I’ve been thinking about Firefox as more than just a browser since I read about the idea of a browser as a social agent as put forward by Chris Messina as part of the Mozilla Labs Concept Series a little while ago.
The idea, very briefly (and at the risk of making a hash of the vision Messina put forward) is that your browser could become your social interface. Instead of having to go to social networks on the Web for your social experience (or to sites that support social network-specific extensions), your browser is where all the action is. Your browser knows who your contacts are and which networks you use to connect to them and the stuff you care about. In some cases it handles that stuff in the background so you enjoy a fairly seamless social experience on the Web that also takes into account contextual identities or personas. I am starting to hear more talk about what the social Web will look like in a post-Facebook world (assuming there is going to be a post-Facebook era online) and rather than a new social network, I think the browser could take a conventional social network’s place by leverage multiple identity and social services to give you an aggregated and contextual experience that you have more control over.
The ReadWriteWeb post I mentioned at the beginning of this post briefly contrasts Mozilla’s approach to Web apps compared to Google’s vision of Web apps, accessible largely through Chrome OS. While Google has done some great work with Chrome, the Chrome OS and the Chrome app store, the idea of what a Web app is has been a little fuzzy around the edges and in the centre. Its easy enough to figure out how to add Web apps to Chrome but exactly what you are adding as been treated as being pretty much understood, except it isn’t really.
As you might expect from Mozilla, its approach to Web apps is far more open. Google’s Web apps are sometimes designed more for Chrome than any other browser even though these apps are intended to run using the software cocktail known as HTML 5, at least as I understand this stuff. That doesn’t sound very open to me so the Mozilla approach is somewhat more refreshing:
… Web Apps are applications that run on any device, and can be distributed through any store or directly by the developer. This release contains stable APIs, developer utilities and documentation to help you get a jumpstart on building Web Apps and stores.
Web apps, as Mozilla describes them are not just modified Web pages which look good in Chrome. They are a little more than that. As RRW’s Mike Melanson puts it:
Web apps are no longer websites packaged in a different material, they’re objects that can be grabbed with the click of a mouse and rearranged.
The differences between the two are probably far too subtle and semantic for most users but as far as a broader vision and approach are concerned, they could distinguish Mozilla as a future superpower on the social Web and not just a popular browser vendor. Imagine that there is something to this browser as a social agent thing and that people will be using their browsers like this in the near future. Would a facebook.com be that relevant anymore when your browser is aware of not just your Facebook account and friends but also your OpenID identity, your photo sharing site and other social services you frequent?
What happens when that browser starts connecting you to all those services itself. What would the impact be on those sites and the ad networks built around them? This could change your experience of the Web as you know it and the organisation behind this revolution could once again not be the multinational and super-rich technology company but rather a scrappy, if somewhat more mature, non-profit supported by an international group of dedicated, open source developers.
It sounds a little like what happened when an unknown browser took on the default browser with a 90%+ market share not too long ago.