Of course, Googlers aren’t the first or only people to dream up the possibility of making web-based applications first-class citizens on the desktop. There is Prism (formerly WebRunner), a Mozilla project that launches a web page without any browser-related chrome. There is also Fluid, which does much the same thing for the Mac’s WebKit engine. These programs are all basically thin clients for cloud computing applications like Apple’s MobileMe, Google’s suite of tools, or any of the various “Web 2.0” properties that have sprouted in recent years.
Is (X)HTML/CSS really the PostScript of the Future?
The notion that HTML is a display language has been proven long ago to be a Bad Thing. CSS taught us to separate our presentation from our content, and the doors that opened when we did it were invaluable. Today, however, we’re still delivering web applications as HTML documents with a bit of scripting layered on top. This works, but is strangled by all of HTML’s limitations. Fundamentally, HTML is not an application delivery format, it is a content description language, despite the valiant efforts of the HTML5 Working Group.
Enter the red-headed stepchild of Web graphics: SVG
So if HTML can’t deliver for us here, what will? Microsoft wants us to use Silverlight and Adobe wants us to use Flash and AIR, of course. And Apple…? Apple ostensibly wants us to use HTML5’s
canvas. Both Microsoft’s and Adobe’s contenders are proprietary, which seems to be reason enough for web developers to avoid them to a certain degree, and all of them muddy HTML, which is a dangerous thing for the semantic web.
But Apple actually has a trick up its sleeve. Like Mozilla’s been doing with Firefox, Apple has quietly been implementing better support for SVG, the W3C’s Recommendation for XML-based vector graphics, into WebKit. SVG delivers the same kind of vector graphics capabilities that Flash does, but it does so using all the interoperability benefits that XML brings along for the ride.
SVG is great for graphically displaying both text and images, manipulating them with declarative visual primitives, and it comes with a host of lickable effects. Ironically, SVG was originally jointly developed by both Adobe and Sun Microsystems but recently it’s Sun Labs that has been doing interesting stuff with the technology. The most compelling experiment of this kind has to be Sun Labs’s Lively Kernel project.
Putting some Lively into the Web
The project’s page says that it
Moreover, since the Lively Kernel is based on published, open standards, it’s portable across any user agent that supports said standards, including Firefox 3, Safari, and Chrome. When Mobile Safari adds SVG support, the Lively Kernel will probably run on iPhones, too. Further, WebKit is in the infrastructure being developed as part of the KDE project, which is used as the basis for a number of mobile devices (like recent models of Nokia’s smartphones), and which already ships with a number of games that primarily use SVG as their graphical primitives.
What about semantics? Let’s have our cake and eat it, too!
HTML was a fantastic success because it’s really good at generically describing content in Web documents. Since both SVG and XHTML are applications of XML, we can mix the two in the same file, or reference one from the other, and literally get the best of both worlds. This is exactly what the Lively Kernel project promotes as well, since they say that
In general, one of our goals has been to leverage existing technologies as much as possible.
A marriage of “lickable” graphics with semantic content is precisely what we’ve been after for years now. Interfaces built with the combination of HTML and CSS just aren’t capable of providing fancy GUIs, but as this was never what that technology was designed for, that limitation shouldn’t be a surprise. On the other hand, every application has some data associated with it and if Web “mash-ups” have taught us one thing, it’s that one application’s data is far more useful when combined with another application’s data. Lucky for us, describing data and its relationship with other data is a natural fit for standard Web technologies like XHTML and RDFa.
One way to describe what we’re really talking about is linking the “semantic desktop” with the “semantic Web.” The folks at the KDE project have some interesting stuff to show us on this front, too. KDE’s latest release has made some fascinating inroads into the semantic desktop by providing low-level frameworks, collectively called NEPOMUK, for applications to communicate with one another, exchanging information about what’s going on and enabling the application to behave intelligently with regards to what information to display or how to supplement a user’s activity. By itself, as this Linux.com feature quotes Ansgar Bernardi who is Nepomuk’s coordinator saying, that isn’t anything new. But combined with the massive, distributed knowledge store that the semantic Web can unlock, a semantic desktop like that brings us another step closer to the realization of Vannevar Bush’s dream of the Memex.
With the increasing ubiquity and accessibility of these Web standards, a combination of semantically structured data coupled with capable display primitives such as SVG are clearly a core part of the Web’s, and possibly even the semantic desktop’s, future graphical design toolset.