Mozilla Labs considers grafting IM onto Firefox

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When a company's lab typically comes forth with an idea for the general public, it already has a proposition in mind for why that idea is necessarily good. This morning, one of Mozilla Labs' latest ideas actually leaves that question open.

With Mozilla Labs in the news recently, even if it's for bold ideas that have yet to find their way to source code, the organization is taking advantage of this added attention to float an idea for a possible future Firefox permutation: What if instant messaging, RSS, and other concurrent textual feeds such as Twitter, were embedded in the Web browser in such a way that any kind of personal message could be made to appear through a single channel?

That general concept made a brief appearance in Adaptive Path's latest video for Mozilla Labs, which depicted a proof-of-concept browser called "Aurora." One of the key features of that concept was direct communication between two users facilitated through the browser, including voice and video, sharing the pointer remotely, and transferring data between local and remote data stores while maintaining context.

As more of a near-term concept, this morning Mozilla began floating a concept it's calling "Snowl" (short, judging from its logo, for "snow owl"), which would embed live textual communication into a more contemporary version of Firefox. Although RSS is nothing new to Firefox, with add-ins like Sage and Wizz having been available for years now, Snowl would not be a news reader. Instead, it would use RSS among other methods to gather short personal messages, then collect those messages into contexts that could be searchable later using a query line.

Mozilla isn't launching this project by saying it's a good idea just yet; it's actually asking the question on its own.

But as Snowl's lead architect Myk Melez wrote for Mozilla Labs' blog, Snowl was devised with a few central principles in mind, including this: "A search-based interface for message retrieval is more powerful and easier to use than one that makes you organize your messages first to find them later."

Instant messaging is among the many features Mozilla is considering adding to the Web browser directly; another is built-in multimedia codecs, which is one of the focuses of its latest Firefox 3.1 alpha. Last month, in an interview with BetaNews, two of Mozilla's senior engineers openly discussed how their labs are actively and simultaneously considering concepts that would build more new, rich functionality into the browser (Weave) and that would distribute Web functionality among multiple components, for a thinner, more terminal-like browser (Prism).

As long as Mozilla is comfortable with the idea of exploring two contradictory ideas simultaneously to see which one survives the test, would it be willing to consider a converse concept to Snowl, where messages are disseminated based on a system of templated rules that are optimized by the user either directly or through inferred interactions, as opposed to a continual search query model?

This is one question BetaNews put this morning to Myk Melez. "Yes, we're thrilled to consider alternate approaches to Snowl, including the one you raise," Melez responded. "We encourage folks to get involved with contributions to our existing experiments as well as new concepts, whether they be prototypes, mockups/sketches, or even just ideas."

With Aurora and Snowl, among other concepts being floated around, adding more functionality to the browser, is it Mozilla's belief that the browser must evolve into the operating system, or at least the operating environment -- to borrow the 1980s term for Windows -- in order to survive?

Melez' answer suggested our question may be behind the times in more ways than one: "For many of our users the browser is already their operating environment, since they use Web applications exclusively," he told us. "Nevertheless, our focus at Labs isn't on replicating the operating system, it's on exploring possible improvements to the browser and the Web platform to give users a better online experience. This may, but doesn't necessarily, include features of operating systems and other applications."

But it doesn't seem possible that Mozilla could explore both the Prism road and the Weave road at the same time, once it does approach the proverbial fork in the road. Does it have a plan in place for deciding which route to take?

"Not yet," said Melez. "We're still very much exploring all of the possibly future directions for the Web. Through broad participation of a global community, and open-minded exploration of seemingly contradictory approaches, we hope to more fully understand and surface new opportunities."

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