the bee's knees nowadays.

Anyhow, I told you what I think of Firefox 29 and the Directory Tiles scheme. For the latter, I focused on the honesty part of this whole deal, but now that the actual content has been realized into a product, i.e. ads, let's have a lovely, factual discussion. Let's see how this sponsored stuff really works, and whether it bring any value to the user. A fair test.


Sponsored Tiles

I setup a new Firefox installation and profile just to get this thing working. If you try to open a new tab, you will now see a quick-dial page and its associated tiles populated with content. Stuff that Mozilla believes will bring value and merit to the users, rather than just being a source of additional income to the company, even if they failed to mention that in so many words and thus earn my respect rather than my contempt.

Tiles, first run

One big problem with most advertisement programs and live, contextual tiles is that they normally cater to the lowest common denominator. For instance, in Windows 8.X, this meant news updates on the popular stuff with a very US-centric focus, recipes for food that no one needs, games that no one wants to play, and so forth. When I say no one, what I mean is people with an IQ above 100, or people who can actually search for these things they like on their own.

Mozilla took a slightly different approach. There might be a clever algorithm underneath, and the basic principle behind served content might change, but the dirty dozen of tiles shown to me, and you have to admit it's a damn good use of analogy here, was not focused entirely on cramming down Silicon Valley hype down my throat. Not much of it.

Half the tiles focused on telling me how Firefox is fresh, new, focused on privacy, customizable, educational, independent, and better. Plus, Android. Guys, I'm on a Windows desktop, why the hell would I care about Android. Second, I actually know what Firefox is all about, I have just downloaded it and installed it myself. Do I really need to be reminded about your mantras and manifestos and all that?

I decided to play a little and see how the tiles would change based on my surfing habits. And so, if you go to websites directly, they will usurp the place of some of the tiles. If you reach a handful of sites through generic search, they might not. To wit, Distrowatch and Dedoimedo got their place, but Encyclopedia Dramatica did not. It took a while before it was added. I don't know the logic behind the selection process.

Not all sites added to the tiles

But assuming people have a rich and colorful way around the Web, the tiles actually become pointless, because the generic content will be replaced with users' preferences within minutes. So why bother populating them in the first place?

OK, maybe the content is valuable? Well, nothing really interested me, I have to admit. The initial shuffle was not really compelling. I specifically felt aversion toward the word sponsored under the CITIZENFOUR tile. Worse, I have no idea what this is. Why should I click on a generic image? Where is this going to take me? There's virtually nothing here that provokes curiosity. If you think how you search for information, you normally see a title and a handful of words explaining or introducing a topic. An image that has no informational message is worthless, unless it's nudity, to be frank.


I also decided to try the Markerplace. We've seen it before. I wrote a very extensive article on my experience, both on the desktop and an Android mobile device. Long story short, the desktop stuff was weird and mostly pointless, the smartphone affair buggy if pleasing visually.

A year and a half later, not much has changed. The Wikipedia app, for instance, is less functional in its app form than it is as a normal web page in the browser. So perhaps this will make sense if and when FirefoxOS becomes a reality, but until then, there are no compelling reasons for the marketplace, and consequently, its place as a tile.


Education apps

Install app

Installing app

Compare if you will the app and the web page. C'mon. 18 months later!

Wikipedia app, buggy

Wikipedia, web page

You do have full control of the new tab page. You can simply hide the tiles, and done, problem solved. You can also drag & drop the tiles, and remove those you find stupid, offensive or pointless. You have your desired freedom.

Remove tiles

So what do I think?

All right, so half an hour to an hour after using the tiles, what do I think? The truth is, nothing much. Yet another way of presenting squares of color and some text to users. The tiles suffer from the same problem like they do in the Metro interface.

The tiles are not informative enough. They are too vague. They are too flashy in a way. They might cause some curiosity, but ultimately, in their current form, they will cause user fatigue. Second, substance. At the moment, these tiles lack substance. There was not a single wow app or site linked that would make me want to consider using the tiles.

Finally, the big problem. Mozilla blundered all this by not calling the whole thing by its name. Advertisement. They could have done that, but instead they chose to let marketing people give us long speeches about shit no one cares about. Despicable marketing crap that antagonizes and polarizes and distances users. Instead, you could have given us an honest, down-to-earth message about the need for Firefox to continue existing and having another source of revenue. So much damage for nothing. Losing user trust and loyalty is the worst thing.

You want to get rid of Google? Good. Striking a deal with Yahoo is the first sensible thing you've done in a long while. That's the way to do it. Not playing with pixels and calling them rainbows. Otherwise, this is going to be the Netscape saga all over. Ironic, eh?


As a product, objectively, these tiles are nothing special. Average. And that's a big problem. No wow effect. No immediate gratification and value for users. Nothing to entice me or anyone else to continue using this stuff. Worse, the basic premise of trust might be eroded, if all the tiles ever do is disappoint me. A puppy will back only so many times to get its nose snubbed.

So yawn, unfortunately. A big program that is probably not going to succeed, and if you've read all my other technical predictions, you know I'm right. If Mozilla wants to make profit from this thing without harming or losing users, then it must pump out FirefoxOS as soon as possible and focus its energy there. All and any other attempt to wed the desktop to the app/ad concept is just disaster waiting to happen. There I told you.

To sum it up without getting emotional, like nerdy people tend to do when their intelligence is mocked, the tiles are a misplaced, dishonest effort to create value from unused browser equity. From the technical perspective, there's nothing of any grand value here, and the end results is just as silly as Metro. Not gonna work, chaps. Something else is needed. I am willing to help, my email is always open.