Mozilla just launched the latest stable version of Firefox. This release introduces Firefox’s new Social API with a preview of the first social integration with Facebook Messenger for Firefox. This was previously only available in the Firefox beta channel. The Social API allows social services like Facebook, Twitter, blog networks or even news sites to easily add persistent social sidebars, toolbar notifications and chats to the browser, no matter which site a user is currently looking at.
As Mozilla’s VP of Firefox Engineering Jonathan Nightingale stressed when I talked to him and Firefox Engineering manager Gavin Sharp about this release earlier this month, it’s important to note that even though this first release includes the Facebook Messenger integration, the Social API as a whole is open for all and there is nothing Facebook-specific about it.
Other services that could benefit from these persistent sidebars are email, groupware services, news sites and, of course, other social networks). While Mozilla isn’t able to announce any other partnerships yet, the organization is talking to some of the usual suspects (which I take to mean the likes of Twitter) about upcoming integrations.
As for the reasoning behind the Social API, Nightingale argued that today’s social web presents new challenges for browser developers. While users on the ‘normal’ web generally interact with a tab and close it, he said, users regularly revisit their social sites. Mozilla tried to solve this problem by adding app tabs to Firefox, “but people still had to work around the limitations of browsers because they were treating social just like any other sites.” Social sites, however, need to be treated different from other sites, Mozilla believes, and that’s where the work on the Social API comes in.
For users, the integration is pretty straightforward and can, of course, always be turned off again. Just head over to the Facebook Messenger for Firefox page after you have updated to the latest version of Firefox and look for the green ‘Turn On’ button. Once enabled, you will get to see the new social sidebar with your Facebook chat and updates, comments and photo tags. Firefox will now also show a few new Facebook Messenger buttons in its toolbar.
One thing the team hasn’t solved yet, and Nightingale and Sharp were quite open about this, is how to integrate a number of different services simultaneously. It’s pretty easy to imagine a scenario where you want to use both an email and a social network sidebar at the same time. That’s not currently an option, but the team is actively looking for solutions.
Mozilla isn’t currently pursuing any efforts to turn the Social API into an official standard. As Nightingale noted in our discussion, though, it is an open protocol and other vendors are free to implement it. He also acknowledged, though, that it’s likely that some developers won’t be interested in this, as they will want to protect their own social networks and other services (while he didn’t say so explicitly, chances are he was referring to Google here).
One other thing worth noting about this latest version of Firefox: support for Mac OS 10.5 Leopard has now ended. If you are still using Leopard (and more than 10 percent of Mac users still are), you will either have to stick to the older version or switch to another browser.