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Mozilla's Prism to bring Web apps to desktop

The makers of Firefox want to break outside the browser--and challenge Adobe's AIR.

Even the Mozilla Foundation, makers of the popular Firefox Web browser, thinks it's time to break out of the browser.

On Thursday, developers from Mozilla announced a project called Prism that will, along with other "experiments," make Web applications better resemble desktop programs.

The idea with Prism is that people can integrate their favorite Web applications with their desktop operating systems.

For example, a person could access Web-based programs Gmail or Facebook from the applications menu of Mac OS or Windows. Or they could create an icon for Facebook on their desktop that launches in its own window.

Prism is an open-source alternative to AIR, or Adobe Integrated Runtime, software for making desktop applications with Web technologies. AIR is set for a 1.0 release in the first half of next year; there are already a number of early applications that use AIR.

Mozilla Labs is trying to merge the worlds of Web applications with desktop operating systems because people are relying more on Web applications yet they are poorly integrated with desktop applications.

"While traditionally users have interacted mostly with desktop applications, more and more of them are using Web applications. But the latter often fit awkwardly into the document-centric interface of Web browsers," according to the announcement on Mozilla Labs' blog posted on Thursday.

Mozilla now has prototypes of Prism running on Windows with early versions on Mac and Linux under way.

Future versions include offline access to information with Firefox 3 and three-dimensional graphics.

Adobe tries to beat "proprietary" rap
The goal is to let developers use existing Web development technologies to write applications that take advantage of Prism. Adobe AIR, too, lets developers use standard Web development tools to create programs that run on AIR.

"Prism will allow new innovative applications on the Web to integrate into the user's desktop experience without any additional development effort for the applications' creators," wrote Alex Faaborg, the user experience designer who is working on Firefox 3.

Mozilla Labs is touting the fact that Prism is open-source software whereas Adobe's AIR is proprietary and closed source.

Mike Chambers, senior manager of developer relations at Adobe, took issue with Mozilla's characterization of AIR and wondered how Prism would differ from AIR.

"I guess 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 wrote in his blog.

During Adobe's Max conference earlier this month, Adobe Chief Software Architect Kevin Lynch said that he expected that somebody else would create something similar to AIR. "I think that AIR is positioned early to really be a leader...kind of like Flash was positioned early as the interactive multimedia leader," Lynch said last month.