Archive for the ‘Software & Tools’ Category

File Under: Software & Tools

New Firefox Designs Rethink Browser Bookmarks

Mozilla’s lead designer believes it’s time to rethink the way people browse bookmarks in Firefox. Taking a cue from the way favorite pages are displayed in other web browsers, he has proposed that future versions of Firefox should include a way to access your bookmarks and browsing history directly from the home tab — without a sidebar, and without a new window.

Of course, Firefox 3.0 completely changed the way we access our bookmarks, browsing history and other data by making all that information available through the “Awesome bar,” the smart URL location bar at the top of the browser window. It doubles as a search box — type a phrase, a word or even just a letter and Firefox can quickly find the web page you’re looking for. It is a powerful piece of testimony about how much search has shaped our expectations on the web.

But when it comes to browsing your bookmarks and history, Firefox remains largely unchanged since the the browser first launched years ago. Sure, there’s some new tagging features and a slightly slicker interface, but the basic premise — opening a sidebar to access your history or your bookmarks in a list — is the same in Firefox 3.5 as it was in Firefox 1.0.

Mozilla’s Principal Designer for Firefox, Alex Faaborg, says it’s time to rethink the whole experience.

“We want users to be able to navigate from the home tab into the bookmark folders and tags that they have specifically created,” Faaborg writes in a recent blog post.

What that means, from an interface design standpoint, is that future versions of Firefox will likely include a way to get to your bookmarks directly from the home tab, not through a sidebar, and not inside a new window. Your bookmarks, visually speaking, become part of the web, what Faaborg calls “your own personal web.”

To understand what Faaborg is getting at, consider the two basic ways you can find what you’re looking for on a computer: browsing and searching. The Awesomebar falls in the searching category, while your bookmarks, whether viewed as a list in a drop-down menu or in a sidebar panel is a browsing interface.

Faaborg is simply suggesting that there are better ways of browsing than drop down menus and sidebars.

Faaborg’s early mockups for a revamped bookmark experience in Firefox look very similar to the start page popularized by Opera’s Speed Dial feature. That is, a grid view of your bookmarked sites with thumbnail previews and URLs. A similar approach has been adopted by Apple’s Safari and Google Chrome.

The difference in this case is that while Speed Dial and its clones display your most frequently visited sites, Faaborg’s design shows all your bookmarks.

The advantage of a Speed Dial-type interface for bookmarks isn’t just ease of access and speed, it also means getting to your bookmarks could be as simple as hitting the back button. For example, if you were browsing your bookmarks as a thumbnail list and you clicked through to read a site, hitting the back button would return you to the thumbnails page.

Arguably the sidebar allows you to do something similar — clicking from one site to the next. But the sidebar hogs screen real estate and if Jakob Nielsen taught us nothing else, he certainly proved that the back button is fundamental UI element of the web.

Faaborg’s proposed interface doesn’t just add the back button to the mix, it also has a huge potential when hooked up to Weave, Mozilla’s still experimental syncing tool for Firefox. Imagine being able to sit down at any PC, sign in to Weave and have a browsable display of your bookmarks appear at your finger tips. Of course, as Faaborg acknowledges, there are some privacy hurdles Weave would need to work out before that scenario is a reality, but the plumbing is there.

There’s no guarantee that these mock-ups will make it into the next version of Firefox, but regardless of when they arrive, we’re looking forward to having better ways of accessing our bookmarks.

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Django Project Looks Toward the Future With Django 1.2

The developers behind the Django Project are getting ready to start work on the next version of the popular web development framework. Although Django 1.2, as the next release will be known, won’t be available in final form until March 2010, the project is currently voting on which proposed new features will be included in the next release.

Django is a powerful open-source web framework, written in Python. Compared to other open-source (or even proprietary) frameworks for building specialized, database-driven websites, Django makes the core tasks remarkably easy and fast.

Django already powers numerous high-profile websites, from the geo-aware EveryBlock to Google’s App Engine tools. In a testament to Django’s rapid development capabilities, developers Concentric Sky recently rebuilt the high-traffic using Django. From proposal to launch was a mere five weeks; you can read more about building the site over at the Concentric Sky website.

With Django gaining in popularity and more high-profile websites using the framework, the release of Django 1.2 in 2010 will be an important milestone for the framework.

Proposed new features for Django 1.2 include some features clearly geared at larger sites — support for multiple databases as well as a number of new database backend options will no doubt be a boon to developers should they make the final list. Other proposals include adding some more options to the Admin user interface and providing better built-in cross-site forgery protection. A complete list of proposals can be found on the Django wiki.

So far, no decisions have been made regarding any of the proposed features. Voting will continue until October 20, after which time an official list of what’s to come in Django 1.2 will be released.

If you’d like to contribute (and voting for a feature means committing to contribute to it) head over the the Django wiki and read through the guide to Contributing to Django.

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File Under: Software & Tools

Google Maps Adds More Detail, Takes a Cue From OpenStreetMap

Google has announced a major update to its Maps service which adds detailed data from several U.S. government databases and improves the system for users to report errors and make corrections.

With this week’s update, Google Maps has added more detailed map information from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Census Bureau to more accurately show map results in non-road areas, including parks, college campuses, hiking trails and bike routes.

Google Maps has also made it easier for its users to report problems, taking a step in the direction of crowdsourced projects like OpenStreetMap. Of course OpenStreetMap, which offers wiki-style, user-editable maps, is well ahead of Google when it comes to letting users to contribute roads, locations, routes, place-names and photos to maps. The new Google Maps feature stops short of allowing you to do the actual editing of street-level data. Rather, it simply gives you a channel through which you can report a problem, which is then edited by someone at Google.

To alert Google of an error or problem on a map, just right-click on the area in question and the drop-down menu will have a new option to “report a problem.” It’s not nearly as slick as OpenStreetMaps, which allows you to simply correct the problem right then and there, but Google does promise to resolve any reported issue within a month.

Far more useful than correcting Google’s mistakes is the additional data that’s been added to the maps, pulling in information on public parks, trails and paths. Even better, the Google Lat/Long blog says the new trails and paths data and the new cycling directions will eventually be added to Google Maps’ route planning features. Google Maps has also added building maps for many college campuses and now offers parcel maps in many U.S. cities.

It’s encouraging to see Google and the U.S. Government collaborating to make Google Maps more complete. But while the new features are incredibly useful in some context — finding all the bike paths in a nearby park, for example — the sheer amount of data being gathered into Google Maps verges on overwhelming.

In fact, that’s one of the primary reasons many developers are turning to solutions like OpenStreetMaps.

While Google’s new features are a welcome addition, the maps offered by Google lack much of the flexibility found in OpenStreetMaps. Unlike Google, which provides all its geographic data in a single layer, which is then displayed on the map, OpenStreetMaps allows you to pick and choose which layers are displayed in your maps. For example, if your map application needs to show trails, you can highlight that layer. If you’re just interested in streets, then you can omit the trail data.

The result is a cleaner, more customizable map that provides only the data that interests your users. The trade-off is a more complex interface, though projects like TileDrawer are helping to make OpenStreetMaps more accessible to developers.

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File Under: Software & Tools

Adobe Fights Off HTML5 Threat With New Flash Player 10.1

HTML5 has been touted as a “Flash killer,” making the ubiquitous Flash Player plugin unnecessary with new tags to embed video and create animations directly within HTML. But the latest Flash update, announced at Adobe’s ongoing MAX conference, shows that Flash isn’t going away without a fight.

Adobe’s latest update includes all its Flash-based tools, with a new version of the Flash Player, a new version of AIR, the desktop runtime and a slew of new mobile device tools.

While the big news is undoubtedly the (albeit, somewhat limited) ability to turn Flash Player files into iPhone apps, there are some other new developments in Flash 10.1 that should be good news for web developers.

For example, Flash Player 10.1 now allows graphics-heavy applications to take advantage of GPU acceleration wherever it’s available. That means web-based HD video streams should be smoother and less prone to endless “buffering” messages.

Of course there’s a whole new player in web video: HTML5. While the coming update to the HTML spec is still a work in progress, it’s already possible to publish movies on the web without Flash or other third-party tools.

Indeed, many of the new features coming in HTML5, like the video, audio and canvas tags, are essentially designed to replace Flash, the current de facto solution for embedding video, audio and animation on the web. The only problem is that HTML5 is not finished and browser support is far from complete.

While HTML5 may not be ready for primetime, it’s pretty clear from its recent updates that Adobe is working hard to make sure Flash’s features outstrip those of the still nascent HTML5.

For example the new GPU support puts Flash well ahead of HTML5′s native video support, which likely means that Flash will remain the most popular option for video streaming services like Hulu.

In addition to Flash, Adobe has stepped up the desktop support for its new AIR environment, which allows Flash to run on the desktop like a native app. While the current crop of AIR apps leave much to be desired compared to OS-native apps, AIR 2 has quite a few tricks up its sleeve to close the gap.

AIR 2 will offer developers support for touchscreen interfaces and the ability to interact with connected USB devices. For example, apps built on AIR 2 will be able to detect and connect to a digital camera or external storage device.

AIR 2 also features the ability to hand off files to desktop apps. Combine that with the connected device support and it would be simple to build an iPhoto-style application for importing and organizing photos and then pass on the more complex editing to desktop app like Photoshop, all from within the AIR environment.

Combine Flash Player 10, Air 2 and the new mobile device support and you get a very powerful set of tools that make it relatively easy to build apps that run everywhere.

But the real question is whether developers will bet on Flash or the open standards of HTML5 as the future of the web. There’s no question that Adobe has the upper hand right now, but as browsers continue to implement HTML5 features, it remains to be seen whether developers will stick with Flash or jump ship for HTML5.

Flash CS5 will be released as a public beta later this year. For more details on what’s new in Flash Player 10.1, AIR 2 and the new mobile device support, head over to the Adobe Labs website.

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File Under: Software & Tools

Firefox 3.6 Aims to Bring Fullscreen, Open Source Video to the Web

Mozilla is pushing ahead with its open video support in the Firefox web browser. Current developer builds of Firefox 3.6, expected to arrive later this year, now include a fullscreen option for movies embedded using the HTML5 video tag.

Early in the development of HTML5, the spec’s authors toyed with the idea of including a mandate requiring all browsers to support the open source Ogg Theora video codec. The goal was to create a single, open source video solution that would work in every browser.

Currently video on the web is generally embedded using proprietary technologies like Adobe’s Flash Player or Microsoft’s Silverlight plugin. Native HTML5 video would give users a way to watch movies online without the need of third-party plugins.

Unfortunately, while the HTML5 spec provides a way to embed video without using plugins, it stops short of specifying a video codec — which means codec support will vary from browser to browser, making it difficult to embed a single video that will work everywhere.

While the Ogg Theora recommendation has been dropped from HTML5, some browser vendors, like Mozilla, still intend to support the Ogg Theora codecs. In fact, Firefox 3.5 already offers full support for embedding .ogg videos using the HTML5 video tag.

However, one thing Firefox 3.5 lacks is the ability to play those videos in fullscreen mode. Given the increasing visual quality of online video, the missing fullscreen support is a conspicuous point against open video — especially when other video solutions, like Flash, have long supported fullscreen video.

Luckily the when Firefox 3.6 arrives at the end of 2009 Mozilla seems poised to include fullscreen support, putting open source video on largely equal footing with proprietary technologies like Flash or Silverlight.

As the Mozilla Links blog points out, for those that don’t want to wait for Firefox 3.6 to enjoy fullscreen video, there is a plugin available now which offers fullscreen support for native HTML5 video. However, the plugin has a few shortcomings — like the need to restart the video when you enter fullscreen mode.

While we’re happy to see Mozilla continue its support for native HTML5 video via Ogg Theora, keep in mind that Google is in the process of acquiring On2 Technologies, makers of a number of video codecs.

HTML 5 fans are hoping that, if the acquisition is approved, Google will turn around and make the newly acquired codecs open source — a move that could end the circular and unresolved debate over which video codec should be part of the HTML5 specification. In other words, even of Firefox is the only browser to fully embrace Ogg, there may still be hope for an open video codec requirement in HTML5.

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