Microsoft made the biggest splash this week with its announcement of Internet Explorer 8 Beta 2, but Mozilla nearly stole its thunder with the announcement of Ubiquity, an add-on that allows you to insert data into an e-mail or pull information from various Web pages without a lot of navigating around.
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The example Mozilla offered involved a user e-mailing a friend to get together for coffee. Using Ubiquity, they could easily add a map to their message. Or, if they were searching for an apartment on Craiglist, potential buildings could be highlighted and a route plotted out by simply asking Ubquity to map them. The technology both mashes information into applications and pulls them information out (Wikipedia entries, e-mail addresses). It’s a great concept and a great name.
It’s just not really the way anyone works today. Some behaviours, like cutting and pasting URLs, is so ingrained that to really get users accustomed to its features Ubiquity would have to be, well, ubiquitous across nearly every major online service. Unless Mozilla took a different approach.
Think about all the data entry that happens in the enterprise every day. Now think about how many of those traditional, client-based processes have been migrating over to browser-based applications. The shift has made things a lot easier on the back end, processing side of companies, but grunt work is still largely grunt work.
Ubiquity could change that by creating easier ways to graph out sales opportunities in a memo, for example, or create a more flexible way for employees to bring up CRM data inside an internal portal where marketing strategies are developed. Over time, information workers would develop new habits, to the point where toggling back and forth between browser tabs or cutting and pasting would seem as onerous as simply writing and sending notes by hand.
Although it would undoubtedly simplify some processes, Ubiquity might also force users to think about content in a different way. A lot of the e-mail messages and other documents we create electronically today are pretty messy. Most people have a hard enough time just inserting an extra row into an Excel spreadsheet. Ubiquity, by opening up all kinds of possibilities for elegant confluences of data and applications, subtly encourages us to think more like developers. In a great Web site, for example, navigation should be so intuitive as to be effortless, but that effortlessness takes a lot of pre-planning and thought. Once you can add maps, reviews, or other disparate pieces of information, you are immediately becoming more involved in the user experience of the recipient of that e-mail message or Web page.
We don’t really “design” information right now because we have never been given the proper tools. Ubiquity may be among the first of those tools, which means form will be as important in its relationship to content as ever.