Updated: October 15, 2008
I am not a fanatic fan of the Web 2.0 fever gripping the world. However ... Mozilla Ubiquity is something that surpasses even my tradionalistic ego. It's new, it's shiny, it's integrated into the web. All in all, it should not be something I'd like. But it is.
Mozilla Ubiquity is one of the more innovative and USEFUL web solutions to hit the Internet in the last several years. Even though it is still only in its infancy, the version numbers turning around 0.1 or so, I simply had to write about it. If this baby is any indication of the full-grown that Ubiquity is going to become, then we're in for a real treat. Firefox is already a mighty browser with its assortment of excellent extensions. Now, meet Ubiquity.
Many people have a hard time understanding the purpose of Ubiquity. So here's a very simple explanation: Ubiquity is a Firefox extension, first of all. It takes 3 mouse clicks to install and use. It is cross-platform. And what it does is help you perform your basic, daily web tasks. Here's a scenario:
You want to send an image of a place to a friend. Only, you do not quite have the image yet. So you Google about here and there, find a few suitable pictures, you either download them to your machine or copy-paste them into the email body, struggling with the somewhat awkward layout that results from your attempt. Naturally, you have had to power up your mail client (or the webmail) to start writing the email in the first place. It took you about 25 mouse clicks and 160 key strokes, totaling 4 minutes of your time.
Now, would you believe me when I tell you that if you were using Ubiquity, you could have achieved all of the above in just one mouse click, 20-30 typed characters and only 15 seconds? And that one mouse click is to send the actual email ...
This is what Ubiquity does. Replaces you in the dirty daily fiddling with web tasks. It will sort things for you, calculate, translate, look for maps, suggest dictionary and search engine lookups, find maps, check weather, send emails, and many other tasks. And it will do them all by a set of simple written commands.
Think of Ubiquity as the interactive address bar. Instead of merely typing addresses to web pages, you type out meaningful commands, which interpret your actions and do the boring stuff for you. Think Google Apps meet Greasemonkey meet Ruby on Rails. Sounds posh, but it really, really useful. Come on, let's see this beauty in action!
Additional useful information you may like: Here's a nice overview of the software in the Mozilla Labs blog, including a 7-min of introductory flash movie. You should also try to read the Mozilla Wiki tutorial.
Warning: Please note that this is still EXPERIMENTAL software. Therefore, you should try avoiding testing the program in a critical production environment. At the very least, you should backup your Firefox profile. Although I have not noticed any problems whatsoever, you should be careful. The installation is a simple Firefox add-on installation.
Now, power up your browser. At the first glance, nothing has changed. Indeed, nothing has. Ubiquity does nothing until invoked. To invoke Ubiquity, you'll have to use the following key combinations:
This will open a semi-transparent, black command-like prompt in the left top corner of your browser. This is the Ubiquity command line. People hate the word command line, so let's call it something else: let's call it the second address bar! Here's what it looks like:
Now, let's start using it. The most basic use: Enter to activate a command, Esc to cancel it and close Ubiquity.
Let's say you have found an interesting entry that you wish to learn more about, Google it, Wikipedia it, etc. Well, simply highlight the interesting text (one or more words) and open Ubiquity.
As you can, I have opened my website and highlighted the words 'First Person Shooters' in one of the news entries. When I open Ubiquity, I'm presented with many options. I can Google the meaning of these three words, look up this entry with the default browser search engine or look for info on Wikipedia, IMDB or Yahoo. Use mouse to click on the relevant one - or use the arrow keys to navigate up and down.
But we can do something else too. Our entry is selected. By default, anything selected prior to opening Ubiquity is considered this. The word this replaces the selection. Thus, we can also do the following trick - simply type Google this into the Ubiquity:
After we hit Enter, a new tab will open, with the Google entry for First Person Shooters.
You can also search Wikipedia for items of interest. Ubiquity will preview the results it finds, sparing you even the lazy need of visiting Wikipedia. You can read the encyclopedia articles from within Ubiquity itself.
It is enough to just write w and then the phrase of interest. You will have several options, with Wikipedia being the first. Or you can be a good boy scout and write the full thing, like in the second screenshot below.
You can also use Ubiquity to send emails. Best of all, it integrates with Gmail. So, if you use Ubiquity, it will automatically compose messages for you. Here's how it goes:
Again, this can be anything. For the example's sake, let's select an image, again from my own website. The simple command above. And that's it. 15 seconds.
And here's the Gmail login tab. Believe it or not, I did not open it - Ubiquity did. Had I been logged in, the email would have been automatically composed.
Some people like to know the weather situation here and there. Let's say you're planning on going to Rio for the Carnival. Well, Ubiquity can help you there:
You're abroad and you want to find a place quickly, but you do not desire going through sweet, boring tourism sites. You can always use Google maps, but there's mouse dragging involved, oh-oh.
Here's a personal example. My wife and I were in Toronto this summer and we went to see a number of stand-up shows at the Second City. Well, we used the good ole paper maps to find out whereabouts. Now, if we'd had Ubiquity back then, it would look like this:
Yes, this works, too. We'll select a word, something from one of my news articles. And then, we'll translate the word (or words) to the desired language. Best of all, Ubiquity will alter the actual words we selected and change them to the other language!
Notice the marked word. It turned from English to German. Well, there's not that much difference between the two, but it works and it works great.
You do not even have to use the shortcuts to get to Ubiquity. You have a context menu for Ubiquity, right there in your browser. Simply right-click whatever you like, choose Ubiquity from the menu and then one of the many possible functions, many of which we have already seen above.
If you get lost, simply type help in Ubiquity.
You can extend the usability of your Ubiquity by importing functions from websites. This is pretty much like downloading any other content, except you download additional commands into Ubiquity. Needless to say, you need to be careful with unknown content from untrusted sites.
Similar to Firefox add-on installations, you'll see a horizontal bar above the web page containing Ubiquity commands. If you decide to proceed and download them (read install them), you'll be warned that you're trying to use unknown content from an untrusted source.
Mozilla are planning a sort of a digitally signed trusted repository, similar to what we already have with other extensions - and similar to Linux distro update procedures. And just for fun, this is what Ubiquity looks in Firefox on Windows:
Ubiquity is a really, really, really interesting project. It's unique, refreshing, and above all, truly useful. It saves time, it's smart and unobtrusive, it's virtually unlimited in its growth and customization capabilities, and it will really make the future of browsing into something completely different from what it is today. Here's a real change of creating a semi-AI tool that will serve you rather the other way around. Great job, guys!