Mozilla Ubiquity, Microsoft IE8, and the fracturing of Web pages

New Web design trend: Sites built to be taken apart?

Rafe Needleman Former Editor at Large
Rafe Needleman reviews mobile apps and products for fun, and picks startups apart when he gets bored. He has evaluated thousands of new companies, most of which have since gone out of business.
Rafe Needleman
2 min read

Mozilla on Tuesday released a public prototype of Ubiquity, a curious command-based interface to locating information on the Web and creating compilations of information from various sources. See: Mozilla offers do-it-yourself mashups for all.

At the moment, it's most capable as a command-line browser. You press the hot key, ctrl-space, and you can just start typing lookup commands, like "imdb Blade Runner." Or, if text is already selected in the browser, your command will act on them. Mouse over a restaurant page in Yahoo Mail, press the hotkey, and type "yelp" for a review, for example.

Ubiquity can find and insert map images into e-mails.

But the most interesting application is Ubiquity's capability to extract items from Web pages and insert them in whatever you're creating, like an e-mail message or a blog post. At the moment I believe the only site you can extract data from is Google Maps, but clearly Mozilla's direction is to build a platform that takes bits of data from Web resources and pastes it together on the user's behalf.

Microsoft, too, is putting resources into a new feature that parcels out Web pages. In the upcoming Internet Explorer 8, the browser supports a feature Microsoft calls, "Web Slices," which is the platform's capability to take a portion of a Web page--like a stock chart on a financial page--and display it as a pop-up widget that's called from the bookmark bar in the browser.

Slices on Internet Explorer are part RSS feed, part widget.

Slices are built using a combination of protocols, including Microformats, RSS, and new HTML tags that IE uses to demark Slices.

Together, Ubiquity and Web Slices lead me to believe we're entering an era of fracturing Web content. Already we have seen content separated from presentation with RSS, and we've given developers access to online data for their mashups via Web APIs. But the growth of Microformat-coded Web pages will make it possible for users to more easily create their own mashups--personal profile pages that have just the pieces of Web content they want, or e-mail messages made up of live maps, automatically updating weather forecasts, up-to-the-minute travel information, and so on.

It means that developers will have to learn how to code pages for modularity. Conceptually that's not that big a deal, although if coding for Ubiquity and coding for Slices is different, it's going to be a technical mess. What I am waiting to see is how managers wrestle with the branding and revenue implications of letting their sites be mashed up and refactored into tiny pieces all over the Web, by anyone. I predict that the sites that give away the most data will reap the biggest benefits, but that will be a difficult leap of faith for many publishers.

See also: ActiveWords.