Taking the web out of the browser has been a common theme lately. As web apps become more a part of everyday productivity, accessing them outside the typical browser is more attractive.
The iPhone has a great example of this in its Maps app. The beauty of taking apps out of the browser is you can focus on the app and its functionality outside the constraints of the browser.
Not all web apps are suited to standalone status. My main criteria for deciding if I should try a standalone version of a web app are simple: do I keep the app open all the time in a tab and/or do I have any Firefox add-ons that help me manage the app?
Both of my reasons relate to my preference for Firefox as my browser of choice. Firefox 2 was the first version I can remember leaking memory in Windows. The memory consumption gets worse if you have a lot of add-ons or keep a lot of tabs open. I routinely get 20-30 tabs open without thinking, so this is an issue for me.
The beta versions of Firefox 3 seem to be slightly better, but this may also be due to the fact that very few add-ons have been forward-ported yet.
So, I’m finding ways to cut back on Firefox’s memory usage. Maybe I need a new browser.
Anyway, the resulting list of web apps is pretty short.
- Twitter: I had several add-ons to Firefox (Twitterbar, TwitterFox), plus twitter.com always open in a tab.
- Google Reader: I keep Reader open all the time and use it probably more than any other web app.
- GMail: I use the GMail Notifier add-on, and I check GMail from my iPhone all the time.
Now that I’ve established demand for these as standalone apps, I had to find the best solution, and the main choices I considered were Adobe AIR clients and Mozilla Prism.
There are a bunch of AIR clients for Twitter out there, but Twhirl is my choice. I’m not sure why, maybe inertia. I tried a couple others and went back to Twhirl. I’m not alone either. It’s estimated that Twhirl accounts for 7% of tweeting, which is tops among AIR clients. They’ve released some cool new features lately, like posting tweets to Pownce and Jaiku. I’m eager tosee what comes out of the acquisition by Seesmic.
I like the standalone view of Twitter for a couple reasons:
- It runs ambiently in the background, collecting the stream of tweets. I can pay close attention, or none at all. Either way, it keeps a log for me.
- Twhirl and most other Twitter clients make it easy to use the feaures of Twitter like reply, direct message, retweet and favorite that are more hidden in the web version.
Because of Twitter’s API, AIR clients are all over the place. With Reader and GMail, this isn’t the case. So, I use Mozilla Prism for these.
Prism is essentially a stripped down browser window that doesn’t render menus or support add-ons. It just loads whatever URL you tell it to load. No rocket science involved.
The benefit is that Prism uses a lot less memory than Firefox does, and each Prism “app” has its own allocation of memory. So, if my Prism instance of Reader eats itself, my GMail and Google Docs instances will be safe. Not so in Firefox or any browser, as I’m sure you’ve experienced.
Prism has the same ambient benefits that Twirl provides, i.e. I can ignore my Prism apps and work happily, undistracted in the browser window without knowing how many unread feed items I have or how many new messages I have in GMail.
Fewer distractions is a huge benefit of using Prism, as Lifehacker documented. I’m marinating a post on distractions right now too.
One bummer is that Prism doesn’t handle icons very well, which is a bit of a drag. It captures the favicon from the URL, then blows up to icon size, all pixelated. I dug up some icon packs from Apple for my Mac. Now, my desktop looks like alphabet soup. It’s kind of fun to see what words you can accidentally spell, like a Scrabble game.
Another major bummer is that I can’t get Prism working on my work XP laptop, where I need to use a proxy server. Prism doesn’t have any configuration options, but since it’s stripped down Firefox, it has an about:config. I copied all the values from Firefox into Prism, but no dice. This is a downer because I have less memory on the XP laptop.
As web apps move out of the browser, I expect to see a lot more cool stuff. Bex riffs on the possibilities of Google Gears, Greasemonkey and Web 3.0 in a post he sent to me in email (gasp) on Friday. Coincidentally, I was playing around with Prism at the time. Weird.
I like Google Gears, but it’s gone nowhere since it was introduced last year. Sure, Reader uses it, and Zoho did something with it, and Docs now supports some offline functionality. Still, I hear it’s limited and more aimed at supporting the lose of web connectivity than offline productivity. I feel pretty underwhelmed so far.
Plus, it’s only for Firefox 2.
What do you think about taking web apps out of the browser? Sound off in comments.