An Experiment with Messaging in the Browser
Conversing (a.k.a. messaging) is a common online activity, and a number of desktop and web applications enable it. But with an increasing variety of protocols and providers, it’s getting harder and harder to keep track of all your conversations.
Could the web browser help you follow and participate in online discussions?
Snowl is an experiment to answer that question. It’s a prototype Firefox extension that integrates messaging into the browser based on a few key ideas:
- It doesn’t matter where messages originate. They’re alike, whether they come from traditional email servers, RSS/Atom feeds, web discussion forums, social networks, or other sources.
- Some messages are more important than others, and the best interface for actively reading important messages is different from the best one for casually browsing unimportant ones.
- A search-based interface for message retrieval is more powerful and easier to use than one that makes you organize your messages first to find them later.
- Browser functionality for navigating web content, like tabs, bookmarks, and history, also works well for navigating messages.
The Initial Prototype
The initial prototype supports two sources of messages: RSS/Atom feeds and Twitter. And it exposes two interfaces for reading them. First, a traditional three-pane “list” view, targeted to active reading of important messages:
Second, a “river of news” view, based on the concept popularized by Dave Winer, designed for casual browsing:
Our next step is to gather feedback on the prototype and the ideas behind it. We want to know if the concept has promise and is worth pursuing further. We’re particularly interested in feedback on how messaging might fit into the browsing experience and if there are other interfaces (or refinements to the two interfaces built into the prototype) that would make it easier for users to have online conversations.
We’re still considering what may come after that, but possible extensions to the Snowl prototype include:
- support for additional message sources, e.g. Facebook, AIM, Google Talk, etc.;
- an interface for writing and sending messages to enable true two-way conversations;
- an API to make it easier for developers to build new experimental interfaces, e.g. an instant message view.
Also, last week at the Firefox+ summit there were related discussions about the future of Thunderbird‘s user experience, with many ideas that overlap the ideas embedded in Snowl. We expect that some of the Thunderbird ideas will influence Snowl’s future, and that lessons (and possibly code) from Snowl will influence Thunderbird’s future.
Get Snowl for Firefox
Get the initial prototype: Snowl for Firefox.
Warning: 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.
The prototype code is released under an MPL/GPL/LGPL tri-license. Most icons are from the Silk icon set by famfamfam, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 license. The OPML icon is from the OPML Icon Project, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 license.