Matt Gertner of AllPeers wrote a post the other day titled, “Wither Mozpad?” In it he poses a question about the enduring viability of Mozpad, an initiative begat in May to bring together independent Mozilla Platform Application Developers, to fill the vacuum left by Mozilla’s Firefox-centric developer programs.
Now, many months after its founding, the group is still without a compelling raison d’être, and has failed to mobilize or catalyze widespread interest or momentum. Should the fledgling effort be disbanded? Is there not enough sustaining interest in independent, non-Firefox XUL development to warrant a dedicated group?
There are many things that I’d like to say both about Mozilla and about Mozpad, but what I’m most interesting in discussing presently is the opportunity that sits squarely at the feet of Mozilla and Mozpad and fortuitously extends beyond the world-unto-itself-land of XUL: namely, the opportunity that I believe lies in the development of site-specific browsers, or, to throw out a marketing term: rich internet applications (no doubt I’ll catch flak for suggesting the combination of these terms, but frankly it’s only a matter of time before any distinctions dissolve).
If you’re just tuning in, you may or may not be aware of the creeping rise of SSBs. I’ve personally been working on these glorified rendering engines for some time, primarily inspired first by Mike McCracken’s Webmail.app and then later Ben Willmore’s Gmail Browser, most recently seeing the fruition of this idea culminated in Ruben Bakker’s pay-for Gmail wrapper Mailplane.app. More recently we’ve seen developments like Todd Ditchendorf’s Fluid.app which generates increasingly functional SSBs and prior to that, the stupidly-simple Direct URL.
But that’s just progress on the WebKit side of things.
Clearly something is going on here, and when measured against Microsoft’s Silverlight and Adobe’s AIR frameworks, we’re starting to see the emergence of an opportunity that I think will turn out to be rather significant in 2008, especially as an alternative, non-proprietary path for folks wishing to develop richer experiences without the cost, or the heaviness, of actually native apps. Yes, the rise of these hybrid apps that look like desktop-apps, but benefit from the connectedness and always-up-to-date-ness of web apps is what I see as the unrecognized fait accompli of the current class of stand-alone, standards compliant rendering engines. This trend is powerful enough, in my thinking, to render the whole discussion about the future of the W3C uninteresting, if not downright frivolous.
A side effect of the rise of SSBs is the gradual obsolescence of XUL (which already currently only holds value in the meta-UI layer of Mozilla apps). Let’s face it: the delivery mechanism of today’s Firefox extensions is broken (restarting an app to install an extension is so Windows! yuck!), and needs to be replaced by built-in appendages that offer better and more robust integration with external web services (a design that I had intended for Flock) that also provides a web-native approach to extensibility. As far as I’m concerned, XUL development is all but dead and will eventually be relegated to the same hobby-sport nichefication of VRML scripting. (And if you happen to disagree with me here, I’m surprised that you haven’t gotten more involved in the doings of Mozpad).
But all this is frankly good for Mozilla, for WebKit (and Apple), for Google, for web standards, for open source, for microformats, for OpenID and OAuth and all my favorite open and non-proprietary technologies.
The more the future is built on — and benefits from — the open architecture of the web, the greater the likelihood that we will continue to shut down and defeat the efforts that attempt to close it up, to create property out of it, to segregate and discriminate against its users, and to otherwise attack the very natural and inclusive design of internet.
Site specific browsers (or rich internet applications or whatever they might end up being called — hell, probably just “Applications” for most people) are important because, for a change, they simply side-step the standards issues and let web developers and designers focus on functionality and design directly, without necessarily worrying about the idiosyncrasies (or non-compliance) of different browsers (Jon Crosby offers an example of this approach). With real competition and exciting additions being made regularly to each rendering engine, there’s also benefit in picking a side, while things are still fairly fluid, and joining up where you feel better supported, with the means to do cooler things and where generally less effort will enable you to kick more ass.
But all this is a way of saying that Mozpad is still a valid idea, even if the form or the original focus (XUL development) was off. In fact, what I think would be more useful is a cross-platform inquiry into what the future of Site Specific Browsers might (or should) look like… regardless of rendering engine. With that in mind, sometime this spring (sooner than later I hope), I’ll put together a meetup with folks like Todd, Jon, Phil “Journler” Dow and anyone else interested in this realm, just to bat around some ideas and get the conversation started. Hell, it’s going on already, but it seems time that we got together face to face to start looking at, seriously, what kind of opportunity we’re sitting on here.