Why FireFox's Ubiquity could be a game changer

Mozilla, the people behind FireFox, have tentatively released a new plugin called Ubiquity out into the wild.  One fairly humble blog post on the Mozilla Lab’s Blog is, in my opinion, going to change the way we all think about the web.

What is Ubiquity?

The quick way of describing Ubiquity is to simply say it’s a FireFox version of Quicksilver, the venerable OSX application launcher.  And just like Quicksilver, summing it up in one line doesn’t do it justice.  Not even close.  Ubiquity essentially gives you a command line for the web.  It allows you to perform multiple tasks by typing commands into the interface.

The power of this tool isn’t really exposed until you put it into the context of performing a task.  Take a look at this video of ubiquity in action to see what it’s capable of.

The potential

At the moment, Ubiquity isn’t game changing.  What it does, however, is lay the groundwork  for what’s to come.  Currently Ubiquity doesn’t do anything beyond what’s capable through FireFox URL Tricks (see the easiest way to convert a url into a Tiny URL here).  To people familiar with these location bar tricks, Ubiquity won’t revolutionise their life.  Similarly, people who use Quicksilver regularly have already had the “WOW” factor of being able to type commands in natural language and have the computer obey them.  FireFox users who are not currently using either of these tools will rightly be blown away by Ubiquity, and here’s why.

One of the biggest problems with computers is the fact that they speak a different language to us.  Making a computer do what you want involves one of two things.  Either learning a programming language, or learning the language of the designer.  You either have to speak the same language as the computer, and write an app, or you have to speak the same language as the app designer in order to sue their interface.  Tools like Ubiquity (and Quicksilver, Stikkit) make it easy for users to perform relatively complex tasks without learning anything new or different.  If someone wants a map of an address, they type “map address”.  If they want to then email that map to a friend they type “email this to bob” where “this” represents the currently selected object and bob is a contact from their address book.  Compare the ease of those two commands with the alternative and the advantages are obvious.

The potential for tools like Ubiquity lie in their integration with other services.  At the moment Ubiquity integrates nicely with Google’s services, which is an obvious choice given previous partnerships between the two organisations and the openness of Google’s APIs.  What Ubiquity needs is integration with a wider variety of services.  It also needs to expand on what it’s started with Google maps.  With Google maps you can bring up interactive maps right within the Ubiquity interface, you don’t have to go to the Google Maps site at all.  I’d love to see this work the same way with Stikkit, or my To-Do list manager of choice, or BaseCamp.

There’s also a great opportunity to integrate with Social Communities.  Twitter integration is already there, providing one of the easiest ways to post to Twitter possible.  Expanding this to cover FaceBook, Tumblr and the other popular services is obvious.  One of the great things about Ubiquity is that these additional services can be added fairly easily by anyone, and then released for consumption by others.

The challenges

It’s not all plain sailing.  One of the challenges facing Ubiquity is going to be convincing people they need it.  It’s a problem Quicksilver fans have been facing for quite a while.  Describing why everyone should be using Quicksilver is difficult.  Even when you show them Quicksilver in action, it’s not always obvious to the casual observer that it can greatly improve their productivity.  You really have to find a task that they do regularly, you have to personalise it to their needs.  And once you get them using a tool like Quicksilver or Ubiquity for one task, they will inevitably start using it for other things.

However, the greatest challenge will be getting it into the hands of those who could most benefit from it.  Those who maybe aren’t that familiar with the internet.  The sort of person who keeps hearing people talking about being able to plan events, get directions and manage their schedule online, but don’t know how.  Giving them a tool that allows them to create commands in natural language would be a real boost.

Have you tried out Ubiquity?  What do you think?

Note: As a Quicksilver user, I initially had problems with Ubiquity causing FireFox (and Quicksilver) to crash whenever I tried to invoke it.  This was down to the default key mapping of Ubiquity (Option and Space on Mac) clashing with a custom Quicksilver trigger I had set up.  Changing the Ubiquity key mapping solved this problem.  Please also remember that Ubiquity is in the early stages of development, so use at your own risk.