Ambient Information in the Browser
My browser knows a lot about me. It knows what I’m typing, what I buy, what websites I go to and how often, my calendar, and with whom I communicate. In fact, my computer probably knows more about me than I do myself. Yet, despite the wealth of information about my interests and habits, my browser rarely uses that knowledge to make my life easier.
In Mozilla Labs, we’ve been starting to think about how to harness the data the browser has to make your browsing experience better—while also maintaining privacy and security. We are particularly interested in “ambient” use of this information. That is, we don’t want to add extra features to the browser that require interaction. The data should be able to gracefully enhance our browsing experience without getting in our way.
Take, for example, RSS feeds. Despite being widely evangelized, RSS is still a technology mainly for the technorati. Why is that? Because it is a technology that is meant for consumption by computers instead of humans, and (more importantly) there is a high time-cost of setting up an RSS reader and populating it with feeds.
My browser knows which sites I visit frequently and which sites I check compulsively. Instead of manually having to subscribe to an RSS feed, the browser should augment my experience with the information it knows I want. By doing so, it takes the power of RSS and bite-sized updates and pushes it mainstream. It gracefully enhances my online experience — helping to reduce information overload, without bothering me.
Where should we display this information? Well, there’s that tempting giant white area displayed every time a new tab is opened…
There are other ways that the browser can use ambient information to silently enhance my browsing experience. The Awesome Bar is currently the best example of using information in an ambient way to enhance the browsing experience by tailoring its behavior, in a more or less tacit way, to my own. There are others. My browser knows where I read my web-mail; why not bubble the number of unread messages up into the interface (a sort of mail-pressure indicator)? My browser knows which tabs I’m switching between frequently; why not use that information to make my workflow more efficient? Why not pre-fetch the pages I visit often, and pre-render them so that my standard browsing actions become instant-fast? The browser knows I visit certain sites in the morning, and different sites in the evening. There’s something that the browser should do with that information.
One of my favorite uses of tacit use of such information is in Bret Victor’s Bart Widget, which learns where you are going from and to every day. It does this by silently watching your behavior; if you are traveling to East Bay in the morning and back to San Francisco in the evening, when you launch the widget it will default to showing the train information you most likely want.
We should be doing this kind of no-cost action more often in the browser. In Labs, we’ve got some specific thoughts of how to apply this in Firefox, but before we taint the thinking with our thoughts, I’d love to open the discussion.
How should ambient information, and all of the meta-data available to the browser, be used to enhance our everyday browsing experience?
UPDATE: Atul Varma has released Ambient News, which is a add-on that begins to explore the RSS idea from this post. In fact, this post was entirely inspired by Atul (which he says was inspired by some Humanized work we did for a company called OpenEnd—inspiration is hard to track…).