Yahoo's BrowserPlus to boost Web app platform

Yahoo offers a development platform for building Web apps with desktop capabilities

Yahoo last week announced it is working on BrowserPlus, a development platform for creating Web applications that contain desktop capabilities.

BrowserPlus joins similar projects, including Google's Gears, Adobe's AIR, Mozilla's XUL, Microsoft's Silverlight and others, designed to let developers make applications that leverage the best of the desktop and Web environments.

Yet questions abound regarding these competing efforts, such as whether they will create confusion among users, and about BrowserPlus itself, which developers can download and examine but cannot currently build anything with.

Last Thursday, IDG News Service had a chance to pose these and other questions to Skylar Woodward, principal software engineer at Yahoo's Brickhouse division, and to Cody Simms, senior director of product management for the company's Yahoo Open Strategy effort.

An edited version of the interview follows:

What is the status of BrowserPlus?

Cody Simms: The version out there is production ready, so we'll be engaging with partners to start getting BrowserPlus supported on sites around the Web. Then we plan a broader, fuller, self-service release later this year.

Today, developers can't build it into their sites. They can download it to their desktops and play with it and see what services it can make available to them as though they were an end-user looking at it. They can get in and look at the code they'd be able to integrate with their site, but they can't build their site around it just yet, except for a select set of partners we're going to be working with.

Skylar Woodward: It's production ready today to use it on any partner site. In terms of everything being baked and ready, so developers don't have to change [their applications] too much later, the reason why we're putting it out now is because we want this to be an open community discussion about what things should be in here and how it should work. We want people to look at our APIs [application programming interfaces] and be critical and evaluate them. So in that sense, [regarding] the most flexible part of the system, which are the services, we'd love to get community feedback so this isn't something that's already set and won't change. We want to respond to the community, and listen to what they want and need, so that when we [release it into general availability], there doesn't have to be a lot of changing [of applications.]

BrowserPlus sounds similar to Google's Gears and other initiatives like Adobe's AIR and Microsoft's Silverlight. Is it?

Simms: You're seeing a strong trend toward people realizing that there can be a bridge between the browser and the desktop. So there are a number of different technologies out there playing in that arena. Each one of the technologies that has been announced or released recently has fairly different use cases about how you can bridge those two things and tackle the problem. Some of them are more focused on bringing Web functionality to the desktop, while others are more focused on bringing desktop functionality to the browser.

BrowserPlus is uniquely focused on making the browser richer with all these kinds of pieces of functionality that normally would be reserved for desktop clients. BrowserPlus has some strengths related to how easily and quickly we can deploy new services. We're not focused on one monolithic use case. BrowserPlus is very focused on being an open platform that can be extended with new types of services and thus enable new, interesting functionality. We don't yet know what will be the killer app that will be built on BrowserPlus, but we want to enable the development community to discover that by using it.

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Woodward: The key differentiator here is that the system is able to bring down new services and features and capabilities, not necessarily to the browser, but to applications written for browsers: things like Yahoo Mail and Facebook or a Web site. Normally when you want to get new features like these, you have to do a monolithic download, whether it's a whole new browser or you have to download plug-ins to get new capabilities. But with BrowserPlus, once it's there, the user has this very seamless experience that doesn't restart the browser, you don't have to go through this complex install process; a simple dialog comes up saying something like 'The person who wrote this site requires you to have these extra features in order to use this. Do you want to want to activate them?' If you say 'yes', the process is usually very quick. The features are activated immediately and the page comes alive.

Won't end-users get confused with the different options out there?

Simms: There are a handful of [technologies] and each does a different thing, to an extent. There will be overlap between them, but this is the early days of experimentation, so it will be interesting to see which ones emerge strongest for which use cases, and which use cases end [up] being the ones that both developers and users [are most interested in].

It's a development platform, so it's up to the Web developers to build support for it into their sites. It's not the user who will decide to use BrowserPlus or this or that service. It's up to the developer to say, 'I need this piece of functionality to make my site great, and it's supported by BrowserPlus or service A or service B and, whatever it is, I'll build support for it into my site.'

As the user goes to that site, if they want that enhanced functionality, the site will prompt them to download it from the platform the developer chose to build on top of. It's not something the user would proactively seek to download.

Is there a new set of security concerns tied to this type of technology?

Simms: BrowserPlus enables the browser to do things that it couldn't do before in a secure way. Instead of sites trying to hack X or Y feature, Yahoo has now invested time and energy and resources into building a technology that does these functions securely. That's one of the guiding principles behind BrowserPlus: to make those interactions secure.

Have you had talks and/or actually had hands-on collaborations with any of the leading browser makers yet?

Simms: We haven't been talking to the browser makers yet but would welcome dialogue with them, as well as with any potential partners and developers interested in BrowserPlus.

How integrated is this today with other Yahoo Open Strategy projects?

Simms: Right now it's developed as its own platform and has been focused on just being a platform [and] getting its capabilities delivered. If, as developers start to build applications with the Yahoo application platform, or if they start to use our social APIs that we'll be launching, they tell us they'd like to see those things integrated with BrowserPlus, our job is to make that available.

Will developers need to be pre-approved by Yahoo to use BrowserPlus? Also, will the BrowserPlus licensing terms allow for commercial uses so developers can generate revenue from its use?

Simms: Today it's restricted: We're only working with some select partners. But over the coming months, we plan to open up the distribution channels for BrowserPlus so any site can build on top of it. It'll be a self-service capability. In terms of commercial use, the point of this service is to power sites on the Web so sites can use the functionality how they would like.