A prototype release of Webian Shell, a Firefox-based operating system layer, offers a look at the future of low-power browsing.
Slideshow: Mozilla's Web-Only Operating System
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Anyone who was around during the original browser wars between Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Netscape might remember the ill-fated 'webtops' that both Microsoft and Netscape attempted to create. In both cases, each company tried to build a kind of operating system shell that centered around the Web browser as the main or only interface.
These early webtops were both horrible failures that basically set the whole idea of browser-as-operating system back 10 years. But maybe they were just way ahead of their time. Because now, two of the browser leaders are once again pushing browser-only interfaces.
Now the competing visions come from Mozilla (descended from Netscape) and Google. Google's Chrome operating system has a big head start, with systems based on Chrome now being released. But Mozilla is working on its own vision of an operating interface centered around the browser. And we now have the first glimpse of this in a very early prototype release of the Webian Shell.
Like Chrome, the Webian Shell is a stripped-down interface that basically shows websites and applications--and not much else. However, unlike Chrome, which runs as the operating system on a device, the Webian Shell is (not surprisingly) a shell, at least for now, meant to run on top of existing operating systems such as Linux, Apple OS X, and Windows.
To a certain degree I like this approach to a browser-based interface. Unlike Chrome, where the browser interface is the only choice, a shell at least offers the option to escape to a more capable operating system.
However, what the Mozilla Webian Shell will eventually become is hard to tell from this prototype. That's because this early version is about as simple as can be. Not only does it lack most of the capabilities of an operating system, it lacks most of the capabilities of standard browsers, such as Mozilla's own Firefox.
Testing the Webian Shell is pretty simple. To run it on Windows I simply extracted the files to a folder and then ran the executable, which launched the shell without affecting my existing browser installations.
The Webian Shell is basically a browser window with a thin black bar at the bottom and at the top of the screen. The bottom bar is where open browser tabs are displayed, along with a Home icon and a clock.
Unlike in a regular browser, the Home icon took me to a launch screen from which the only thing I could do (other than return to my browser tabs) was click an off button to shut down the Webian Shell. A plus icon in the bottom bar made it possible to launch additional browser tabs.
The top bar in the Webian Shell displayed back and forward icons, the address bar, a reload button, and an X icon to close the current browser tab.
That was pretty much it for the Webian Shell. No options or other settings dialogs were available. Right mouse context menus were completely unavailable when inside the shell. And not all sites worked within the Webian Shell, including Twitter.
Sites using Flash did appear to work correctly. However, common keyboard controls, such as hitting ctrl-enter to add .com to a term in the address bar, failed.
In every sense of the word this is a prototype. The functionality is very basic and it is very hard to draw many strong conclusions for the future of the Webian Shell based on this release. Still, clearly Mozilla is interested in a Web-only interface and it will be interesting to see how their eventual vision differs from that of Google.
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