Tips & Tools

Running Web Applications in Their Own Windows

Ever since I switched to Gmail as my email application in late 2004, I’ve wanted the ability to run it in a separate window with its own icon, grouped differently to other browser windows on my desktop and without all the clutter of the browser buttons and menus.

I’ve been meaning to write something like this for a while by embedding an IE control into a WinForms application. But, for better or worse, I discovered I don’t have to – there’s a couple of pretty cool tools for both Windows and OS X that do exactly this.

Both work in a similar fashion. To create a “Site Specific Browser” in Fluid, you specify a URL, a name, an icon and where to create the application (typically in the “Applications” folder). In Prism, you specify a URL, a name, where to put shortcuts and which browser bits to show/enable (e.g. status bar).

I’ve set up Gmail using both tools and its working great. Chris Ivarson has a great Gmail icon for Fluid (scroll to the bottom of the page to get it):

So Gmail is now finally a first-class citizen on my desktop, a richly deserved position.

These types of tools fascinate me because they reflect the ever-growing use of web applications as opposed to desktop applications for everyday computing. On the software-side, AJAX has so far been the primary reason for this, but Silverlight and Adobe AIR are blurring the lines even further. On the infrastructure-side, broadband and faster hardware have been the main catalysts, but access to cheap and reliable server-side computing resources such as Amazon’s S3 and EC2 are giving application developers unprecedented ability to scale elegantly. Throw in to the mix innovative web services from the likes of Google and Flickr and we have a wondefully-rich array of tools and technologies to build web applications with.

This is an exciting time indeed to be a web developer and to be a part of the future of computing!