Personal computing is currently in a state of transition. While traditionally users have interacted mostly with desktop applications, more and more of them are using web applications. But the latter often fit awkwardly into the document-centric interface of web browsers. And they are surrounded with controls–like back and forward buttons and a location bar–that have nothing to do with interacting with the application itself.
Mozilla Labs is launching a series of experiments to bridge the divide in the user experience between web applications and desktop apps and to explore new usability models as the line between traditional desktop and new web applications continues to blur.
Unlike Adobe AIR and Microsoft Silverlight, we’re not building a proprietary platform to replace the web. We think the web is a powerful and open platform for this sort of innovation, so our goal is to identify and facilitate the development of enhancements that bring the advantages of desktop apps to the web platform.
Prism is an application that lets users split web applications out of their browser and run them directly on their desktop.
Prism lets users add their favorite web apps to their desktop environment:
When invoked, these applications run in their own window:
They are accessible with Control-Tab, Command-Tab, and Exposé, just like desktop apps. And users can still access these same applications from any web browser when they are away from their own computers.
The Best of Both Worlds
And while Prism focuses on how web apps can integrate into the desktop experience, we’re also working to increase the capabilities of those apps by adding functionality to the Web itself, such as providing support for offline data storage and access to 3D graphics hardware.
The User Experience
We’re also thinking about how to better integrate Prism with Firefox, enabling one-click “make this a desktop app” functionality that preserves a user’s preferences, saved passwords, cookies, add-ons, and customizations. Ideally you shouldn’t even have to download Prism, it should just be built into your browser.
We’re working on an extension for Firefox that provides some of this functionality. For more information about the user experience we hope to achieve in Prism, see Alex Faaborg’s blog post. For some of the technical details and new features found in Prism, see Mark Finkle’s blog post.
Getting Started with Prism
We have an early prototype for this working today on Windows, with work continuing on Mac and Linux (for which we should have builds available soon).
To try out the prototype, download and install it: Download Prism for Windows.
Then start Prism. It will display an Install Web Application dialog.
Enter the URL of the application you want to use in Prism (e.g. mail.google.com), a name for the application (e.g. Gmail), and pick where you’d like to create shortcuts to the application.
Then press the OK button. Prism will create shortcuts to the application in the locations you specified and then start the application.
How to Get Involved
Prism is just the first of many experiments we hope to conduct around improving the usability of web applications. It’s open source, like everything we do, and we’re interested in hearing from and working with anyone interested in further developing this concept.