Mozilla: The browser as operating system

Way back in the mists of time, the rise of Netscape and the Web was seen as putting pressure on Microsoft and its Windows monopoly because of what some called the “browser as operating system.” Much of that early promise — or fear — has yet to be realized, but looking at something like Ubiquity, the alpha software from Mozilla Labs, it looks as though it is coming closer. In effect, Ubiquity wants to tie together all of the Web-based software and services like Google Maps, Wikipedia and Twitter by using the browser, so that users can integrate them into things like email, instant messages and Web pages.

In the video below, Aza Raskin of Mozilla — who happens to be the son of legendary Apple designer Jef Raskin and is also the developer of the excellent music app Songza.com — demonstrates some of the ways in which users could tie together different services with Ubiquity, by inserting a Google map and reviews of a restaurant quickly into an email to a friend. The app recognizes simple terms like “map these” (after a number of listings are selected), and different services can be added by simply subscribing to scripts that use Ubiquity’s code.

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Yahoo enables music in browser

In keeping with the “open media” vision described by Yahoo Music exec Ian Rogers in his latest call to arms (which I wrote about yesterday), Yahoo launched a second iteration of its browser-based music player — this one allowing anyone to add a line of Javascript and have a Yahoo-branded player pop up wherever there’s an mp3 link. There are some more details at the Yahoo developer page for the player.

The first version, which Webjay founder Lucas Gonze wrote about back in July, only allowed people to play mp3 files that were part of Yahoo’s music subscription service (which Silicon Alley Insider says may be on the block), and only on the Yahoo Music site. The latest version works for any content, anywhere. As Mike Arrington points out, lots of people have browser plugins that do the same thing — but lots of people don’t.

Yahoo’s solution is kind of cool, and an interesting first step towards what Rogers seems to have in mind for the future: a distributed web of content tied together by Yahoo tools. In a note to a music industry discussion list I’m on, Lucas pointed out some other features: sites can specify the cover art and other details of the player, including the order of songs played, and the documention for the player is a wiki.

There’s also a Flash version of the player that works on the same principle, and can be used to play embedded lists of files on the fly. You can point it at playlists, RSS feeds or websites and it will play whatever is in them. It was developed by a Yahoo developer (and transplanted Canadian) named William White, and there’s an embed code generator tool here. Yahoo also uses the Flash player in its Music Blogs app for Facebook.

Netscape is finally dead, thank God

So AOL — known in the bad old days as America Online — has finally decided to remove the life-support equipment from Netscape Navigator and allow the browser to die in peace. As Mike Masnick notes over at Techdirt, plenty of people would no doubt be surprised to hear that AOL is still making Netscape at all, let alone putting it on ice. The tide of history has long since passed the venerable old browser by, and it is now like a relic from the Stone Age, sitting next to modern skyscrapers.

Even when AOL was still working on the browser, it was obvious that Netscape was already a museum piece. The last time I used it, everything from the user interface to the features themselves seemed either quaint or like an attempt to tart up something old to make it seem shiny and new, like putting a coat of neon paint on an old lawnmower, or watching an old man try to break-dance. But like Mike Arrington, I still have a soft spot in my heart for Netscape.

Navigator was the first real browser I ever used, although I had tried its precessor Mosaic a few times, as well as a few other early browsers from Booklink (which AOL eventually bought) and others. I remember the logo with the wheel from a ship, and the big N that sat in the upper corner of the browser window and glowed as the websites were being loaded. And I remember creating a “Netdex” Internet stock index for the Globe and Mail in 1995 when Netscape went public.

It was fun to watch Marc Andreessen and Jim Clark get the jump on Microsoft, and beat the bulky and ridiculous Internet Explorer. But then something terrible happened: IE got better and better, and Netscape started to get bigger and more bloated. By Netscape 5 it was actually a pain to download and use — IE was faster and in many ways better. And then came Mozilla, which changed the browser market again.

Mozilla became everything Netscape wasn’t: fast, easy to use, infinitely extendable, and secure in a way IE couldn’t hope to be. I switched a few years ago and have never looked back.

Flock: Latest version is pretty sweet

I have to give the team at Flock a lot of credit. The browser — which is built on Mozilla code, but has all kinds of added social features — has been through hell and back over the past couple of years. First, the initial release was weak, and got dumped on by just about everyone. Then Performancing released an excellent blogging plugin for Firefox (now called ScribeFire), and my friend Paul Kedrosky said Flock was, well… fucked.

Since integration with blogs was one of the big features that Flock brought to the table, there seemed to be a good chance that Paul was right. But Flock kept on plugging away. Not long after that, Firefox announced that it was going to add social features through something called The Coop, and I wondered whether Paul was even more right than before. But The Coop didn’t really fly (sorry) and Flock kept on adding features and plugging away. Now, the company has come out with version 1.0 of the browser, and I have to say that it is pretty interesting. It’s not perfect, of course, but it has a bunch of cool features.

Not everyone is going to want a browser with all sorts of add-ons, including a media bar — which displays Flickr photos and other stuff — and a “People” sidebar with links to your Facebook and Flickr and YouTube friends and their content. Some may find all the different tools and windows confusing. But for the social-media junkie (yes I’m looking at you, Fred) it brings together a number of different social threads in an interesting way.

You can see Facebook updates and photos with a click, scroll through Flickr photos, drag and drop your own photos on a friend in your People sidebar to share them, post something to a blog and even use your sidebar as a notebook for future blog posts, dragging and dropping images and text to it. Mike Arrington is right that Flock should be able to upload images to a blog server rather than just to Flickr or Facebook, but that shouldn’t be too hard to do. And apart from that, Flock 1.0 is pretty sweet. Karoli likes it too.

Safari: Didn’t get it at first, but now I do

snipshot_e4ga4g0iwpc.jpgI must admit that when I saw the news about Apple releasing a version of its Safari browser for Windows, I wondered why the hell anyone would care, unless they happened to be Apple devotees who wanted a familiar browser to use on a Windows box. After all, if you want an alternative to Microsoft’s Internet Exploder 7 (and who doesn’t), there’s always Firefox, and it does lots of things that Safari doesn’t, such as supporting plugins. And then after reading more about it, I realized — like Stan Schroeder and Scott Karp — that it is a kind of Trojan Horse, designed to enable developers to work on apps for the iPhone, etc. and thereby become a kind of platform for future Apple widgets and software. Smart.

For what it’s worth, I think Safari is cool and everything — although it has a kind of retro feel to me for some reason — but I will echo the comments of several people who say it looks kind of fuzzy. For my money, Microsoft’s ClearType makes a huge difference when it comes to readability of fonts — particularly at high resolutions — which is why I’m not a big fan of most Linux installs either.

But I have to say that Safari moves pretty fast when loading pages. And in my totally unscientific tests, it used substantially less memory than Firefox and somewhat less than Flock, but not as little as Explorer (which if I recall cheats a little when it comes to RAM usage). Still, I have to agree with Leander Kahney of Wired’s Cult of Mac blog — as a user, why would I bother with Safari?