Looks like the Mozilla folks are working on turning Firefox from HTML renderer to information broker. Using technology called "microformats," the browser would be able to link content in Web pages to the appropriate application on the client. Users would be able to click to add contact information on a Web page to their address book, or an appointment to their calendar, or translate an address to their favorite map. We can already do some of this now; Alex Faaborg, a user experience designer at Mozilla, describes how the tools will become much more powerful in Firefox 3.
Microformats are a kind of XML that describes content. For example, hListing is a proposed microformat standard for "listings"--basically, classified advertising. According to the proposal, hListing could be used to describe "items for sale or rent (cars, homes, apartments), services for hire (music lessons, dog walker, plumber), openings (jobs, volunteers, extra spot in a book club) or personals (people looking for dates, companions, roommates). The goal of publishing (and promoting) these listings online is to seek out interested parties, often within a limited time period."
So, rather than going to Craigslist, eBay, and other sales services to post something for sale, you'd post the listing to your blog, in hListing format, and Craigslist and other sales services would scrape the Web, find your listing, and include it in their service. Likewise, hReview is a proposed standard for reviews of products, service, businesses, etc.
Faaborg has a bunch of other examples of how microformats can be used: Mountain bikers could use microformats to share information bout trails, posting the content to blogs and syndicating the content using RSS. "Let's say you are creating a web comic, and you want other people to be able to find it. By posting your comic with a microformat agreed upon by the web comic community, the rest of the community will be able to easily find your work using a search engine."
Here's where there's an opportunity for Firefox 3, Faaborg says:
Much in the same way that operating systems currently associate particular file types with specific applications, future Web browsers are likely going to associate semantically marked up data you encounter on the Web with specific applications, either on your system or online. This means the contact information you see on a Web site will be associated with your favorite contacts application, events will be associated with your favorite calendar application, locations will be associated with your favorite mapping application, phone numbers will be associated with your favorite VOIP application, etc.
Faaborg's post has a lot more on microformats; it's very readable and easy to understand. Check it out.
Read/Write Web notes that microformats on the desktop would permit users to use best-of-breed apps rather than adopting an entire product suite. "Instead of using the entire product suite of a Google or an MSN or a Yahoo, you can instead use the particular apps you like most from not only big players - but small startups too. So say I use the 30Boxes online calendar - Firefox 3 would automagically transfer any (microformatted) events data I come across while browsing, into my 30Boxes account. And it could likewise put all my contacts into Gmail, locations into Yahoo Maps, phone numbers into Skype, etc." R/WW adds:
If Mozilla proceeds with this goal for Firefox 3 to be a broker of information, then that will significantly raise the stakes in the browser war again. Microsoft will surely follow and the smaller browsers will innovate around microformats to keep ahead. And it makes perfect sense for the web browser to do brokering, because information is so fluid and 'small pieces loosely joined' these days. There's a best of breed app for every data type - so why not use the best app where possible?
Microformats are an attempt to allow applications to talk to each other with minimal human intervention. That's 's been tried before -- most notably, Microsoft articulated a similar vision with its Next Generation Windows Services (NGWS) strategy seven years ago, which became .Net. Passport was a microformat-like technology from Microsoft for payment processing -- the idea was, rather than enter payment information manually into each site you buy stuff from, you sign up with one service -- Microsoft Passport -- and authorize individual merchants to go to Passport and download your payment information when you buy. Those technologies never took off, but the underlying vision is sound, and hopefully the time will prove right for microformats.