Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Site-specific browsers (SSB)

Site-specific browsers are kind of a hobby topic for me because of their utility. I often find that there are things like GMail, Jira, and others that seem to fit a mold where they are kind of a world of their own, a self-contained web application. If I use something like that with any degree of frequency, I consider making it into a site-specific browser instance.

Some of the basic niceties that I've found for my use include:
  • - Ability to choose an icon for the SSB
  • - Modify the URL that is being used upon creation of the SSB
  • - Show/don't show navigation controls
  • - Hotkey support
  • - Show/don't show the status bar

A few of the SSBs that I've tried on various platforms include:


By far, fluid (mac only) is the best that I've seen for my needs. It is essentially a layer on top of the webkit browser on the mac. It has all of the basics and much, much more. It is the most configurable, almost to a fault interface-wise. It can integrate with Growl on the mac, which allows for desktop notification. It has greasekit support. That opens up tons of possibilities. That is part of the plugin support. It also has a few themes for the UI itself. One of the nicest features is to allow for regular expressions of which sites it allows within the SSB. Along with that you can default to another browser for external linking. This makes Google Reader or other web based RSS aggregator quite useful in fluid. You can configure it to open rss feed links in the external browser in the background, so you can scan all of the new items and then go to, say, Firefox (with adblock plus) to actually read the stories. Besides all that, it allows for tabbed browsing with the SSB if you wish. My rating for fluid is awesome, based on a scale from 0 to awesome.


Chrome is okay. It is essentially a beta SSB in my mind. It seems that currently, they're just throwing out the notion of using GMail, Google apps, etc. as their own app within Chrome on the desktop. However, it's still pretty clunky. There is no support for browser controls. There is no support for modifying the URL. There is almost no configuration of any kind. It makes it simple in a good and bad way. The only thing you *can* configure is where a shortcut can be placed. I think with the competition and the resources they're putting into it, it will improve. Google I/O is coming up and I'm thinking that they'll announce a pretty great roadmap for the browser. Cross-platform support and plugins seem to be foremost on their minds right now though, so SSB functionality/configurability might take a little while, depending on their strategy for Chrome. You never know with Google.


Mozilla started Prism, then it got to version 0.9.x in the Summer of 2008, then it fell off the face of the Earth. There was no real development again until they released version 1.0 beta recently with an updated site. Since I am currently using windows and linux, the latest prism update is my option of choice. Prism is kind of the middle ground between chrome and fluid. It allows for some configurability and with the Firefox plugin, it allows you to create a shortcut or prism application right from Firefox. Addons seem to be coming as there is a configuration option for them in each prism instance. The inclusion of addons would definitely set it apart. However currently, the list of available addons (and themes) for prism is empty. I do like the fact that it tries to integrate well with the platform too. You can have it minimize to the system tray on windows, leaving your task bar real estate for other things. One other new feature that I like is the auto-update functionality. Fluid has to update each instance individually, but it looks like prism allows for updating across all instances.


Bubbles is another contender that is based on the IE engine and is therefore limited to Windows. I don't personally like windows very much but I've found value in creating a "bubble" for Outlook Web Access. Its main goal, it seems, is to create a variety of pre-built bubbles for things like GMail so that people can just use them. It does a decent job and might be like a fluid for windows. However, I don't like the IE engine and I don't like windows. Besides that it has a central interface for your bubbles, which I don't particularly like. Updating is always a hassle with SSBs so I can see where a centrally managed set of SSBs is nice.


Safari 4.0 on Snow Leopard (Mac OS 10.6) supposedly will have SSB support, like is sort of does on the iPhone. It will be interesting to see how Apple approaches it. Generally I like many of their defaults, but I'm usually underwhelmed by what they provide with configurability with Safari. Come on Apple, let's see some plugin support.

I briefly also tried Mango SSB, but at that point I was kind of sick of trying new SSB engines...

Anyway, it seems like an interesting space that will see quite a bit of development over the next 6-12 months. I'm hoping that this blog entry will be quite ancient in SSB progress by then.

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