Aim For Mozilla’s Ubiquity

On: September 22, 2008
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About Chris Castiglione
Chris is an alumni of Universiteit van Amsterdam and the New Media M.A. Currently, he is the co-founder of One Month (www.onemonth.com), and the host of the On Books (www.on-books.com) podcast.

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The developers at Mozilla Labs believe that the problem of the web in 2008 is that it is “disconnected: information and services are far apart”. Basically: data is restricted by the web pages on which it lives. On the web, we are accustomed to linking from site to site, but what if we could link data to other data on the web?

Web mashups pioneered this concept of combining data from multiple web services into a single, more powerful tool. The most famous example: combining locative data with the Google Maps API. With this combination we can visualize Craigslist apartment listings, crime statistics, or our favorite jogging routes etc…  This is all very exciting! But, still doesn’t solve Mozilla’s disjointed web scenario because now the data is caged on someone else’s web site.  Mozilla’s Ubiquity attempts to quell this problem by giving the user access to data from a growing number of APIs, right within the firefox browser, but without having to jump to other sites.

With Ubiquity you can create your own user-generated mashups.  It’s a bit difficult to describe how Ubiquity works, you really need to watch the video or play around with it.  I think Scoble did a fairly good job with his explanation, “It’s a box that lets you ask different questions and get answers. It’s sort of like search. But far more powerful.”


Ubiquity for Firefox from Aza Raskin on Vimeo.

This problem of disconnected data has been around for some time. Vannevar Bush in 1945 recognized that the human intellect was not equipped to sort through and grasp the “growing mountain” of data available to us. He also had a problem with how people were accessing data: “When data of any sort are placed in storage, they are filed alphabetically or numerically, and information is found (when it is) by tracing it down from subclass to subclass. It can be in only one place, unless duplicates are used; one has to have rules as to which path will locate it, and the rules are cumbersome.”

Although Bush wasn’t referring to digital information, today we are still looking for new paths and better rules for how to access data.  And while mashups were a useful beginning, they nonetheless add to this problem by needlessly “duplicating” that data onto yet another page.  Ubiquity is user-centric, rather than site-centric.  It opens new paths to information by accessing web data without having to visit the web site, and it creates better rules with it’s natural-language commands (therefore, you don’t need to be a web developer to start creating mashups). For example, to map an address you type, “map”; to twitter it’s “twit”; or to generate a tinyurl it’s “tiny”

I see Ubiquity as a convergence of web services.  Convergence is defined as “the tendency for different technological systems to evolve towards performing similar tasks”. Convergence has been happening for years to our technological devices. A standard example being that of the iPhone: we no longer need to carry with separate gizmos (watch, walkman, calculator, camera), the iPhone can provide us with all of these services on one interface.  Ubiquity moves the separate services of the web to one interface.

As technology becomes ubiquitous it also becomes invisible“, states Kevin Kelly.  Kelly uses the word “ubiquity” often to refer to the proliferation and success of a technology. The idea is that through technological evolution we no longer notice all the small parts that make up the larger machine.  Whereas once Sears Roebuck sold electric motors as a product, now electric motors are so common, so small and so embedded that we are “unconscious of their presence”.

Mozilla’s Ubiquity helps evolve the web by making web pages more invisible, and of using the web as a larger machine. Kelly’s advice for the new economy of the web is “If it’s not connected , connect it.  The benefits of communication often don’t kick in until ubiquity is approached; aim for ubiquity.”

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