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Commanding Your Browser

A new interface bypasses the mouse for some complex tasks.
August 12, 2008

The beauty of today’s search engines is their simplicity. Type a few keywords into an empty box, and see the 10 most relevant results. This week, Mozilla Labs expects to launch a similar interface for its Firefox Web browser. The new interface, called Ubiquity, lets users carry out all sorts of complex tasks simply by typing instructions, in the form of ordinary sentences, into a box in the browser.

For example, to e-mail a paragraph or picture from a Technology Review article to a friend using Ubiquity, simply select the text or image, press a keyboard shortcut to reveal an input box, and type “e-mail to Max.”

“You just type in things that feel natural to you,” says Chris Beard, vice president and general manager of Mozilla Labs. Ubiquity, which is based on the Javascript programming language, will open an e-mail client and paste the highlighted text or image into a message. It will even guess which Max in an address book the snippet should be sent to, based on previous e-mailing patterns.

The idea, says Beard, is to make it easier to find and share information on the Web while avoiding cumbersome copy-and-paste instructions. Traditionally, if you want to e-mail a picture or a piece of text to a friend, look up a word in an online dictionary, or map an address, you have to follow a series of well-worn steps: copy the information, open a new browser tab or an external program, paste in the text, and run the program.

A common work-around is to use browser plug-ins–tiny programs that connect to other applications and can be added to the browser toolbar. For instance, StumbleUpon, a Web service that lets users bookmark and share interesting Web pages, offers a plug-in for Firefox so that new sites can be added or discovered with a single click. But adding multiple browser plug-ins takes up valuable screen space.

Ubiquity aims to eliminate both tiresome mouse movements and the need for multiple browser plug-ins.

The idea isn’t unique to Mozilla Labs. Researchers at MIT have published work on a similar interface, called Inky. Another project, called Yubnub, allows people to quickly perform different online operations, such as searching for stock quotes, images, or items on eBay using the same text field.

What distinguishes Ubiquity is that it’s being released as a Mozilla Labs project, which immediately makes both the program and its underlying code available to people eager to test the interface and contribute design and programming ideas to improve its functionality. Also, notes Mozilla’s Beard, Ubiquity is highly customizable. From the start, the interface will come with built-in instructions or “verbs,” such as “e-mail,” “Twitter,” and “Digg,” but Beard expects people to add many new ones.

The project is being released in an early form–version 0.1–so it’s not expected to work perfectly straightaway. Also, Beard doesn’t assume that it will change the way people interact with their browser overnight. “Most people in the world will continue to use mouse-based interfaces,” he says. But a language-based interface like Ubiquity could ultimately supplement the mouse, much as shortcut keys already do, he says.

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