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Browser on Steroids

Posted by indroneel on March 14, 2007

The last couple of years has been an era of unprecedented information growth. In 2006 alone, 161 billion gigabytes of digital information were created and copied. Even if we were to take a small percentage of this information as ‘relevant’ and ‘useful’, it still is a staggering volume to digest.

If you are a power surfer embarking on an information safari online, the default browser that comes bundled with the operating system proves to be inadequate even before you start. To be sure you will need a variety of additional stand-alone tools, but first, it is time to beef up that web browser.

The Integrated Browsing Environment

Prima facie, this concept might seem an aggrandizement of a web browser with installed add-ons. The name itself sounds like a rip-off from integrated development environment (IDE, for short), a term many from the programming fraternity are familiar with, and the similarity is intentional.

In this article, we propose the integrated browsing environment as a combination of three distinct feature sets integrated with a regular web browser. In the absence of an integrated environment, these features would have been implemented as separate desktop applications.

  1. Web Search Agent: provides a common desktop interface to execute a query across multiple search services simultaneously. Apart from the usual search engines (like Google, Yahoo! and MSN), the agent also integrates with specialized portals (like Wikipedia, Amazon and del.icio.us) with more relevant results for specific contexts.
  2. Feed Aggregator: a desktop environment to subscribe and read news feeds (refer to my previous posting for must-have features of a good feed reader). With all major websites making at least one RSS/RDF/ATOM feed available, content syndication has become the preferred way to gather information online. In such cases, web search plays a secondary role by providing support to branch-out into related data.
  3. Internet Clipbook: an application to maintain a collection of Web page snippets, documents and links organized for easy browsing and quick accessibility (refer to my previous posting for more details). Given the dynamic and transient nature of online information, this tool comes extremely useful both as a research aid and as a content repository for long-term storage.

Note that the above features are for very basic power browsing needs. Additional capabilities like collaborative browsing, web development support and site integration to name a few, have been omitted from this list.

The Base Platform

We shall adopt Mozilla Firefox browser as the base platform to build our integrated browsing environment. The reasons for this are manifold. To begin with, it is a free browser with publicly available sources. The browser is cross-platform with binaries available for both Windows and Linux platforms. The implementation is primarily through XUL and Javascript, both of which are easy to work with apart from being W3C/Internet standards. Finally, the extension mechanisms provided are well-defined, simple and support the inclusion of a wide variety of additional features.

The target version of Firefox chosen for the base platform is 2.0.0.2. For Windows platform, a portable distribution available from PortableApps is used. This gives the additional advantage of hosting the browsing environment and associated data on a removable media (USB drive or flash disk) without installation on multiple machines.

The following are the extensions you need to install for the power browsing features mentioned previously. All extensions are available from the Mozilla addon site.

  1. Groowe Search Toolbar: Provides you with common query interface across multiple search engines, shopping sites, download sites, knowledge bases, tagging and bookmarking repositories.
  2. Sage and Wizz RSS: Feed reading extensions that use the live bookmarks feature in Firefox to maintain feed lists. Having both readers installed within the same browsing environment gives the additional advantage of working with two separate sets of feed information simultaneously. Note that the feed lists are interoperable across both the readers.
  3. Scrapbook: Allows you to capture entire pages, fragments of a page and links to Internet resources and store the same as part of local profile information. The captured pages and links are classified into a familiar tree-like folder hierarchy. Addtional features include maintenance of multiple scrapbooks, export/import and basic editing of captured information.

Accessibility and Usability

In addition to power browsing features, you may extend the integrated browsing environment with some usability niceties to provide a better surfing experience.

  1. All-in-One Sidebar: Gives you a vertical toolbar anchored along the sides of the main browser window. You can use this toolbar to switch between multiple sidebar extensions, e.g. Sage, Wizz RSS and Scrapbook.
  2. Multi Sidebar: Allows you to open upto four sidebars simultaneously. The sidebars are anchored to the left, right, top and bottom of the main browsing window.

Putting It All Together

A picture is worth a thousand words. Here is a snapshot of my integrated browsing environment after installation of required extensions. Click on the image to get a larger preview.

Integrated Browsing Environment (Thumbnail)

The chosen theme is called “Looks Familiar” and is available for download from the Mozilla addon site. Note that you need to customize the toolbars and configure the extensions installed to get a similar look as the one shown in the preview.

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4 Responses to “Browser on Steroids”

  1. apoorv said

    Nice post and nice blog. It’d be nice if you posted the URLs of extensions – that’s save time for many folks 🙂

  2. […] FireFox and Thunderbird: Web browser and email client. See my previous posting, ‘Browser on Steroids’, to setup and configure FireFox for a more productive surfing […]

  3. Home said

    This is very nice and informative post. I have bookmarked your site in order to find out your post in the future.

  4. Sports Illustrated

    I couldn’t understand some parts of this article, but it sounds interesting

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