Prototype reveals Web 2.0 features for Firefox

The Coop, a Mozilla proof-of-concept, would add sharing features to the browser

Mozilla’s R&D operation has unveiled a technology prototype that would add social networking features to Firefox.

Called “The Coop”, the project would apply social aspects — sharing photos, news stories, links and the like with others — to the company’s open-source browser. The proof-of-concept, which is as far as Mozilla has taken The Coop, would let users track friends’ contributions to YouTube and blogs, share photos stored with services like Flickr, and swap sites they’ve tagged. And it would use a visual drag-and-drop interface where friends’ portraits serve as targets.

“This is just one of the projects under the Mozilla Labs [umbrella], but we don’t know where this, or any of the others, is going,” says Chris Beard, Mozilla’s vice president of products. “We wanted to put out some proof-of-concepts on things we think might be in the future of the web, part of the natural evolution of the internet.

“Coop is one of our explorations,” Beard says. “What would social networking applied to the browser experience look like? We want to see what people think, but we don’t know where this will go. Someone else may take it and run with it, even create a business model based on it. Or it might end up as an add-on to Firefox.”

Behind any Labs project, says Basil Hashem, senior director of product management at Mozilla, is always the browser. “We tried to look at the different things people were doing with their browser. If social networking and sharing sites are what people are visiting, there may be some integration opportunities for Firefox.”

The Coop wouldn’t be the first effort to tie a browser to circles of friends sharing files or other information. The venture capitalist-backed Flock, for instance, has been working the space since October 2005 with a still-in-beta browser built on Mozilla’s code base. In fact, Shawn Hardin, Flock’s CEO, has responded to reports of The Coop on the Flock blog.

Said Hardin: “Mozilla’s interest is an enormous validation of the premise upon which Flock is based: That there are today massive opportunities to truly innovate the browser for a very large market and to support, simplify and enhance emergent online behaviour like social computing and social media.”

However, he dismisses any threat from Mozilla. “Prototyping is an important step in imagining new products and services, but the hard work is what follows.”

For his part, Beard simply denies that The Coop is an attack on Flock. “No, this is not a reaction to Flock.”

Mozilla has introduced other projects besides The Coop on its Labs site, which Beard characterises as “virtual R&D” where developers — both Mozilla’s own and the army of volunteers it relies on — can meet, discuss and argue. Those projects include Joey, which lets users pass data from Firefox to a cellphone; and Operator, a Firefox add-on that uses Microformats to collect and assemble information from multiple sites.

Even Lab failures are welcome, says Hashem. A project dubbed “Chromatabs”, for example, drew more jeers than cheers. “They were saying things like, ‘What is this, Las Vegas?’” says Hashem about the extension that coloured the browser’s tabs by colour for better recognition.

Mozilla is running its Labs on a shoestring, relying on existing infrastructure the company — an arm of the non-profit Mozilla Foundation — uses for ongoing development. “Labs uses Mozilla’s bug tracking, and it uses the blogging infrastructure. It certainly does not detract from the usual activities of developing Firefox and other applications,” says Beard. “Actually, given the platform and the tools to build extensions, the effort to throw together one of these prototypes is not that great. One engineer came back with [The Coop’s] proof-of-concept in three weeks.”

More information about The Coop can be found on the project’s wiki and in the Mozilla Labs blog.

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