Mozilla Jetpack Gets an Update

Mozilla Labs is continuing in its quest to make it as easy to extend the browser as it is to write a Web page. The latest update to Jetpack came out this week, and brought a few new APIs and a gallery of community contributed Jetpacks. There's been quite a bit of progress, but Jetpack isn't quite there just yet.

Plenty of activity going on at Mozilla Labs these days. The latest release out is an update to Jetpack 0.6 that adds two new APIs, a slew of bugfixes, and a gallery of Jetpacks.

A quick reminder, since Jetpack hasn’t been around that long. We covered Jetpack back in June, and it’s improved quite a bit since then. Jetpack is a way to extend Firefox using HTML, JavaScript, and CSS without a need for developers to get into the browser chrome. As an added bonus, since Jetpacks don’t get into the “guts” of Firefox, installing a Jetpack doesn’t even require a restart of the browser (though the Jetpack extension itself does require this).

What’s New?

One of the big additions in 0.6 is the ability to easily create menus. This means Jetpack developers can whip in a menu item to the context menu or Firefox menus with minimal code.

The example given for deploying menus is the Jetpack Image Editor, which allows you to — you guessed it — edit images you find inside the browser. As browser features go, this is pretty darn nifty. Actually, it’s a tool to call Flash-based image editor Pixlr directly and edit the image in the browser, but it’s still pretty nifty.

Since Jetpacks are, essentially, mini-applications, they need a way to store preferences — otherwise users will always have to re-enter information on starting a new session, which is a sure-fire recipe for frustration. The other API in 0.6 is a settings API that allows developers to set up permanent or persistant settings — preferences, login info, volume leve, whatever.

Finally, the Moz folks have added a gallery for Jetpacks that promises to make it easier for users to find and install Jetpacks. They also have a link to “Jetpacks in the wild,” but (at some point) the gallery should contain Jetpacks that have been reviewed. More on that later.

The Jetpack Gallery

How has Jetpack been doing with developers? Not too badly. They have about 40 Jetpacks up on the gallery that range from tools like the Image Editor to Twitter clients, Gmail Checkers, and translation tools that you can use to translate text on a page inline.

Some of the Jetpacks are better than others. The Thumbtabs Jetpack, for example, is supposed to show a thumbnail of each page in a tab via a sidebar. It sort of works, but displays a bunch of jumbled/overlapped images on my system.

The Image Editor Jetpack is pretty cool, but most of the items in the gallery work better as proof of concepts that they do as compelling applications or features.

Security and Enormous Warnings

As mentioned, the Gallery is for Jetpacks that are submitted for review by the Jetpack community, and also by the Jetpack team. Reviews from users are posted publicly, but it takes a code review from the Jetpack team to get the “reviewed” status. Note to Moz folks: Change the name from “reviewed” to “verified” for Jetpacks that have been code reviewed — the two meanings of “reviewed” on the same page is a bit confusing.

The experience of installing unreviewed Jetpacks is suitably alarming. First, you must click a checkbox acknowledging that you’re installing an unreviewed Jetpack. For added measure, you get an enormous red page showing the JavaScript and warning you that it could do anything it wants to your browser including “email your grandmother your entire image browsing history.”

It also displays a big box indicating that there will, in the future, be a “social trust network,” so users can see if their friends have tried the Jetpack. I think it’s good that they want to warn users. It’s a sign of how many warnings we receive that they have to go to such drastic measures to ensure that users actually “get” the message. Since an inherent part of the trust model will depend on users having “friends” or trusted users, this means Jetpack is going to have quite a bit of momentup for the model to work well.

Jetpack seems to be moving along well, but I still haven’t seen anything really interesting from the Jetpack community — especially when compared to the broad ecosystem of add-ons available for Firefox. But the vision of making it simpler to extend Firefox is a good one, so here’s hoping the Labs folks pull it off over time.

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