March 21, 2019

Where is Mozilla Ubiquity?

Ubiquity in the Backseat, but not Dead

  • February 25, 2010
  • By Sean Michael Kerner

One of the most interesting Mozilla Labs projects has now stagnated. Is the project dead? Does it have a future? The Mozilla developer who led the project tells all.

Sean Michael Kerner

Back in the summer of 2008, Mozilla began development of an experimental add-on called Ubiquity, providing new command mash-up capabilities for the Firefox browser. After just over a year of development, Mozilla is now pulling back on the effort, but that doesn't mean it hasn't been successful.

The current release of Ubiquity is version, and was released on January 20th of this year. To date, Ubiquity has garnered more than 420,000 downloads, according to the Mozilla add-ons site. So what is happening with Ubiquity now?

"Ubiquity is currently on the back burner, with the core Ubiquity people now working on Jetpack (myself and Atul Varma) and Test Pilot (Jono Xia)," Mozilla developer Aza Raskin told InternetNews.com.

Jetpack is Mozilla's next generation add-ons platform that enables users to load in extensions without a browser restart. While Ubiquity is taking a backseat at Mozilla these days, that doesn't mean that the project isn't going to benefit from improvements made to Jetpack.

"Much of the Jetpack platform evolved directly from Ubiquity, like its no-restart streaming functionality and the ease of adding new functionality," Raskin said. "When the Jetpack SDK hits 1.0, we plan on moving Ubiquity to the new platform and will start working on the next iteration building on the learnings from the nearly half a million people who have downloaded Ubiquity."

Mozilla developers learned a lot from the process of building Ubiquity. Raskin noted that Ubiquity is one of the first examples of a natural language interface that can be localized. That was a key challenge that Ubiquity developers needed to overcome, as Mozilla's Firefox browser is localized in over 70 languages.

Another key challenge was dealing with the interface for Ubiquity since it's a natural language implementation for enabling browser commands.

"With the GUI we've had 30 years to round out the rough edges, Raskin said. "With linguistic computing we are still bumping into those edges blindly."

He added that the Ubiquity development process has also illustrated the power of language, and how it is often under-used in interfaces.

"There is huge demand for being able to connect the Web with language -- to not have to move from one site to another to complete your daily tasks," Raskin said. "And there is huge demand for anyone to be able to write small snippets of code that lets them command the Web the way they want. Ubiquity gave everyday developers a voice with how the browser and the Web works."

Though the main Ubiquity project is now on the back burner, Mozilla Firefox users might one day get a simplified version of a natural language command tool by way of something called Taskfox. At one point, Taskfox was intended for inclusion in Firefox 3.6, but that didn't happen. Firefox 3.6 came out earlier this year, while Taskfox is still under development and currently there isn't a specific timetable for when it will become part of the mainline Firefox browser release.

While conceptually, Taskfox and Ubiquity might seem similar, Raskin noted that Taskfox is actually quite different than Ubiquity.

"Taskfox is integrated directly into the URL bar and has a simplified grammar," Raskin said. "It's more accurate to think of Taskfox as a separate product which is Ubiquity-inspired, which has the potential to evolve towards a richer, more Ubiquity-like interface."

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.

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