Single Site Browsers

By Deane Barker on March 23, 2008

Bridging Desktop And Web Applications – A Look At Mozilla Prism: Here’s an article about what are being called “Single Site Browsers” (SSBs), or little standalone browsers that let you browse and interact with a single Web app in a desktop app-ish environment.

Surf to Gmail, for instance, choose “Convert to Application” in the Firefox menu, and a shortcut with the Gmail icon appears on your desktop. Clicking the icon launches Gmail in its own window. Extensive customization options are available to add things like dock badges, system tray icons and popup notifications. Web developers can add special hooks to their code so that these bells and whistles are automatically included whenever someone spins the app off onto their desktop. Prism is still very much a work-in-progress, but it has already met with some early success; recent Yahoo acquisition Zimbra, for example, is using it to deliver a desktop version of their popular web-based mail client.

I’d like to take this second to say that I wrote about this years ago in a post called Owning the Container:

In a browser, remember, your page is only in the viewable area because the user has put it there. Your page can leave just as quickly — the user could reload it, they could click on a bookmark, etc.

A browser is a container. Your app is poured into one page at a time, and can just as easily get poured out, sometimes at inopportune times.

This leads to times when you need your app to do just a little bit more than a Web app can do. These are the times when you think, “Should I do this as a compiled, installed app instead?” But that’s a big leap — there really needs to be a middle ground.

Good to see some progress is being made here — the article profiles Mozilla’s Prism (which I use for Gmail), and several others.

(You can actually approximate the Prism experience with regular Firefox. It’s not hard to make Firefox launch under a separate user profile in which you shut off all the toolbars, etc.)

What I’d like to see in these apps is a way to give Web sites “superpowers” that they wouldn’t normally have, like access to your local file system or registry. While the security implications are daunting, this is one of the last miles to bridging the gap between local and remote applications.

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  1. It is nice to see Mozilla running to catch up with Adobe’s Air…sort of.

    I’ve wished for a while that they would have started the platform creation process sooner (XML User interface Language or XUL is circa 2001). Along with the filesystem access you mentioned, it’d be nice to see drag-and-drop (of files), full kiosk mode, and some day transparent windows for more widget-style, non-square apps. But maybe those things are more of a job for XULRunner which is much closer to a platform than Prism is so far.

    It is good to see Mozilla stepping up and doing things in addition to Firefox. Hopefully as they chart a course for their varied products, the platform concept will become more pervasive at Mozilla HQ and therefore available to the masses–something they’re very good at.

  2. Have you ever had a look at HTAs (HTML Applications) that IE supports?

    Do I ever. I even wrote a really cool little HTA app called Fleming, which did batch transformations of XML files. I posted about it over five years ago. It’s old, man — check out that URL.

    The problem I have with HTAs in general is that it’s hard to work with more than one window, since IE would toss security errors in certain circumstances when trying to pop a window and get data back from it.

    Of course, with the penetration of Ajax now, you could do a lot more with it.

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