File Under: Software & Tools

Mozilla Prism: Refracting The Web Onto Your Desktop


Mozilla Labs has launched what it says is a series of experiments designed to “bridge the divide in the user experience between web applications and desktop apps.” The first release is Prism the new name for WebRunner. Prism allows you to create desktop-like apps out of individual websites.

As we mentioned in yesterday’s write up on GreaseKit, site-specific applications — essentially a web browser that handles one site — are a growing trend. It’s tempting to dismiss these apps as superfluous, but there are some advantages to them. For instance, if you keep your e-mail open in a tab while you’re browsing and your browser crashes, your e-mail tab goes with it.

If, on the other hand, you use Prism to set up an dedicated GMail “application” your e-mail is safely partitioned off from the rest of your web browsing.

At the moment site-specific apps are in their infancy and there aren’t many compelling reasons to use them, in fact they lack many of the features you’re likely used to from the browser. But Prism isn’t intended to replace your browser, nor is it an attempt to section off the web. Rather Prism recognizes that some site are beginning to behave more like applications and for users who want to interact with them more like applications, Prism offers a way to do it.

With websites becoming more application-like and beginning to support offline data storage and other extended features, and as experiments like Prism become more robust, site-specific apps could end up with an important role in the future of the web.

If you’d like to try out Prism, head over to the Mozilla Labs, but be forewarned it’s Windows-only at the moment. Mac and Linux versions are said to be coming in the next couple of weeks.

prismsetup.jpgOnce installed, launching Prism will bring up a dialogue box where you can add a url, name your new application and control where it shows up.

From there just double click the app as you would any other desktop icon and it’ll launch a window with the selected site. Because Prism uses the same rendering engine as Firefox, your interactions will mirror those you’re familiar with in the browser.

At the moment Prism is pretty bare bones, it’s basically a Firefox-like window sans the tool and address bars. Regrettably there doesn’t seem to be a way enable Firefox add-ons, though it’s not hard to imagine an option to do so making its way into the Prism set up dialogue.

Mozilla has big plans for Prism. The blog post lists a few things that will eventually make their way into Prism:

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.

Perhaps even more useful would be a way for the websites themselves to offer a “pop out” option to create a standalone app.

I played around with Prism last night and found that while it seemed quite stable, its features are too limited at this point to make it worth the effort. As one cynic on the Mozilla blog post notes “The JS chrome-less popup window comes full circle.”

Indeed, Prism has the single window application element down pat, but it doesn’t really offer any desktop-like integration to warrant using it. However, more robust site-specific apps like Mailplane, an OS X app for GMail which supports drag and drop operations and other desktop-style features, offer a glimpse of where Prism is headed.

The emergence of site-specific apps won’t suit everyone’s working habits, for some the advantage of web-apps is that they aren’t desktop apps and everything can be handled in a single application — the browser. But for those that love web-apps, and don’t like putting all their eggs in one basket, Prism and related tools like Adobe Air and Apple’s WebKit could end up offering the best of both worlds.

[via Alex Faaborg, who has a bit more to say about Prism's design and end goals.]

Here’s a shot of Gmail running in Prism:


And here’s a shot from the Mozilla post of Prism apps in your start menu. The apps I created didn’t end up with custom icons for some reason:


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