Mozilla: Firefox is our RIA platform

"This is where we think the future of the Internet is going -- you can start to see these applications breaking out of the confines of the browser space, and try to move onto the desktop," a key Mozilla engineer told BetaNews.

The term "rich Internet application" is almost becoming a misnomer; there truly is no worthy Internet application that, in at least some respect, isn't rich. The original idea of "richness" was in describing a function that justifies the use of technology above and beyond what is typically used for laying out HTML Web pages. Any more, if you're using AJAX, Flash (especially with Adobe's AIR), or Microsoft's Silverlight to develop your application, you've automatically crossed into the zone of "rich."

But the question Web services architects are asking is this: In so doing, do we leave the browser behind? Specifically, if a rich Web application can be run from the desktop, then does the browser's purpose become more relegated to something on the side that you use to check the blogs, read BetaNews, and keep up on world events?

These are questions that the Mozilla organization is exploring, literally, from both sides. Its Mozilla Labs is working simultaneously on two projects: one called Prism which enables you to run some Web services or JavaScript-based applications from the desktop as though they were stand-alone apps, and another called Weave whose aim is to give Web applications a more feature-rich mechanism for connecting to the browser.

In a recent interview, BetaNews talked with Mozilla's own staff "phenomenologist" (that's literally his job title), Mike Beltzner, and its director of engineering, Damon Sicore, about how their organization intends to be intentionally evolving Firefox into an RIA platform in its own right -- one which itself is written in JavaScript.

MIKE BELTZNER, Phenomenologist, Mozilla: The entire mission of the Mozilla Corporation is to promote innovation and choice and development of modern Web applications, and we've got these fundamental beliefs that a Web application can be as interactive and as immersive and as functional as any desktop application. So JavaScript is a full-featured language, and the browser being written in JavaScript is a point of proof. I don't think anybody would believe that the browser that they're using is any less responsive than any other application on their system.

So I think there's a bit of fear, uncertainty, and denial about interpreted languages being as fast as compiled languages. What we're seeing is that that's not necessarily true, and that JavaScript can be just as fast as things like Java, which is top-down, byte-code compiled. I don't think at any point it feels like we're limiting ourselves by working in JavaScript. I think what it does is, it pushes us to make sure that JavaScript is better.

DAMON SICORE, Director of Engineering, Mozilla: Interpreters have come a long way, and there are real-world applications...Even if you look at the Java world, Eclipse -- which is an IDE that developers use day in and day out, and it's very, very snappy -- it's the same type of concept that we use within Firefox. The language has really reached a level of maturity of implementation...it's snappy enough that we can build some exciting Internet applications with it.

But I think the proof is in the pudding, because Gmail's built in JavaScript. If you look at it now, especially within Firefox, it's so much faster, you're seeing instant response times. I think that really proves that JavaScript has reached a level that it needs to be to build exciting applications.

SCOTT FULTON, BetaNews: Mike, you said it was a fundamental belief of the Mozilla Organization that a Web application can be as functional as any desktop application. There's a lot of people who would agree with you there. One of them would be Adobe. As you know, Adobe is building their own functional application platform based on AIR and Flash. If they have things their way, they'd be able to sidestep the browser [to] develop a Web application [framework] that functions and communicates on its own without the overarching framework of a Web browser. If Web applications evolve in that direction, as time goes on, what do you gentlemen think is going to be the justification for maintaining that "File|Edit|View|History|Bookmarks|Options" framework of the Firefox Web browser?

MIKE BELTZNER: This is where we think the future of the Internet is going --you can start to see these applications breaking out of the confines of the browser space, and try to move onto the desktop. There's already a couple of players that have released their own proprietary, closed technology stacks to help people do this, and they require that the user download a runtime [framework]. Really, you can almost think of that runtime as another version of the browser; it's just that you never see the frame, it doesn't come with bookmarks, it doesn't come with history, and it's also not based on standard Web technologies that millions of developers are already trained on, and that millions of people can actually help improve and iterate on.

So what we believe is, the same sorts of things that you can accomplish with the AIR platform or Silverlight, or any of these rich Internet applications platforms, you can also do with standard Web technologies: SVG, Canvas, JavaScript, DOM, HTML -- all of these technologies [that] exist today have very, very rich and engrained cultures of development, [and] have rich online resources for helping people develop these applications. So the real question then is, how do they break out of that browser frame?

That's something that we're experimenting with to a project that's available on Mozilla Labs, called Prism. What Prism does -- it's available as a stand-alone [component] or as an add-on to Firefox -- is allow you, when you get to any one of these applications on the Web, to just click a button and say, "I want to make this an application on my desktop." You'll get an icon on your desktop, and you'll be able to interact with it through Alt-Tab like anything else, but it will actually just be this Web site.

Now, there's a little way to go with Web technologies. You need offline support, you need to be able to use that application when you're connected or when you're not connected. So one of the things that we've done in Firefox 3 is, we've built in support for a new HTML standard for offline applications.

Next: The browser as add-on?

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