Mozilla's Prism project blends Web, desktop

Look, Ma, no browser!

Mozilla Labs, a research arm of Mozilla, has released software that lets users strip a Web application from its enclosing browser and then work with the app as if it were a traditional desktop program.

The software, formerly known as WebRunner but now recast as Prism, is still in development, said Mark Finkle, a platform evangelist at Mozilla. "It's experimental," said Finkle, who, along with Alex Faaborg, a user interface designer, announced the name change and release last week in a blog posting. Mozilla Labs also opened up Prism as a Mozilla project, which means it's soliciting volunteers to work on the code or interface, or simply bug-hunt.

Although Prism is currently in prototype, the software can now separate a Web application from its browser, drop it onto the desktop in its own window, and manage its icon and placement on the desktop like any locally installed program.

"This is more than just a chromeless browser," Finkle said in an interview today, referring to another approach, sometimes called distraction-free browsing, that strips away toolbars, colors, menus and other navigational aids that are typically part of a browser's interface. "We're going a different direction." Rather than simply splitting the application from the browser's interface, Prism separates the processes.

"If I'm using a browser [to run a Web application] and the browser crashes, it takes down my app, too. If the browser crashes when you're running Prism, the app's safe," said Finkle.

By separating the application from the user profile associated with the browser, Prism also protects the Web app, added Finkle. "In a browser, you're sharing the same profile, but [running the app in] Prism separates the profiles so that if I'm running my corporate e-mail from a Web app, I don't have any concerns about malicious Web pages because I can't browse to them from the app inside Prism."

Prism is a stand-alone application, but the group is also working on a Firefox plug-in -- Mozilla calls them "extensions" -- that will provide some functionality. And it's always possible -- though by no means guaranteed -- said Finkle, that the technology could be rolled into the Firefox trunk entirely.

The Mozilla Labs rollout of Prism caught the attention of at least one rival. In a posting to his personal blog, Mike Chambers, the principal product manager for developer relations at Adobe Systems for its Adobe Integrated Runtime (AIR) project, took exception to Mozilla's description of Prism.

"Unlike Adobe AIR and Microsoft Silverlight, we're not building a proprietary platform to replace the Web," the Mozilla Lab announcement read.

"The thing I found odd was Mozilla appears to be building something very similar to Adobe AIR (which is fine and cool), but somehow it is inherently good when Mozilla does it, and inherently evil when Adobe does it," Chambers responded. "AIR is built on top of Web standards and can run existing Web applications and content. It runs on Windows and Mac (and soon Linux), and it also provides additional desktop functionality.

"Is the main difference ... that AIR is being primarily developed by a company, and that Prism is being developed by Mozilla?"

AIR is Adobe's still-in-beta framework, once code-named Apollo, that runs offline Web applications built with HTML, AJAX or Flash. Silverlight is Microsoft's technology, and a rival to Adobe's Flash.

When asked to comment on Chambers' knock, Finkle defended Prism but acknowledged that the differences can be difficult to spell out. "There's some definite overlap between Prism, and AIR and Spotlight. For me, though, if the Web can't do it, Prism can't do it. The others are bundling up a lot of nonstandard Web features."

That gives Prism the advantage, Finkle argued. "We're not asking Web apps to change at all."

The timeline for Prism is murky, as are future plans. For instance, Finkle declined to disclose a schedule for moving Prism from its current 0.8 version to a final edition, or whether the technology will at some point be stuffed inside Firefox.

Prism can be downloaded from the Mozilla Labs site free of charge. Macintosh and Linux versions will be available soon.

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