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Unhappy with your browser interface? Create your own with Mozilla

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October 25, 2010

An example of a very simple browser application with page thumbnails used for tab handlers...

An example of a very simple browser application with page thumbnails used for tab handlers, built using the pre-alpha version of Chromeless

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In the not-too-distant past most of those who wanted to get online would do so using Internet Explorer. These days though, we are somewhat spoilt by the number of different browsers on offer. But for some that's still not enough - we need to personalize our browser experience. Instead of just skinning a browser to fit in with a particular style or mood, Mozilla Labs is proposing stripping away the user interface (UI) layer altogether and replacing it with a flexible platform where a user can create a new UI using a little web technology savvy.

Seasoned developers can of course modify the UI on many browsers now. Much of what you see in Firefox for instance - the browser chrome - is implemented using a technology called XUL (XML User Interface Language). XUL can be tweaked and twisted to great effect by coding veterans but other potential creative talents might find it hard work. Mozilla Labs has therefore launched a new experiment codenamed "Chromeless" that looks to open up certain sections of a browser to anyone familiar with standard web technologies like HTML, CSS or JavaScript.

The current implementation of the experimental platform brings together a number of Mozilla developments to present the would-be UI developer with a blank canvas running on an XULRunner application. But instead of loading XUL, the main part of the application is an HTML file with extra privileges, such as the ability to access JavaScript modules. This is intended to give the user the opportunity to create a custom browser UI in about the same time as it takes to write a web page.

Mozilla Labs is currently at the pre-alpha prototype phase where the application is capable of loading an HTML page and rendering a browser UI. Anyone wanting to get involved in the experiment is invited to download the source code and instructions from the Chromeless website and start tweaking. Feedback can then be given to the team through the Mozilla Labs Group or by using the #labs tag on irc.mozilla.org.

Specific application programming interfaces (API) that cater for more meaningful UI construction, and the integration of security features to keep Internet content contained within a restricted zone have been penciled in for the next stages of development. The final part of the experiment will be to wrap it all up in a set of development tools "to make it easy to get started with remixing the browser."

About the Author
Paul Ridden While Paul is loath to reveal his age, he will admit to cutting his IT teeth on a TRS-80 (although he won't say which version). An obsessive fascination with computer technology blossomed from hobby into career before the desire for sunnier climes saw him wave a fond farewell to his native Blighty in favor of Bordeaux, France. He's now a dedicated newshound pursuing the latest bleeding edge tech for Gizmag.   All articles by Paul Ridden
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