Mozilla, the company behind the popular Firefox browser, just announced a very cool project that’s in the early stages of development — Ubiquity, a tool that allows users to access services like mapping, translation and search on any website. Earlier today, I had a chance to interview Mozilla Labs‘ head of user experience Aza Raskin about plans for Ubiquity, including a mobile version, improved usability and how Ubiquity could become a Star Trek-style supercomputer.

The interview includes a couple of explanatory notes in brackets.

VB: How is Ubiquity different from the products that are already out there? For example, I noticed that your vision for creating a “user-centric” rather than “site-centric” web is pretty similar to Vysr’s mission statement.

AR: There are three bits to that answer. I can sum them up in terms of community, open web and, er, some third thing which I have of course forgotten about. Um, extensibility. There’s a pretty big difference between looking at this from a sort of Mozilla standpoint and a sort-of startup standpoint. With a startup, you have to worry about revenue stream and pleasing your investors, which aren’t necessarily going to be in the end user’s or even the open web’s interest. What I think is amazing and wonderful about Mozilla is we have always put user experience first — you make the user experience the best you can, and maybe later look at how to turn that into a business.

[The Mozilla Corporation is part of the nonprofit Mozilla Foundation, but it also makes tens of millions of dollars from its deal to include a Google search bar in Firefox.]

What other people have done is not a thing that we talk about at Mozilla. It’s more about, “How do we get this groundswell and inspire people? How do you make this a fundamental part of the web and not an add-on?” And that funnels into extensibility. The key is enabling end users and content providers to not just enhance the web but also the browser.

VB: One of your goals is to reach an audience beyond hardcore developers. Can you talk about the audience for Ubiquity, and how you can make it easier for them to use it?

AR: It sounds like there are two parts of your question. One, who’s using Ubiquity? And two, who’s making things for Ubiquity?

VB: Yeah, I guess I mashed the two together.

AR: In terms of who’s using Ubiquity, this is really an experiment in starting to meld the idea of natural language with the sort of platform aspect, and this is something that I think it’s critically important that the community gets involved in. There’s going to be a lot of ways of exposing this functionality … and making this more available to the average user. With the 0.2 release you might see things like an option bar or pie menus. If you put your mouse over an address it should probably give you a suggestion, “Hey, do you want to map this?”

On this backend, anybody who can write Javascript can now fundamentally extend the browser using the API.

VB: What aspects of the product do you think people should be focusing on, since it’s still in a really early testing mode?

AR: In my mind I think the “map these” command is the epitome of what Ubiquity is about. Normally, when you visit sites like Craigslist they present info in any way they want to, which is fine, but you as a user should be able to see that information in any way you want. Before, if you wanted to see Craigslist data on a map, you had to wait for developer to make that website — which I guess they did with HousingMaps — but we should just empower users to make that for themselves.

[Users control Ubiquity through a set of text commands like “map these,” and developers can write the code to create new commands. Below is a screenshot of the kind of sophisticated text command you may be able to give Ubiquity in the future.]

VB: What’s the timeline for releasing version 0.2, and the 1.0 launch?

AR: I’m not really sure — that’s the great thing about being in Labs, it’s all open for exploration. We’ll probably see 0.2 in couple months range, 1.0 I don’t know. We’ll probably see Ubiquity technology in mobile before we see it in Firefox proper.
VB: Does Ubiquity have mobile functionality right now?

AR: No, but it’s something we’re thinking about, especially as [Mozilla’s mobile browser] Fennec makes its way to the cellphone. That’s going to be interesting to explore. And it’s a more restricted domain, which means there’s less volatility. We’ve already seen a whole bunch of people in the community say, “This is great, I wish it worked in [Mozilla email software] Thunderbird.” We’d like to see that happen, and get it to the point where it’s fairly, well, ubiquitous.

VB: A lot of the examples you’ve described focus on the functionality that exists now. Can you give me your crazy vision of what Ubiquity could achieve five years from now, if it lives up to its promise?

AR: The glib answer is the Star Trek interface — you jab your finger and it does whatever you want. The less glib answer is, well, that’s kind of true. If we fast forward even, say, 10 years, what would you like to do with the web? You’d like the web to augment your reality or your thinking. While you’re on the road, you should be able to just grunt and think, “What’s the latest Red Sox score?” and that’s sort of the direction the web is moving in. The ideas are there, the microformats are there and there’s this bottom-up approach to make these things possible. That’s our big picture.

VB: Is there anything else you’d like to add, especially if it has been overlooked by the press coverage?

AR: One of the cool things that’s coming is the ability to take Ubiquity commands and turn them into Firefox extensions. That makes it easier to extend the browser in a really concrete way, not a pie-in-the sky way. A lot of people focused on mashup side, but I think the other side is that I hope this both invigorates the web but also invigorates Firefox itself.

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