Canonical Ubuntu Web Apps: Linux Innovation With 12.10?
Over the last couple years, Canonical has helped rewrite the face of desktop Linux through Unity and other projects. Now, the company behind Ubuntu wants to rethink the way users interact with the web via a new feature called Ubuntu Web Apps. But is this true innovation or simply a rehashing of an idea that has been around for years?
As Steve George, Canonical VP of Communications and Products, recently announced on the company’s blog, Ubuntu developers plan to begin offering Ubuntu Web Apps soon as a technology preview for users of Ubuntu 12.04, which is currently the most recent stable release of the operating system. The product will also come built-in to the next version of Ubuntu, 12.10, when it debuts in October.
Canonical bills the feature as a way to make “web applications behave like their desktop counterparts,” thereby creating a faster desktop experience and reducing “the proliferation of browser tabs and windows that can quickly make a desktop unmanageable.”
In case you’re wondering what that means in practice, here’s a look at the technology in action, courtesy of Canonical:
Prism, I Presume?
Integrating Web applications more closely into the desktop is all good and well. But my first thought upon seeing Ubuntu Web Apps was that they’re a remarkably close imitation of tools such as Mozilla Prism (which is now discontinued) and the Chromium Embedded Framework. Like those products, Ubuntu Web Apps basically just open up a dedicated browser window — which appears by all indications to be based on Firefox — to a specific website. It’s not really that different at all from pressing alt-F2 and typing “firefox gmail.com,” except now there will be a launcher for it built in to the desktop interface.
This isn’t to say there’s no innovation in Ubuntu Web Apps. Some of the features, such as the ability to store user-account information for web-based applications and to control online multimedia content via the desktop, are more or less novel and certainly cool. Kudos to Canonical on these points.
But overall, I can’t help worrying, as someone who really wants to see Canonical and Ubuntu succeed, that the company has dropped the ball here. Most geeks — and there are plenty of them in the open source world — may view Ubuntu Web Apps as a cheap trick designed to fool users into thinking they’re getting something unique, while in fact the concept is hardly new and the code behind it is relatively trivial.
But I may be wrong. Prism never took off the way Mozilla hoped, and the Chromium Embedded Framework is restricted by its dependency on the Chromium browser. Maybe this concept will enjoy wider popularity when it is built into Ubuntu itself, ready to go out-of-the-box. If it does, it will certainly help to erase the divide between the desktop and the Web, and enhance Ubuntu’s credibility as the cloud-ready operating system of the future. But first Canonical needs users to take the new feature seriously.