2009-01-07

Snowl Futures

With Snowl 0.2 almost out the door, I've been thinking about potential directions for its future development, and I've identified three possibilities.

Message Reader

The first is the idea that started the project: a message reader integrated into the browser, which uses Firefox features like tabs, bookmarks, history, the awesomebar, the sidebar, etc. to present messages.

Internet users live in their browsers, and much of their messaging is web-centric (feed items, tweets, messages sent via social networks, etc.). A message reader built into Firefox can aggregate those messages, store them locally (where their recipients have control over them), and provide a unified interface to them no matter where they come from and what protocols delivered them.

And it can help users uncover unknown sources of useful messages, like feeds from websites they frequent and updates from social networks to which they belong.

Snowl's biggest weakness relative to web-based alternatives (webmail, web feed readers, messaging apps built into social networks) is that it doesn't persist messages to a remote datastore, so users can't access them from anywhere. But it certainly could do so using Weave, CouchDB, or some other technology for synchronization to cloud storage.

Social Activity Tracker

The second potential direction for Snowl is for it to utilize feeds and social network APIs to keep users informed about what their friends are doing on the web. In other words, it could take up the mantle of The Coop, the idea for a Firefox-based social activity tracker that labs prototyped in 2007.

Just as with a message reader, a social activity tracker built into the browser would be in a unique position to expose useful updates to users across all of the sites they visit.

Snowl would need some modifications to behave in this way. In particular, it would need to get better at retrieving and aggregating lists of friends across multiple social networks. But its architecture is already well-suited to the task in a number of respects, since social activity is frequently exposed through messaging protocols, which Snowl has been designed to support.

Better Feed Reader for Thunderbird

The third potential is to integrate Snowl into Thunderbird as a better feed reader for that application.

Thunderbird's current feed reading feature is based on the Forumzilla feed reading extension I originally started working on in 1999/2000, and it suffers from a number of limitations and archaicisms. For example, it confines its messages to a separate "server" within the Thunderbird folder pane, and it provides only the traditional three-pane interface for reading them.

Snowl integrated into Thunderbird could break feed messages out of their "separate folder" ghetto, integrating them into the stream of messages from other sources, and provide a variety of useful views on them. And it would bring Twitter messaging to Thunderbird, too. Plus, Snowl developers would gain exposure to some of the interesting and innovative work happening in Thunderbird these days, which could benefit Snowl on Firefox.

The biggest challenge would be integrating Snowl into the very different capabilities provided by Thunderbird. Recent improvements to Thunderbird's extensibility and support for browser-like features such as tabs will make this easier, however.


I think all these directions have potential and are worth exploring. And while I'm going to remain focused primarily on Snowl as a message reader for now, I'll be conducting experiments along the way to learn more about the other possibilities. I'd also love to see other folks tackling them, so if you're interested in doing so, let's talk!

5 comments:

Orrin said...

It would be nice if Snowl would track/read RSS/Atom feeds, notification services (twitter,identi.ca, etc.), Social networks (facebook, myspace, linkedin, etc.) instant messaging (a la XMPP) and also email () as well. I was thinking this would be great as an online service but if Snowl could do handle this, it would be even better because of the integration in the browser.

Anonymous said...

Feature requests, a little check box(and hotkey) to expand individual content, stars to bookmark items directly to browser.

Peter said...

Is there a way to remove sources? I accidentally added my twitter acct twice...

Anonymous said...

Integrating proprietary services like Twitter into Thunderbird isn't a good idea - who decides by which criteria which companies can make it into Thunderbird? That would be better shipped with an add-on.

Archaeopteryx

Myk said...

@Orrin: yup, that's exactly what we're going for!

@Anonymous: thanks for the feature requests, I agree, both of those make sense to add. I've filed bug 473191 on the first issue and bug 473192 on the second.

@Peter: in the river and list views, context-click on the source in the list of collections and select "Unsubscribe" from the context menu.

@Archaeopteryx: The developers establish the criteria, which they've already done, since Thunderbird already ships with support for proprietary services like Gmail (as does Firefox, for that matter, in the search box and other places). The general criterion is that integration of the service should be good for users of the product.