File Under: Browsers, Web Apps

Mozilla Shows Off Plans for an Open Web App Store

Mozilla LabsMozilla has released more details about its soon-to-arrive Open Web Applications platform.

There are two key components: a directory where users can browse available web apps, and a new dashboard that will be baked into the browser interface, where users can install and manage their favorite apps.

The company published some technical documentation for developers so they can get to work retrofitting their apps with the code necessary to make them work with the new dashboard.

We first heard mumblings from Mozilla about this “Open app store” for the web back in May, only one day after Google announced its own app store for its Chrome browser and web-based Chrome OS. Google’s store is expected to make its full debut soon. The apps in Google’s store will be optimized for Chrome and may not work in other browsers, but Mozilla’s approach will list apps that work on “any modern browser with support for basic HTML technologies” — including mobile browsers. Mozilla says it will let each browser vendor dictate how it presents the app dashboards and management features.

So, app stores for web apps?

It doesn’t make much sense when coupled with what we’ve seen of “traditional” app stores — the ones popular in the mobile world, like those for Apple, Android and BlackBerry devices. But unlike those app stores, which actually involve downloading a package and installing it for offline use, a web app store is simply a directory of apps that are hosted on web servers.

In Mozilla’s model, users browse the app listings, where everything is categorized and rated. Developers can also host their own apps. Users click “install” on the ones they want, and those apps are added to a dashboard inside their browser.

It’s been mocked up for Firefox, and it looks something like this:


In the dashboard, you can manage how apps access your personal information, or uninstall them. Users don’t have to use the dashboard. They also have the option of saving a link on their desktop or mobile home screen for a single-click launch.

The web apps are built in HTML, JavaScript and CSS, guaranteeing interoperability between browsers and operating systems. Since everything is based on open web technologies, developers can implement standard controls for things like user authorization, local data storage and geolocation.

This doesn’t sound like much of a departure from the way apps work on the web right now, and it isn’t. We’ve all been clicking on tab thumbnails, bookmarks or desktop icons to launch our favorite web apps (Gmail, Twitter, Facebook) for years. The “app store” paradigm has been so successful as a method of discovery, marketing and distribution, it’s simply creeping from the tiny screens in our pockets into other areas.

The real innovation here is the inclusion of the dashboard. As more of our daily tasks move towards web-based apps, we’ll need better ways of managing them. A dashboard is a good solution. It’s also a nice way of introducing users new to web apps — people who think of apps only as things that are launched from a taskbar, dock or desktop.

One other important point: Mozilla does not intend to play gatekeeper. The company says it will have editorial, security and quality view guidelines, but it intends to make those processes entirely transparent.

It also won’t make developers jump through too many hoops. Inside the technical docs, you’ll find an example of a simple metadata manifest that will be required to talk to the dashboard.

Here’s a video. The beginning explains the philosophy, then it gets a little technical near the end.

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