November 13, 2008

November Labs Night, Thunderbird Awesomeness

Last night we held a really fun Labs Night at Mozilla’s Building K in Mountain View, California. The Thunderbird team was here for their work week, some folks from Seedcamp dropped in, and Dion and Ben of the Ajaxian and the new Mozilla Developer Tools Lab were all here, which made for a night of innovative presentations that got lots of interesting conversations started.

The evening started out with Jono presenting a quick overview of all the currently active Labs projects while wearing a large sombrero. This was followed by Ben and Dion presenting an incredibly cool demo of something they worked on before they joined Mozilla, which wowed everyone in the audience. Personally, I was equally impressed by the way that they were able to literally finish each other’s sentences as a buzzer went off at random intervals, signaling them to switch speakers.

After that, Dave Ascher stepped up to present some really terrific new prototypes of Thunderbird user interface experiments. One of them, currently in the form of an extension called the ThunderBar, is essentially a Thunderbird translation of Firefox’s touted AwesomeBar: instead of showing you items from your browsing history and bookmarks, it shows you contacts and mail messages that match your search criteria in real-time, using Thunderbird’s brand-new global database extension dubbed “Gloda”.

Ascher also showed off a very cool prototype of a Gmail-style conversation view, along with a mashup of email data with the MIT SIMILE widget that presented a timeline of the user’s messaging activity.

He then explained that they were doing a lot of this new work using standard HTML rather than XUL, the XML UI language that comprises the UI of most Mozilla-powered applications. Among other things, this allowed the Thunderbird team to easily and quickly leverage the work of an incredible number of people working on the open web—an extremely well-documented and flexible platform used by designers and coders alike—rather than using what ultimately amounts to a user interface platform with few consumers and little documentation, tailored specifically for the functionality needed by Firefox and little else.

Coincidentally, this is the exact same reason that Ubiquity features as little XUL as possible; the command prompt is done entirely in HTML, and everything that might normally be a XUL window in an ordinary extension is done as an HTML page loaded in a browser tab. Aside from its many other benefits, using open web technologies in Mozilla client-side code also drastically lowers the barrier to entry for anyone to contribute to such projects, since it allows contributors to reuse skills that they’re likely to already have.

The Thunderbird presentation got me really excited about Thunderbird and its many possibilities; over the past few days that the Thunderbird team has been here, I’ve switched from to nightly builds of “Shredder”, the codename for the upcoming Thunderbird 3, and I’m looking forward to seeing this project progress. I’m currently quite addicted to Gmail, but I think that Thunderbird has the potential to far surpass its awesomeness while being extremely respectful of my privacy.

After some lively discussion about all this, we took a quick break and came back to a bevy of 5-minute lightning talks, powered by Myk Melez’s egg timer to ensure that no one went past the time limit.

Jono kicked off the lightning talks by presenting his explorations in the land of pie menus. This was followed by a presentation by Alex Peake on his new world-bettering startup, Vladimir Oane then presented his Seedcamp startup uberVU, a cool aggregator for conversations that span websites and web services. I did a quick talk on Ambient News, which was followed by an intriguing static HTML mock-up Bryan Clark made for conversation views in Thunderbird. Last to talk was Christopher Clay, who gave a presentation of, an interesting new service that lets people express themselves in a lot of different ways through the use of what appears to be an elegant, humane UI with plenty of support for undo.

All in all, I thought this Labs Night went really well, and I was particularly impressed with all the cool ideas that non-Mozilla folks brought to the table. Labs itself is meant to be a community of innovators, and in this respect I thought that last evening’s gathering brought us closer to what we’d ideally like to have: a place where everyone participates and contributes to the ongoing dialogue of figuring out how to make technology less frustrating and more empowering.

We just need to take pictures next time.

© Atul Varma 2017