Some Thoughts on Site-Specific Browsers
I’ve been playing with single-site browsers for the last couple months, specifically using Fluid, created by Tod Ditchendorf.
For the uninitiated, single-site browsers (SSBs) give a website its own window and dock icon (or place in the task bar for Windows), apart from the main browser. I made a quick (3.5 min) screencast to show how SSBs are created and how they present themselves in the desktop environment.
There’s an odd thrill in creating throwaway unique “applications” in seconds. When I first looked at SSBs though, I have to admit that they didn’t seem all that useful, more like a parlor trick. I’ve changed my thinking about that, however, and see an interesting path unfolding.
The biggest advantage I see in SSBs is their perceptual separation and independence from the browser. Having their own dock icon and a window, unaffected by any shenanigans in my much busier main browser, gives a frequently-used site a special focus and some protection.
The SSB You Already Know
This might all sound like just another toy in the geek-playground. Even if you’ve never heard of a single site browser, there’s a good chance that you’ve already used one: the iTunes Store. The iTunes Store is probably the most widely-used hybrid web/desktop application, where all the content is provided by a website, all HTML and CSS, but it’s wrapped in a dedicated application and allows web and local content to interact seamlessly.
Where iTunes is an application with a clear focus on media, Fluid and the general SSB concept are distinguished by their applicability to almost any website. As a general purpose tool, the capacity to support the specialized content that a given website delivers is limited by Fluid’s generic nature. But even that is changing, with recent updates adding specialized support for selected sites. Use Fluid to make a GMail, Facebook or Flickr SSB and you’ll see a badge showing the unread messages count, just like with Mail; sweet. In the screencast above, the thumbnails for outbound links enrich the information that’s delivered by the web application.
I’m unsure of how far Tod will be able to take support for widely-used functional patterns like messaging systems, when those patterns are implemented inconsistently and without consideration for what something like an SSB would want to know from them (like unread message counts). I do see two directions that Fluid can grow in that don’t require special support for only the most popular applications, and could take SSBs much further.
Persistence Across the Cloud
While the data I work with in Fluid apps is saved on the web, anything specific to my interaction with those apps remains local to a single machine. This is about more than just preferences and session persistence, as it can extend to any collateral on the desktop that the Fluid app helps me create. It’s only a half-formed thought, but Fluid seems to be interestingly positioned to provide a bridge between web and local data stores, even if that is on a site-by-site basis. Add Google Gears support and there might be some very interesting possibilities opening up.
Richer, Searchable History
Spotlight, the integrated system search tool in OS-X, became a much hungrier beast in 10.5 (Leopard), as it indexes the contents of each website I look at in Safari for the past month. This is very handy for re-finding sites that I know I visited recently, but didn’t bother to bookmark for recall. Fluid apps could be doing the same, and could be working hand-in-hand with Spotlight to make that history available both in the context of a Fluid app, or across the entire desktop. Or, combined with the preceding thought, across the web to cover any machine I work on. Finding a message or a fragment of a website, no matter which machine I saw it on as long as the machine knew it was me doing the seeing, would be a nice step towards making computing more ubiquitous.
It’s easy to dream, though, isn’t it? In the meantime, I’m happy for the way Fluid changes my working environment when I’m connected, and am looking forward to what surprises come out of this rapidly-developing idea.