Mozilla Labs Scopes Out the Future of the Web

Recent activity from Mozilla Labs has been focused on the future of the browser--and a world in which the browser is pretty much the operating system. Other browser vendors--including Microsoft, Opera and Google--are hot on its heels.

Lots of people talk about the future of the Web-about what types of applications and services we will see in the coming years. But what about the browser itself? How will future browsers interact with sites and applications? Will we even have browsers as we know them today, or will everyone use browser-like single-purpose applications to access different areas of the Web?

One company very concerned with the answers to these questions is Mozilla. After all, the browser is pretty much the only product the organization has.

The unit of Mozilla whose mission is to look toward the future is Mozilla Labs. This is where many of the features and capabilities currently found in the Firefox browser first make their appearance, as do other, more stand-alone applications such as Prism, which was recently released in beta.

In recent weeks, there has been a lot of news and activity coming out of Mozilla Labs. And all of this activity has been focused on the future of the browser.

Not surprisingly, Mozilla Labs is working toward a world in which the browser is pretty much the operating system-call it the browser as OS or the cloud OS. In this world, all of your applications, documents, files and services are accessed from a Web interface and behave the same no matter what the underlying operating system (Windows, Linux, Android-whatever).

One project especially concerned with the future of the Web is the Mozilla Labs Design Challenge. Mozilla is currently challenging developers (in its Summer Design Challenge) to find a better solution than tabs to handling multiple Web pages.

Tabbed browser windows, which were first effectively used in the Opera browser (another company that really only has the browser to rely on), were a good short-term solution to the problem of handling multiple open Web pages. But in the modern world of social networking, cloud applications and multiple interactive Web services, tabs can quickly become overwhelming.

It will be interesting to see what kinds of ideas developers come up with for replacing or improving on browser tabs. One idea already thrown out is a mechanism to categorize sites and pages by type of applications and services.

The just-completed Spring Design Challenge asked developers to design a browser that was concerned only with the Web, not with underlying operating system interactions.

Most of the Best in Class selections (essentially, the winners) looked at kind of far-off, cutting-edge ideas for the browser. But one focused on improving the extensibility of the browser.

This was especially interesting in light of the most recent announcement from Mozilla Labs-something it is calling Jetpack. The purpose of Jetpack is to make it even easier for developers to extend the Firefox browser with add-ons and for users to deploy these add-ons.

This is significant, as Firefox's large add-on community is already its biggest advantage when compared with other browsers' capabilities. The large number of Firefox extensions available today makes it possible to add nearly any kind of feature or functionality to the Firefox browser.

With Jetpack, Mozilla is clearly hoping to extend this lead, and also increase the ability of the browser to stay on top of changes in the future Web without the need for massive changes in the underlying browser.

Of course, Mozilla isn't the only company looking for the next big browser thing.

All of the browser vendors today are working on innovations that will help their applications succeed in the future. And every time new capabilities are added to browsers-and to the standards-there are plenty of developers who will quickly adopt these technologies to build the next wave of Web applications and services.

Chief Technology Analyst Jim Rapoza can be reached at [email protected]