We're not easily impressed at Techradar, but when we tried Mozilla's Ubiquity it knocked our socks off. By putting the power of mashups right into the browser – and making them so easy your Gran could use them – it makes the web even more wonderful.
It's impressive already, but as we discovered when we spoke to Aza Raskin, Mozilla's head of user experience, the potential is enormous.
TechRadar: It's 2012 and Ubiquity is, well, ubiquitous. What sort of things do you think we'll be doing with it?
Raskin: If hospital worked the way the web currently does, every time a surgeon needed a new tool during surgery (scalpel, gauze, anaesthetic) they'd have to schlep the patient to a new room to use it. If medicine worked this way, patients would simply die. Unfortunately, we've come to accept this way of using the web as "just the way it is".
What becomes possible when the web morphs to being at your beck and call? By 2012, most of your interactions with the web will be centred around your task, instead of the page you happen to be at.
When the browser understands who your friends are, and what your preferences are (all, of course, without having to teach your browser explicitly), the tedious parts of getting to information will go away. What's left will be the core of the activity. You'll be able to say things like "get me a flight on Thursday to Toronto, returning next Tuesday and email the itinerary to the Toronto office" and the browser will be able to present you with options, sorted by metrics based on your previous trips.
TechRadar: We love the idea of a Star Trek computer, where we tell it what we want and it works out what we mean. Obviously command-line input doesn't quite fit with that. Is the long-term goal to tie Ubiquity into speech recognition? In the shorter term, are there interface ideas you're considering?
Raskin: One of the things I'm excited about for Ubiquity 0.2 is that we are going to throw open the floodgates for user experience experimentation. What happens when creating new interfaces for Ubiquity is as simple as creating a command? When any web author can build on top of the modular functionality written for Ubiquity and innovate new experiences? And when sharing these explorations are as simple as going to a URL and clicking a button?
We'll see an explosion of creativity. We'll see voice activated commands, Quicksilver-style interfaces, super-smart contextual actions, and the idea that nobody saw coming, but that changes the entire game. That's the power of innovation from the edges, and the power of doing this project within the Mozilla community.
TechRadar: What are the main priorities for Ubiquity over the coming months? What's the toughest challenge to overcome?
Raskin: There are three main hurdles. Adding robust data detection to Ubiquity (addresses, dates, etc); smarter natural language processing; and figuring out the interfaces which can mainstream this technology.
TechRadar: Are there particular benefits to Ubiquity being browser-based rather than a stand-alone app? Is the plan to extend it to desktop software?
Raskin: The web, as a platform, allows for incredibly flexibility. The translate command, for instance, replaces non-modifiable text with its translation on any website. You can't do that on almost any other platform. That said, the open Web isn't all about the browser. It's about access to data and functionality in an open way. There are intriguing possibilities for Ubiquity to break out of the browser's box.
TechRadar: Will Ubiquity add to browser bloat?
Raskin: Ubiquity is only a couple of thousand lines of code. By taking advantage of the Firefox platform, and focusing on reusable functionality, Ubiquity fights bloat. With Ubiquity installed, you can take away cluttering buttons and toolbars.
TechRadar: Firefox has Ubiquity, IE8 has Accelerators and Intel has Mash Maker for IE and FF. Is there a danger here that by having three rival approaches, none of them will triumph? Or will the best tech win?
Raskin: IE8 Accelerators and Mash Maker are about destinations – they are site-centric. Accelerators are about getting you quickly to a new site, whereas Mash Maker is about making it easy to make destination mash-ups. They are more of the same old web.
Ubiquity is task-centric. Instead of just bringing you to a new site, it brings the services to you. Accelerators is a good first step, but a context menu doesn't scale to handling all the activities you want to do on the web. It has a lot of catching up to do, and that's going to be hard when they don't have a community of thousands working on finding the right solutions.