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Using Mozilla Prism to Run Web Apps like Local Apps on Linux

Single Site Browsing

  • March 24, 2010
  • By Joe Brockmeier

Web-based applications are fantastic, except for that whole "running in the browser" thing. Looking to free your browser-based apps from your Web browsing? Take a look at Mozilla Prism.

Prism is a Single Site Browser (SSB). The idea is that it runs one Web application at a time, which has a couple of advantages. The primary advantage is that Prism isolates your Web application from browser crashes and restarts. If you use a Web-based application for email, office documents, CRM, or any of 100 other tasks, the last thing you want is to have your work interrupted if you need to restart your browser or if it crashes.

Using an SSB also helps make using a Web application more like using, well, an application. Having to find your Web application tab or window among all the other tabs and windows from your browser can be a bit of a hassle if you (like me) wind up with dozens of tabs or windows open at any given time. Using an SSB is a good way to segregate your apps from your browsing.

It also makes it easier to launch and manage Web-based applications. Just create a shortcut for the Prism app and run it from the desktop or taskbar, no problem.

The flip side of SSBs, or at least Prism, is that in its current iteration it doesn't allow the same level of flexibility that you find with a Web browser. It's slimmed down and doesn't sport all the same features that users enjoy, like the ability to install extensions. This is a bit of a bummer, since some extensions (like Feedly) greatly enhance some Web-based applications. The Prism developers are working on that, but at the moment you are stuck with a fairly basic browsing experience or some experimentation to try to get extensions working in conjunction with Prism.

Getting Prism

Linux users can use Prism a few ways. Prism is packaged as a Firefox extension and as a stand-alone application that doesn't require Firefox at all. I'd recommend the stand-alone application, as the extension doesn't always seem to behave as expected.

Ubuntu has a Prism package for Ubuntu 9.10 (Karmic Koala), and openSUSE users can find Prism packages in the Mozilla Mozilla repositories for openSUSE 11.0 through 11.2 and SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 11. In addition to the stand-alone application, you'll find several pre-built Prism Webapp bundles in Ubuntu's repos, including bundles for Google Mail (prism-google-mail), Twitter (prism-twitter), and so on. Just run apt-cache search prism and you'll get the entire list.

The other way to get Prism is just grab the tarballs directly from Mozilla Labs. Just unpack that under your home directory and you're good to go.

Using Prism

When you start Prism, instead of a standard browser window, you'll get a dialog with fields for the URL to your Web app and its Name. The dialog also allows you to choose whether to show the navigation bar, shortcuts, and to choose the icon for the Web application. Prism will actually search for the site once you enter the URL and suggest an icon based on its favicon. If you can find a larger icon, it will look much better than scaling the favicon up.

Once all the data is entered, save the application and it will open your Web application in a stripped-down browser window. Like Firefox, Prism will save sessions (and store passwords) so you don't have to worry about logging into your app each and every time you start the Web app.

If you chose the desktop icon option in the Prism dialog, you should have a file on your desktop with an .desktop extension. On GNOME, the first time you try to run this it will ask if you want to trust the application. You'll need to do that before you can run the application from the icon. You can also drag that to your toolbar if you want to launch the application from the taskbar.

For most intents and purposes, running a Web app in Prism is like running an app in Firefox. Assuming the app is compatible with Firefox, it will run in Prism without any problems or complaints.

Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier is a freelance writer and editor with more than 10 years covering IT. Formerly the openSUSE Community Manager for Novell, Brockmeier has written for Linux Magazine, Sys Admin, Linux Pro Magazine, IBM developerWorks, Linux.com, CIO.com, Linux Weekly News, ZDNet, and many other publications. Brockmeier is also a FLOSS advocate and participates in several projects, including GNOME as the PR team lead. You can reach Zonker at jzb@zonker.net and follow him on Twitter.
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