New application could make all software 'open source'

Called Prefab, the app can alter the appearance of certain aspects of proprietary software

Imagine controlling Apple iTunes from inside Microsoft Word without having to switch applications. That could be possible, according to researchers at the University of Washington who are working on a project that could essentially make any proprietary software open source.

"Microsoft and Apple aren't going to open up all their stuff. But they all create programs that put pixels on the screen. And if we can modify those pixels, then we can change the programs' apparent behavior," said James Fogarty, a University of Washington assistant professor of computer science and engineering.

Almost everything seen on a display is made of prefabricated blocks of code, and the tool, called Prefab, looks for those blocks as often as 20 times per second and alters their behavior.

Fogarty likened the idea to HTML. "Everybody can see the HTML. But that hasn't been possible on the desktop," he said. A standard Web page can display a map from Google, an embedded YouTube video and a constantly updating RSS feed all at the same time, but achieving something similar with native PC programs is hard to do.

Fogarty has been working on Prefab for about two years, along with a University of Washington doctoral student in computer science and engineering, Morgan Dixon.

Dixon described Prefab's capabilities thus: "I'm using some program that I love, and I'm going to stick in some features from some other program that I love, so I have a more unified interface."

While the main part of the program is done, Dixon and Fogarty are still developing Prefab and exploring options for commercializing it.

Prefab doesn't actually reveal or manipulate the source code for programs, since it can't see it in proprietary software. It can only manipulate and combine what's visible on the computer screen. "Even if it's in a menu six layers down, if your eyes can see it, so can Prefab," Fogarty said.

He showed a few examples of how Prefab could work in a video using target-aware pointing techniques like a bubble cursor, which dynamically sizes the cursor so that it always captures the nearest target. Rather than needing to click directly on a button, the bubble cursor allows users to be in the vicinity of a button and still be able to click it. It can be particularly helpful for people with disabilities.

The bubble cursor could be added to any application by Prefab, which would start by copying the pixels from a source window. Prefab then interprets the pixels and adds enhancements -- in this case the bubble cursor. It then outputs the final product to a target window, including both the pixels from the source window and the enhancements.

Making changes to software from Microsoft, Apple and other companies could potentially lead to legal problems, but Fogarty argued that "there's a lot of value we can provide these companies."

He said he plans to use "crowd-sourcing" and create an online community for people to share ideas for Prefab. "We've seen the mashup culture flourish online, and this is not fundamentally contrary."

He plans to show the software on April 14 in Atlanta at the Computer Human Interface conference. One of the demonstrations will use Adobe Photoshop and involves creating multiple previews of a single image file. In the background, Prefab moves the controls to adjust color and contrast and so on, captures the resulting images and displays them all on a single screen. That could save time when editing images by displaying a range of possible results to users.

Join the newsletter!

Or

Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags open sourceMicrosoftApplePrefa

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Nick Barber

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Brand Post

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Luke Hill

MSI GT75 TITAN

I need power and lots of it. As a Front End Web developer anything less just won’t cut it which is why the MSI GT75 is an outstanding laptop for me. It’s a sleek and futuristic looking, high quality, beast that has a touch of sci-fi flare about it.

Emily Tyson

MSI GE63 Raider

If you’re looking to invest in your next work horse laptop for work or home use, you can’t go wrong with the MSI GE63.

Laura Johnston

MSI GS65 Stealth Thin

If you can afford the price tag, it is well worth the money. It out performs any other laptop I have tried for gaming, and the transportable design and incredible display also make it ideal for work.

Andrew Teoh

Brother MFC-L9570CDW Multifunction Printer

Touch screen visibility and operation was great and easy to navigate. Each menu and sub-menu was in an understandable order and category

Louise Coady

Brother MFC-L9570CDW Multifunction Printer

The printer was convenient, produced clear and vibrant images and was very easy to use

Edwina Hargreaves

WD My Cloud Home

I would recommend this device for families and small businesses who want one safe place to store all their important digital content and a way to easily share it with friends, family, business partners, or customers.

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?