Ubuntu Web Apps Aim To Bridge Browser/Desktop Divide

Most days I have only three or four browser tabs open: GMail, Twitter, Google Reader, and whatever link I’ve clicked through from one of the previous three. I know folks, though, who regularly have two dozen or more tabs open. All day. Every day. They struggle to remember which tab has their GMail, only to find no new mail when they get there. Pausing a Last.fm stream requires an inordinate number of clicks. Basically, the proliferation of web-based apps has made the browser an impediment to streamlined productivity.

Ubuntu, the Linux distribution sponsored by Canonical, aims to remedy this situation in the upcoming 12.10 release with “Ubuntu Web Apps”. A collection of Firefox plugins, Web Apps facilitate new integrations between traditional web-based applications and the Ubuntu Unity desktop environment.

For example, when you browse to GMail, your Firefox browser will alert you that a Web App is available and ask if you’d like to activate it. If you do, you get a GMail icon in your Dash launcher complete with new mail badge indicators. You also get desktop notifications of new mail. You still access GMail through your browser, but GMail activity is better integrated into your overall computing experience.

Another example Web App is for Last.fm, the streaming music service. When you activate the appropriate Web App, you can control your Last.fm stream directly from the Ubuntu volume control widget. The Web App exposes controls to that widget and sends any actions you take to the Last.fm web page behind the scenes. To be clear: you still need to manually load the Last.fm web page, and you’ll need to leave that page in a tab somewhere, but you’ll no longer need to care about that tab once you get your music stream started.

I spoke with Pete Goodall, Canonical’s Head of Client Products, about Web Apps. My first question was “Why do this?” Specifically I was curious if Ubuntu users had asked to be saved from the burden of browser tabs, or if this was another Canonical innovation trying to fix problems that users didn’t know they had. Goodall indicated that it was a little of both. Ubuntu users had complained about the proliferation of tabs, but Canonical developers were also looking to scratch their own itches. They, too, use an increasing number of web-based applications, and saw a way to reduce the friction.

I next asked why Canonical would create these shims — er, Firefox plugins — rather than focus on developing dedicated applications. Obviously not all web-based applications expose their stuff in an easily consumable way, so dedicated apps won’t work for everything. But Goodall reminded me that users like web-based applications because the experience is (usually) the same across all platforms and browsers. Web-based application developers work really hard on their user experience, and Canonical felt no motivation to take away from that effort. Leave the apps in the browser, where they were designed. But integrate with the desktop in ways that make sense.

Goodall told me that their long-term goal is to get developers of web-based applications to embrace this model, and better support the Web Apps plugins. Such support should be comparatively minimal, since it doesn’t require a complete reengineering of the web-based application. Goodall also pointed out that this is not just for desktop and laptop PCs. Ubuntu’s increasing effort on alternate platforms — tablets, phones, automotive interfaces — means that Web App integrations can benefit these other platforms just as much.

Goodall also explained another long-term benefit of the Web App underpinnings: integrating web-based credentials into traditional desktop applications. For example, currently if you want to publish photos from Shotwell to Facebook, you need to manually authenticate the Shotwell application with Facebook. This process then needs to be repeated for any other desktop applications that might upload to Facebook.

With the new work Ubuntu is doing, you’ll be able to log into Facebook once and have your system cache those credentials. Then when you want to publish from Shotwell — or any other supported app — the app merely needs to ask permission to access the previously stored credentials. Think Apple’s KeyChain, but in a way that bridges web-based services and desktop applications.

I don’t personally have much of a need for Web Apps at this time, but I’m glad to see the divide between desktop and web browser being meaningfully bridged. Microsoft tried this ages ago with their Active Desktop technology, but that led to a raft of problems by deeply integrating the browser with the desktop. Web Apps, by using individual plugins for specific domains, should provide a better, more secure, more robust solution for users.