Ambient News

As some people know, it’s possible to get the latest news about our favorite sites on a single page through a fairly ubiquitous technology called web syndication. The advantage of this is that we can look at all the news we want in a single place, instead of having to visit dozens of websites per day.

Unfortunately, actually setting up web syndication can be a chore—and often, a confusing one at that. For instance, the way Firefox lets the user know if syndication is available for a page they’re looking at is by using an icon on the URL bar:

It’s that funky thing to the left of the star that looks like some concentric quarter-circles on a blue background. As Aza has explained in his post The End of an Icon, using a cryptic graphic can make it difficult for an end-user to know what the icon means unless someone tells them. So that’s the first barrier.

There’s more, though. On many pages, clicking on the aforementioned icon gives you a pop-up menu that looks like this:

RSS 2.0, RSS 0.92, and Atom 0.3 are all different formats for conveying essentially the same information. I personally have no idea what the differences between them are, and I imagine that most people don’t either. So presenting end-users with a fairly meaningless and intimidating question is yet another barrier to taking advantage of this technology.

But there’s even more. At this point, the user is presented with a page that requires them to choose a program to actually read their news with. After doing some research and picking a reader and learning how to use it, they need to manually subscribe to all the sites that they visit often.

All in all, this process is such a hassle that most people I know don’t bother using web syndication. I’ve only been an infrequent user of it myself; my newsreader tends to fall into disuse when my subscription list inevitably becomes out-of-sync with the sites that I actually visit.

So, in an attempt to solve this problem and explore the possibility of ambient information in the browser, I’ve started a little experiment. It’s a Firefox Extension called “Ambient News”, and its goal is to provide the user with zero-cost news about the sites that they visit frequently. The extension requires no configuration; you just install it and see if it helps you out.

One of the many great things about Firefox 3 is its Places subsystem—this isn’t so much a user-facing feature as it is an underlying engine that makes it really easy to create functionality that takes the user’s web-browsing history into account. So Ambient News leverages this to automatically figure out what sites you visit most frequently. When you visit them, it sees if they have news associated with them. And whenever you open a new browser tab, the blank page that shows up doesn’t stay blank. News about the sites you visit gently fades in, and you can click on any of it to view the new content.

For instance, shortly after installing the extension, I visit Planet Mozilla and Joel on Software. When I create a new tab, first news about Planet fades in, and then news about Joel-on fades in, which results in the following:

The Planet Mozilla news shows up before the Joel-on news because Ambient News has used the Places subsystem to figure out that I visit Planet more often than Joel-on. It can automatically access protected information like LiveJournal friends-only posts and intranet forums as long as I’m logged in to the relevant sites. And it all perfectly preserves my privacy, because the information that Ambient News mines is on my computer and stays there—it never goes to some company’s server for analysis and indexing.

Right now the extension is pretty primitive, and doesn’t do a lot of things that I’d like it to. But it’s good enough to start dogfooding and experimenting with, so if you’re brave and would like to try it out, feel free to install version 0.0.6 alpha. And if you’re a developer, you can check out the HG repository.

EDIT: The original version posted was 0.0.3 alpha, but bugfixes have been made since then.

71 Responses to “Ambient News”

  1. Blair McBride Says:

    Regarding the Feed dropdown menu – some sites use this to allow user’s to subscribe to feeds with different content (rather than the same content but different formats). This is the way I think its meant to be done. The sites that give the same content in different formats have got it majorly wrong. This practice is from the era when format support in feed readers wasn’t guaranteed – now it is, but unfortunately we still have to deal with the consequences.

  2. Da Scritch Says:

    The main problem is the number of formats : RSS, 0.93, RSS 1.0, RSS 2.0, Atom …

    On my website, I just present one, (and the format chosen is my podcast, maximum compatible via feedburner). Point.
    This is a webdesigner work and choice.

    Some of my friends are lamenting about lack of rss feed of comments, but this is a geek function, and even if my website is geeky, this is NOT a good idea to put it in the «head»→«link» section. rel=”link nofollow” can also apply in simple «A» tags…

  3. Ed O'Loughlin Says:

    Nice idea, but I think I’m not in your target market. My primary means of accessing websites is starting from my feed reader. It would be interesting if you could import an OPML file and use it as the starting point for your ambient news. I would presume the ordering would then be determined by the sites you frequently jump out to for more detail/comments.

  4. CAFxX Says:

    When I hit Ctrl+T to open a new tab normally the address bar is empty so I can start typing immediately. With the current version of ambient news, though, the address bar contains “about:news” so when I start typing it is appended to it… fix it and you’ll have sold one!

  5. Andrew Says:

    Very interesting approach, Atul. I will be very interested to see what happens as I visit sites over the next few weeks.

    Even if I never wind up using it, it’s totally cost free for me to keep it installed (did you fix it so that the URL ‘about:news’ is highlighted? that would have been the only complaint I had).

  6. Atul Says:

    @CAFxX, Andrew: Sorry about that… I ran into this problem too but put in a hack of a fix that didn’t work sometimes due to a race condition. Just fixed it, thanks to Ben Basson’s “New Tab Homepage” extension which showed me how. I’ve just posted version 0.0.4 alpha which provides a fix for this, but it’s also on the auto-update system so you should upgrade automatically if you have the older version installed.

    @Ed: Good idea, it shouldn’t be too hard for me to implement that. I’ll see what I can do. 🙂

    @Blair, Scritch: This was my general impression, and it’s a shame. It wouldn’t be too hard to implement something in Firefox that detected if it was looking at one of these pages that offer multiple identical feeds in different formats, though, and simply culled out all but one of them, so that clicking on the syndication icon just took you to the subscription page. Perhaps this would result in humane behavior for the vast majority sites out there, but there could also be some edge cases that break things?

  7. Atul Says:

    Andrew: It occurred to me after using Ambient News some that there is currently one thing preventing the extension from being truly zero-cost: right now it re-fetches and re-parses RSS feeds every time you open about:blank. The re-fetching uses valuable network bandwidth, and more noticeably, the RSS feed parsing uses valuable processor cycles, to the point that AwesomeBar search results appear slower than they normally would if the user isn’t interested in the ambient news and just wants to go somewhere. I’ll try to work on various caching mechanisms to speed this up, perhaps using the Snowl backend to do so.

  8. Atul Says:

    @Blair, Scritch: Looks like the multiple-feed problem is actually logged as bug 363968. I posted a comment to see if we can fix this.

  9. Aza’s Thoughts » Ambient Information in the Browser Says:

    […] Atul Varma has released Ambient News, which is a add-on that begins to explore the RSS idea from this post. In fact, this post was […]

  10. Bharuch Says:

    Issue with the Add-on. If your top visited site (or frecency etc..), then the add-on is gmail, then the problem is the add-on tries to load the gmail page. Fine so far. Now, if you have logged off our gmail, then it repeatedly nags you for the username and password. That made the add-on unusable for me. However, before that issue cropped it, it was interesting (I also noted that bandwidth issue) and .. I kind of liked it!. Email me if you don’t understand the gmail issue.

  11. Bharuch Says:

    Whoa! What I wrote makes no sense (the first line). It should read:

    If one of your most visited/frecency sites happens to be gmail, then the add-on tries to load the page/the feed from it. Fine so far. …..

    (sorry about lack of clarity).

  12. Atul Says:

    Ack, sorry about that, Bharuch–Gmail is my top ambient news feed too, but I didn’t try opening a new tab after logging out of Gmail. Just fixed this bug in version 0.0.5 alpha, current users will automatically be upgraded to it.

  13. Bharuch Says:

    So far so good. Thanks for the fantastic response (time). I look forward to other updates (esp the bandwidth issue). :-).

    Cheers.

  14. Bharuch Says:

    Feedback #2: A lot of time, I open a new (blank) tab, and about 0.5 sec later I’m double-clicking the URL bar and typing a URL. So, perhaps a delay (1-2 sec of nothing typed in URL bar, or 2-4 sec of not hit the “go”/”enter” to load a page) –> then the about:news loading would be better. It would temporarily ameliorate the bandwidth issue in the most common use case the URL bar is slowed (ie. person opening a blank tab with a specific URL bar to go to in mind is the most common set of actions after opening a new tab — this is an assumption that my browsing patterns are generalizable).

    PS. I wonder if there is spectator data regarding this. (The add-on installed from the metric people? from mozilla regarding UI habits. I believe).

  15. Abount News, un nuovo metodo per tenersi aggiornati sui nuovi contenuti del Web | Il blog che non c'è Says:

    […] Ambient News at Toolness But there’s even more. At this point, the user is presented with a page that requires them to choose a program to actually read their news with. After doing some research and picking a reader and learning how to use it, they need to manually subscribe to all the sites that they visit often. […]

  16. flashparry Says:

    Very interesting idea. I both like this and I don’t! The only reason I don’t is that it keeps distracting me from whatever it is I was intending to do, but I think I have a problem with distraction anyway. In fact I keep opening blank tabs just to see what it brings up 🙂

    A couple of thoughts:

    – I too get gmail as my top link, but never need to click it. The extension could demote sites that always appear at the top but are never visited via the ambient news page.
    – Not having each feed entry on a new line does save space, but I find it harder to pick them out.

    Great idea though, and it’s definitely staying installed 🙂

  17. Sander Says:

    Really nice idea, I like it a lot. I’ve one feature request: could you check the items in the RSS-feed against history, such that only items that I haven’t visited yet are shown?

  18. Greg K Nicholson Says:

    There was a bug in versions of Firefox before 3 where, if you opened a new tab and began typing quickly (or using a slow or busy computer), the first few letters would be ignored. This add-on seems to cause something similar to happen.

    Also, it’d be nice if about:news’s body element had a distinctive id or class, so the content could be styled from userContent.css.

    But this is a really good idea and, barring that bug and the network/processor lag, a very useful add-on.

  19. Aza’s Thoughts » Firefox Proposal: A Better New Tab Screen Says:

    […] One of the cool things that only the browser can do is have zero-configuration 3rd-party value-adds. Because the browser knows which sites you use, and whether you are logged into them, it can seamlessly upgrade your experience by providing services from those sites (like the ability to search your mail). No configuration required, yet no privacy violated. This ability is used in both Ubiquity and Ambient News. […]

  20. Matthew Maslanka Says:

    I really like this idea! It solves a lot of my hassles with rss readers in a very elegant way. Some thoughts: configuration options would be welcome – how many headlines to fetch, for example. It might be nice to have a link at the end and dynamically append an extra 10-15 headers.

    I also really liked the format of the Humanized reader. Would it be possible to restructure the display with that style? That is to say: Group topics by date rather than site, fetch the (say) first 100 words of the post and have an automatic scroll at the end of the page? That would probably be my ideal newsreader.

    Fantastic work and a great idea. I look forward to seeing future updates!

  21. Mozilla Labs » Blog Archive » New Tab Concepts Says:

    […] second is Atul Varma’s Ambient News, an experiment into how Firefox could learn from your habits to give you the news you care about in […]

  22. Jimmy Says:

    I know this is a very rare case, but something that should be easy to fix. I visit smashing magazine, and right now they have an article called the contest. (if this shows a line its the hr html tag) And right now in ambient that shows up as the html element hr not the the text. So all titles should probably be escaped. Again i know its not very frequent, but not a hard fix.

  23. dria Says:

    This is really neat. Four things:

    1) When i open a new tab I usually do so for a specific purpose (which is what you’re trying to help with here), but I find myself often getting distracted by the fade-in list and forgetting why I opened the tab. So far, more often than not, the page I’ve opened the tab to go to hasn’t been on the list, so it’s almost working against me in that regard. On the other hand, it seems to have incredible potential as a “river of news” sort of thing.

    2) I would love to have slightly-faded-but-still-in-colour favicons before each site name in the list. I’m growing increasingly reliant on favicons to help me quickly scan for and identify sites, and they’d be super useful in this application.

    3) I would also love to be able to “pin” certain sites to be at the top of the list regardless of where they actually show up according to frecency. If Firefox had any idea what items I viewed and read in my feedreader this would be less of an issue, but because I do read so much in my feedreader, my Firefox history doesn’t generally reflect what I actually read/view via feeds.

    Aside: If we could figure out how I could use Firefox instead of an external feedreader app for that stuff, that would be insanely awesome. Right now it’s just not possible. I use Vienna and I subscribe to hundreds of feeds and read/scan thousands of items every day. I have yet to find anything else even remotely capable of handling that volume in a manageable way.

    4) I’m not sure if it’s possible, but if there were a way to indicate whether a site has new content since the last time I visited it that would be useful to me as well. Also, if new content had an impact on the order in which things were displayed (ie: only show sites with new content, or list sites with new content first, etc) that would make it easier to skim through and see what’s worth looking at.

    Really, I think what I’d like would almost be a combination of this, Aza’s idea, and Edilee’s idea — nice big fat in-page awesomebar across the top, Ambient News giving me a nice clean river of news in a wide column beneath that, and Edilee’s ambient speed-dial list as a narrow column beside that. I think that would cover the majority of things I generally want to do with a new tab.

  24. Guillermo Movia Says:

    Really nice idea. It could be possible to make a mix (or two column) with some subscribed sites and the not subscribed sites?

    I support the number 3 of Deb’s post.

    Thanks!

  25. Mike Beltzner Says:

    Hey Atul; I’ve started playing with this, and it’s super hot. I think we can do a lot of thinking about how we tune the ambient sources (I get a lot of wiki feeds; that’s a personal use case, but I think there might be some optimization to be had here) based on reaching out to figure out what feeds are updated more frequently than others, and giving preference to bookmarked feeds, etc.

    The fade-in part of the UI is an elegant aspect that, IMO, shouldn’t be overlooked. It makes it *feel* ambient, and also gives the sensation that the browser is looking for things to help the user. It’s interesting to me that if the system had plopped everything down at once, it would feel like overload. The page slowly and peacefully filling up … is gorgeous.

  26. bill Says:

    This is great. Thanks! Well, it would be nice to have some configuration options: number of feeds, etc. Still very cool.

  27. Mike Says:

    How does it figure which pages I like? I just installed it and its just showing pages of other tabs that are open?

    Awesome bar and FF bookmarks tracks how many times you visit a bookmark. It seems that information should be used in some way.

    I sure hope that as I use it more it doesn’t just show me info from the other tabs that I have open…

    Pretty cool. Though. I’m not convinced that I like the zero-configuration though. I have preferences.

  28. Ambient News is how Firefox extensions s … « Paul M. Watson Says:

    […] pm on August 26, 2008 | # | Tags: web Ambient News is how Firefox extensions should work. No setup, no typing in data that the browser already has and […]

  29. Mike Says:

    There are times where a single page contains more than one RSS feed. Is there an option to select which feed to use?

    ie. http://lifehacker.com

    There are 4 feeds on this page, but only the comments feed was shown on the [about:news] page

  30. Chris Chandler Says:

    I like the idea of Ambient News, but don’t think this works for me.

    Like others (http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200807/google), I find that the overwhelming access to information on the web is “making me stupid.” For that reason, I made the decision to disable any notifications “pushed” to me with the exception of appointments on my calendar. No more email notifications, online status updates, news headlines, artist/song info, growl notifications, etc. etc. Doing so has helped me to dramatically increase my concentration.

    I open a new tab because I have a specific site I want to visit. I tried Ambient News and found that it can easily get my sidetracked and take me off task. Having said that, I really like the idea that my browser can observe my behavior and present me with information on what I might like to see. However, I want to see that info when I decide, not between tasks.

  31. AS Says:

    Nice idea, but I can’t download version 5a (https://labs.toolness.com/ambnews/ambientnews-0.0.5a.xpi). Did you block it?

  32. Philipp Says:

    The installation link (https://labs.toolness.com/ambnews/ambientnews-0.0.5a.xpi) doesn’t work 🙁

  33. Bob Aman Says:

    This is one of the coolest ideas I’ve seen in a long time. Unfortunately, the labs site is completely inaccessible, assumedly due to being hosted on the same site as Ubiquity-related stuff. 🙁

    Any chance of moving these things to a more robust location?

  34. Atul Says:

    Arg, sorry about the download breaking, everyone. It’s back up now, but yes Bob, I’ll be moving this stuff to a more robust location soon. Didn’t originally expect the Ubiquity Herd to make the 0.1 release.

    And thanks for the comments, everyone–all very good suggestions, I’m going to try to address them all as soon as some of this Ubiquity post-launch craziness fades away. 🙂 And contributions to Ambient News are welcome too, of course–even if you don’t like something about it, feel free to modify it to be something that suits you better; I’d love to see what others do with it.

  35. Vladimir Prelovac Says:

    You have such a creative mind and great tools to put that creativity to use.

    Is there a shortcut to get the feeds in the current window?

  36. Ambient News | Der MozillaBlog Says:

    […] experimentelle Erweiterung Ambient News versucht alle abonnierten Nachrichten des Lesers auf einer schlichten Seite darzustellen. Einmal […]

  37. NoWhereMan Says:

    really cool, I really wanted such a tool instead of having to use netvibes, google personalized and such

  38. bomfog Says:

    “Is there a shortcut to get the feeds in the current window?”

    Bookmark “about:news”?

  39. Brent Says:

    I have just installed Ambient News and I have a couple of suggestions/observations. As some other folks have already pointed out, this is really cool but also can be distracting. How about adding a button or option to turn the new tab feature on/off? That way if I really need to concentrate I can do so without disabling/restarting, but if I want to explore I can do that. Also, since the feature is about:news, perhaps one of the options could be a button you could click to bring a new tab with about:news into focus. In other words, not by default but by choice. I know that such options are drifting away from the zero-config notion, but it seems that most of us using it are not zero-config people. Here’s another idea: perhaps part of the extension’s default (zero-config) behavior could be to count the number of times that the user opens a new tab but does not choose any of the news links. After a certain number of times the number of choices would be scaled back, thus cutting bandwidth usage and load time,until you are down to perhaps just one button/choice saying something like “expand news options.” Conversely, if the list becomes too cluttered, you could have an entry saying something like “collapse news options” or “contract news options.”

  40. Matt Says:

    The idea of zero-config use of ambient information has a lot of potential to drastically improve the Firefox experience. Ambient News is a great example of that. I do, however, have two small suggestions.

    First, paragraphs are notoriously difficult to scan; the eye kind of gets lost and doesn’t know where to go. Right now, the only words on the about:news page that I have any hope of ever reading are the feed titles. The individual feed entries are basically just noise. I edited my copy of blank.css to make .feed-entry{ display:block } and have been much happier with it. What you lose in compactness you more then make up for in information conveyed.

    Second, (and yes, I do realize this suggestion breaks the zero-config paradigm) a blacklist for feeds would be great. I see two possible uses. First, there is the privacy issue; I don’t necessarily want anyone standing over my shoulder to see what websites I frequent. It would be bad if, when I open up a new tab in front of my boss, a feed from monster.com appeared. Second, I go to cnn.com all the time. Chances are that I have already read each of the items in the feed already. But because I go there so often it is at the top of my about:news page where it takes up prime real estate. It would be nice if I could lower cnn’s priority or block it from appearing at all.

    On the whole though, I think this plug-in is a very large step forward in terms of browser capability.

  41. paakfoi Says:

    donr know what i’m doing wrong but my new tabs only come up as blank.

    how do i get ambient news working?

    FYI, i use tab-mix plus and have ot set to open every new tab as blank

  42. Millorant la navegació per pestanyes Says:

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  43. Aza’s Thoughts » Firefox & Google Chrome New Tabs Says:

    […] the same thoughts we’ve been having here in Mozilla Labs, with Contextual New-Tab Actions, Ambient News, and Auto […]

  44. Google Chrome joins Browser Wars II - Mozilla Links Says:

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  45. l.m.orchard Says:

    I really like the idea of this plugin, but after a few days’ usage I think it needs a “veto” button on what feeds it picks & prioritizes.

    I visit a slew of sites by way of my feed reader every day, but I’ve also got a load of accounts on social sites like Twitter and FriendFeed.

    So, since I end up visiting my own profiles on social sites as much or more than I visit any individual site via my news reading habits, Ambient News has turned into an echo chamber of all my own profile feeds.

  46. Gustav Dahl Says:

    I have some problems with sites that contains more than one feed, like a gaming site with “News” and “Latest screenshots”. One of my main feeds only shows screenshots and not news. Another example is a site with a feed for the news and one for the reader comments. How do I choose which I want to see when I open a new tab?

    I also want an option to blacklist some feeds like Gmail. Right now it just says “Gmail – Inbox for [my gmail]” without any useful information. I use Gmail quite often, but I don’t want a live feed from it.

    Great extension, by the way. I really like your concept and can’t wait to see the new features. Keep up the good work!

  47. Chris Says:

    This add-on looks like it could be very useful for me, but even though I’m subscribed to lots of Feeds, all I get in new tabs :

    Toolness

    * · Ambient News
    * · Herdict: The Verdict of the Herd
    * · Tab Navigation: Tradeoffs
    * · Parchment on the iPhone

    This is when I set Tab Mix Plus to open “about:news” in each new tab.

    Am I doing something wrong?

    Thanks!

  48. Ambient News: The Movie at Toolness Says:

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  49. eyal Says:

    i get a blank page

    i have to type about:news in order to get it

    i do NOT have mix tab nor new tab homepage

  50. eyal Says:

    sorry, the problem was with an extension after all:

    tab clicking options

    double click on tab bar opens a new tab but its blank

    btw, with new tab homepage, tab clicking options works fine

  51. james Says:

    Hey I know this may be more of a weave thing, but I would love to see a website that could take this data and create your own page to visit. So I would not just be restricted to one machine. Like at school when I have to use another computer it would be nice to be able to get that data. Just a thought.

  52. Indispensable Firefox Applications « 8 Cents A Day Says:

    […] Ambient News: Automagically displays RSS news headlines from your most-visited sites in otherwise blank browser tabs. Zero configuration. Experimental but very forward-looking. A little piece of the future of the which has arrived early. […]

  53. Aza’s Thoughts » Firefox 3.1 New Tab Specification Says:

    […] Vladimir Vukićević. Special thanks to Edward Lee for the AutoDial add-on, and Atul Varma for the Ambient News […]

  54. Dino Says:

    Idea – have a scrolling text of summaries from the feeds subscribed to… at the bottom bar or thereabouts (like on news channels).
    I should be able to configure speed of scroll, expiry time of feed, etc. Full text must be reachable with a click on scroll.

  55. Ibrahim Says:

    This looks really cool and useful, could it perhaps grab new items from my Live Bookmarks though? I feel like that would be more useful for people who actually use Live Bookmarks rather than just randomly grabbing all RSS feeds from sites I visit.

  56. November Labs Night, Thunderbird Awesomeness at Toolness Says:

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  57. Ambient News: A Low-Impact RSS Reader « ArticleSave Says:

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  58. Ben Says:

    Wow I installed this and it rocks. Love the fade in, love the feel and look. I am a light RSS user and hate all the other readers I have tried. Please keep up the great work!

  59. Ambient News App - Blog - - VIMBY Says:

    […] be insanely useful and thus will soon be intergrated into every browser and application. Its called Ambient News and it is just a simple RSS feed relayer. What makes it so revolutionary is that it works […]

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  61. About:Tab (New Tab Page From Mozilla Labs) | edilee Says:

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  62. A better new tab page from Mozilla Labs - Mozilla Links Says:

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  63. About:Tab Sprint (Weekly 2009/10-2) | edilee Says:

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  64. Learning from Data… « Oatmeal Stout - Justin Thorp’s blog Says:

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  66. Pierre Says:

    Hello.
    I loved and still love Ambient News, but it seems to be broken with Firefox 3.5 betas.
    I know it might be because of the various New Tab projects, but i miss so much that ‘zero-conf add-on’.
    Is there a way to make it work with Firefox 3.5b4 ?
    Thanks a lot.

  67. Michael Says:

    The download link is broken! I had Ambient News on my old computer and became really accustomed to it. Great Job, but I need it back!

  68. Atul Says:

    Ugh, sorry about that Michael. I’m going to upload the addon to AMO soon so all this gets fixed.

  69. Atul Says:

    Actually, I’ve just gotten my https server back up, so that link should work, you’ll just have to navigate through an annoying certificate verification dialog box. This is because, due to a number of annoying reasons, the cert is now for secure.toolness.com rather than labs.toolness.com, even though both domains point to the same server. If you want to get the addon without the annoying certificate warning, try:

    https://secure.toolness.com/ambnews/ambientnews-0.0.6a.xpi

  70. Derek Kozel » Blog Archive » Identity and Contacts in the browser Says:

    […] knows what you do, at least superficially, through your browsing history. Extensions such as Ambient News make use of your browsing history to give you news which is relevant to you, based on what sites […]

  71. Willem Says:

    Any chance of getting an updated version that works on current FF releases?

    I still kinda miss this cool little plugin.