The Great Browser Escape!

I’ve blogged in the past about how applications will eventually “break out” of the browser. While web apps are becoming richer and more interactive, they are still relegated to the boundaries of the browser window.

This is going to change. There are a host of technologies out there – available now or soon to be available – that will start to blur the line between the desktop and rich applications that still have the Internet’s reach. The result is a better more tailored experience that introduces interfaces that are more neatly tailored to the information we want nearby. The days of visiting a big, bulky portal page just to see today’s weather are numbered.

Today, Yahoo! announced that they’re acquiring Konfabulator, a maker of desktop “widgets.” This allows Yahoo! to deliver their vast menu of services a la carte, thus breaking out of the browser. From a design perspective, this is pretty exciting stuff. The “playground” is no longer the browser page, but rather the entire desktop. In my opinion, this is the first baby step in a trend that will not only deliver information to users, but strategically inject that information into key touch points of the entire desktop experience. The ability to tie information to workflow – to how people use computers – is very exciting.

Yahoo! is not alone in recognizing this trend:

  • Microsoft’s XAML/Avalon engine is a key foundation of their future operating system, Microsoft Vista.
  • Macromedia’s Central application allows Flash applications to exist outside the browser. Central has been out for over a year, but has failed to gain any sort of traction.
  • Apple introduced Dashboard Widgets with the latest upgrade of their operating system.
  • Mozilla’s XUL enables manipulation of the browser chrome and application functionality. A whole slew of extensions exist based on XUL.

In my opinion, the real killer here is Microsoft’s XAML technology. Few would argue that while most other implementations are effectively “bolt-on”, XAML will stand out in how intimately it will be tied to the operating system’s capabilities. Let’s just hope that, unlike in the past, Microsoft doesn’t over engineer the thing such that the barrier of entry is too high and/or highly dependent on their own clunky IDE tools. Many of the implementations today piggyback technologies like CSS, XML and Javascript. This is smart because you’re leveraging what people already understand.

In any respect, the trend is clear and very exciting for technology designers like myself. The world of possibilities just got (and will continue to get) a lot bigger.



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