Ubiquity: The Command Line is Back…in Your Browser

By  |  Wednesday, August 27, 2008 at 5:17 am

In a real sense, the last major innovation in Web navigation happened back in 1992. That’s when Mosiac, the first graphical browser showed up, introducing the idea of moving around the Web by pointing and clicking on words and pictures. It works really well. But Aza Raskin of Mozilla Labs, the research arm of the organization behind Firefox, has come up with Ubiquity, a fascinating new way to use the Web. And it’s fascinating in part because its text-based interface is in some ways a return to the Internet’s command-line origins.

Ubiquity is a Firefox extension that works in Windows and OS X (Linux support is still incomplete). Install it, and you can call it up by typing <Ctrl><Space> in Windows or <Option><Space> on a Mac. What you get is a window that pops up above the Web page you’re on in Firefox, with a command line that you can type natura-language commands into.

Type Google and one or more keywords, for instance, and Ubiquity will Google for you, previewing the first few links and letting you press <Return> to go to Google’s results for the words you searched for:

Type Map and an address, and you get a Google Maps preview; press <Return> to go to Google Maps…

Type Weather and a city, and you get…well, you know:

Ubiquity is an open platform that Web service providers can add their services to; already, it includes support for an array of ’em, including Google, Yahoo, YouTube, Yelp, Wikipedia, TinyURL, Gmail, and a bunch more. If you’re a Twitter addict, you can Tweet from Ubiquity:

In a way that’s reminiscent of the Greasemonkey extension, Ubiquity can modify Web pages on the fly. For instance, if you highlight an address on a page, call up Ubiquity, type Map, and then choose to insert the map in the current Web page, you can turn this snippet of Google’s “Contact Us” page…

…into this:

(This is a nifty effect; I’m trying to think of instances where it might be useful, though…and coming up a bit short.)

Besides the command line, Ubiquity has a context-sensitive menu that you can bring up by highlighting information on a Web page and then doing a right-click. You can use this to translate information from one language to another, for example:

Ubiquity already has a pretty extensive bag of tricks, but Raskin says the real goal is to make it capable of doing extremely sophisticated natural-language mashups that let users take advantage of multiple Web sites and services without ever leaving the Ubiquity window. Here’s his mockup of a fancy travel command:

So what’s my initial take on Ubiquity? Mozilla calls it an experiment, and that seems about right: It’s a neat idea that’s worth exploring. It’ll be interesting to see whether it appeals mostly to nerds–as command-line approaches to computing have for the last fifteen or twenty years–or has more widespread appeal. I know I’m going to leave it installed and try out it out…and will keep an eye on it to see how it evolves.

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