Canonical equips Ubuntu with desktop Web apps

Ubuntu WebApps provides a way to put Web pages on the desktop as stand-alone applications

Canonical is adding a new feature to its Ubuntu operating system that will allow desktop users to access popular Internet services without opening a browser window. Instead, a Web page can be accessed as a desktop application.

Using this feature, a Web page "will feel like an application on your device," said Pete Goodall, Canonical product manager. "We want to make the line between desktop apps and Web apps a little less distinct."

Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth plans to demonstrate the technology, called Ubuntu WebApps, at the O'Reilly Open Source Conference held this week in Portland, Oregon. Ubuntu WebApps will first appear on the upcoming 12.10 release of Ubuntu, code-named Quantal Quetzal.

Using the technology, Ubuntu is in the process of creating desktop editions of the Web's most popular services. Thus far, they have constructed about 40 applications, including those for Facebook, Twitter, Last.FM, Google+ and Google's Gmail. It also offers an API (application programming interface) and an integration script engine for users to make desktop applications out of their own favorite websites. "Individual developers can create scripts and make them available to everyone else," Goodall said.

Users who visit a site with a desktop app already written will get a prompt to download the script from the Ubuntu Software Center. The app itself is the Web page, except that it is not running in a visible browser.

Developed in-house, Ubuntu WebApps is a plug-in for the Firefox browser, one similar to GreaseMonkey, which allows Web pages to be rendered outside the browser window.

Running Web services through a desktop console eliminates the need to open multiple tabs on a browser, Goodall asserted. Instead of hunting through multiple browser windows or tabs to find one service, the user can call it up from the desktop, either by hitting the alt-tab keys to scroll through running applications, by using the Ubuntu launcher service, or by using Ubuntu's new HUD (Head-Up Display) shortcut interface.

The apps will also be wired into Ubuntu's own internal services. For instance, users can upload photos to Facebook through Ubuntu's Shotwell photo management application. Ubuntu's message indicator will alert users when new mail arrives in their Gmail accounts. The Last.FM application can be controlled from Ubuntu's sound menu. Canonical plans to add more integration points in the future, Goodall said.

Ubuntu WebApps runs only on the Unity desktop interface, and its code will be available as open source on the Canonical Launchpad project management service.

Other new features planned for Ubuntu 12.10 include a new interface for the update manager, a packaging change that allows the distribution to be run from a DVD or key drive, and updated versions of the Linux kernel, the Gnome desktop interface, the GNU Compiler Collection and the Python programming language, among others.

Joab Jackson covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Joab on Twitter at @Joab_Jackson. Joab's e-mail address is Joab_Jackson@idg.com

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