Four Services Inspired by Firefox and How They Were Built

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They are four applications designed to serve different purposes: A Web browser, a music player and organizer, another that does the same for video, and a word processor for screenwriters.

Yet they share one thing in common: All were built with a Mozilla-based toolkit, either the Gecko Runtime Environment or its successor, XULRunner. Both toolkits use the same codebase which runs Firefox.

Like Firefox, these applications are free and their code are released under open source licenses. None is affiliated with the Mozilla Corporation. Each is backed by an organization that plans to make money through its software.

Among this group, Flock has gotten the most publicity. Essentially, Flock is an unofficial version of Firefox with features added to make interacting with social, media and blogging sites easier for the user. Copying the successful business model that has worked well for Mozilla through its Firefox web browser, Flock was designed to bring in referral revenue through its search box.

Celtx is a screenwriting tool and filmmaker's pre-production suite. Its developers are working on several money-making angles. They are partnering with a film school, starting an online marketplace to cater to the needs of filmmakers, and licensing their server code.

"We took the approach of waiting to see who was using our technology before deciding what revenue models to employ. Now that we've grown to where we are, the revenue models are forming on their own," says Greg Dawson, vice president of software production for Celtx.

Miro comes from a non-profit entity, the Participatory Culture Foundation, but its developers are also looking to make some cash. They recently launched a co-branding initiative as one way to financially sustain development of its video application, which helps the user find, download and watch video content on the internet.

Though there are other toolkits that the developers of these projects could have used, the very existence of the Mozilla libraries--and the positive reputation of Firefox itself, in fact--inspired many of them to create their application in the first place.

"We were inspired by Firefox. Firefox was a direct inspiration to Songbird," says Rob Lord, CEO of Pioneers of the Inevitable, the team behind the browser/service. Songbird is a Mozilla-based application is a mash-up of a web browser and music player, wrapped in a user interface that bears more than a resemblance to Apple iTunes'.

He elaborates: "A lot of things of the whole Mozilla approach we really liked: We liked the open source, open standards, open web approach. We liked the philosophy. We liked, from a product perspective, this was a rich internet application platform that was being tested by 80-to-100 million active users of Firefox."

Using Gecko Runtime Environment

For the Flock team, building their "social web browser" with the Gecko Runtime Environment was a pragmatic decision. Trying to code a brand-new browser from the ground up -- one that needed to be stable, standards-compliant and cross-platform -- would have taken several years.

Clayton Stark is the vice-president of engineering for Flock, Inc.. "Other options were considered, yes, but Mozilla is the premiere provider of a truly open and free, cross-platform toolkit," he says. "Building our app from scratch would negate all the benefits of the work being done to refine and augment both the technology and the community that keeps it rolling forward."

The developers of Celtx chose to build with XULRunner because of this toolkit's cross-platform nature. Mac computers are used extensively throughout the motion picture and media industry, as well as Linux systems for computer animation. So the Celtx team wanted their application to run identically on all three platforms.

"We considered using platform-specific technologies, but didn't like the prospect of developing separate code bases for each platform," says Dawson. Additionally, because Celtx was designed to be a semantic web application, he adds: "We wanted to ensure that Celtx was built upon semantic web technologies. The XUL runtime environment provides us this with its support for RDF."

Web From the Get-Go

Another big reason why the Mozilla toolkits are attractive to these developers is that they are easy to immediately start using if one has the know-how for writing JavaScript, COM/C++ or XML code. For example, a person who designs web sites could probably use XULRunner to quickly throw together a user interface for an application.

"With just a little web developer skill, you're coding a desktop application that is 'web' from the get-go," says Lord. "When you code on XULRunner, you get everything Firefox is today and will be tomorrow, and you get everything that the Mozilla stack is today and will be tomorrow. That's a tremendous platform -- very broad and in some cases very deep, too."

This ease-of-development comes with a caveat, however. Nick Nassar, a co-founder and developer of Miro, says XULRunner allowed him and his team to create a rich user interface, but "it's slow and less flexible. Sometimes, things that are advantages in one context, like a cross-platform UI, can be disadvantages for another."

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