Mozilla experiments push Firefox envelope

Mozilla discovering whether there's a role for messaging in the browser, and other experiments.

Mozilla is experimenting with several ideas to push the browser envelope, including one that could turn the browser into a messaging hub.

The company said Friday it has launched a browser add-on prototype named "Snowl" that displays Twitter messages, or tweets, as well as RSS or Atom feed content, in either a traditional single-window view within Firefox, or one featuring several separate panes, said Myk Melez, a developer who works in Mozilla Labs, the company's research arm.

Snowl is part of broader work at Labs to explore both near-term tools for Firefox and longer-range overhauls of the browser. In Snowl's case, Mozilla is trying to decide whether messages that normally appear in their own separate desktop client applications or via pop-up notifications, belong in the browser.

"We want to find out whether there's a role for messaging in the browser," said Melez. "Can it become a hub for messaging?"

Snowl -- a compression of the words "snow" and "owl" -- can be downloaded from Mozilla's add-on site. Melez, however, warned users that as a prototype, Snowl may be buggy. "The initial prototype is a primitive implementation with many bugs, and subsequent versions will include changes that break functionality and delete all your messages, making you start over from scratch," he said in a post to the Labs' blog on Wednesday.

"Extensions are a great way to prototype functionality in Firefox," Melez added in an interview Friday. "But I want to stress that this is a Labs experiment, and doesn't mean we're adding this in Firefox."

Instead, Snowl -- as well as other ideas Mozilla publicized earlier in the week, including a dramatic conceptual rendering of a new browser design dubbed "Aurora" -- is a toe-in-the-water kind of experiment.

"The reason why we're conducting this experiment [with Snowl] is because we don't know if messaging should be in the browser. But we want to find out that, and a lot of other things."

With Snowl on the street, so to speak, Melez said the next step is to collect feedback from users, developers and potential developers, then decide whether it's worthwhile to continue developing the add-on and, by extension, the concept of in-browser messaging, or just scrap the whole idea.

"We want to gather as much feedback as possible, [then] make the decision [to continue] if it seems promising and adds significant value to the browser," Melez said. "Those are the questions we need to address. But it's still a successful experiment, even if something doesn't make it into the browser."

It's not even an either-or situation, Melez added as he explained how parts of the concept might be desirable in Firefox, while others are rejected. "We could add some core messaging functionality to Firefox, or take just a piece of Snowl to put in the browser, or maybe [do it] some other way -- as a more mature extension separate from Firefox."

If feedback on Snowl is positive, the next step might be to expand the list of message sources to include instant messaging services like AIM and social networks such as Facebook. Or efforts could be made into creating an interface for writing and sending messages from within the browser.

"I think this is a project that will run more than just months," said Melez when asked for a timeline. "It's hard to believe that within three to six months we would add messaging to Firefox. This is a rough estimate, but I think it's a one-to-two-year thing."

Even longer term, Melez said, is the conceptual browser design unveiled earlier in the week as part of a new program Mozilla calls "Concept Series". The design, codenamed Aurora by Adaptive Path, a San Francisco-based design house that collaborated with Mozilla Labs on the idea, also includes integrated messaging.

Adaptive Path has posted a video to its Web site that shows the Aurora concept in action.

"Aurora is one part of a larger project, our browser concept series," said Melez. "We're trying to engage people outside the usual Mozilla community, especially designers, who can come up with ideas and even mock-ups of what the browser of the future might look like."

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Gregg Keizer

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