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Mozilla Prism Makes Web Apps Behave Like Desktop Apps

Business and netbook users of web apps will find Prism a particular time saver and it helps web app developers with desktop integration.

Business users can now access many of the applications they need from the Web, with no need to install them on an operating system.

But while this set-up brings benefits, it does have its drawbacks. First, these cloud applications live in the browser, so they can’t be integrated with the operating system in the same way that desktop applications can. And since these applications rely on the browser to run, they can easily get lost in the busy crowd of windows and tabs that can result from a normal session of browsing the Web.

One solution to this problem is to make these applications behave more like desktop applications, to have them run in their own windows, with the ability to launch separately from the browser.

Which brings us to Mozilla Prism. Prism is essentially a self-contained runtime of Firefox that makes it possible to take any Web application, from Gmail, to Facebook, to your internal corporate sales application, and have it run more like a desktop application.

Prism isn’t exactly new; it’s been running essentially as an alpha within Mozilla Labs for more than a year now. Even in this alpha status, it has been used as the basis for several popular desktop iterations of web applications, including the Zimbra Desktop.

But Mozilla recently announced that Prism would move to beta status, and it launched a new site for the application; prism.mozilla.com. With this move, Mozilla is encouraging more regular users to try out Prism.

Based on my tests, I would also encourage any serious user of web applications to give Mozilla Prism a try. I’d recommend Prism especially for anyone using a netbook and relying heavily on cloud-based applications, as the app can be a real time saver and can help with application organisation.

Using Prism is simple enough. It can be installed as a Firefox extension or installed stand-alone. For novice users, I’d recommend going the Firefox extension route; it’s a bit simpler; there currently is no install routing for the stand-alone version, although running it is basically as simple as uncompressing a folder and clicking on the Prism executable file.

After Prism is installed, it is very easy to take any website or application and convert it into a desktop application. For example, in one test, I simply browsed to Facebook, went to the ‘tools’ menu and chose ‘convert website to application’.

This brought up a small window from which I could choose browser interface options (if any) and where I wanted to have access to the application; on Windows, the options include Desktop, the Start menu or the Quick Launch bar. In most cases, Prism helpfully pulled an icon from the website I was converting for use on my system.

The site is still essentially running in a browser. But removing the browser toolbars and other interface options greatly cleans up the interface. Much more importantly, turning the Website into a desktop application provides more options for running the application. For example, in Windows I could create a shortcut for the test web application, put it in ‘startup’ in my Start menu, to make the web application launch on system startup.

From a business standpoint, these options can be attractive for making better use of web-based corporate applications. Furthermore, developers can take additional steps to utilise other features within Prism to enable capabilities such as off-line access and integration with operating system alerts and notifications systems; for example, showing a new mail pop-up in the system tray.

Since Prism is essentially Firefox, it runs on pretty much all of the same operating systems that Firefox does, including Windows, Mac OS X and Linux.

While I think Mozilla Prism is worth trying out, it is still beta and has some hiccups. It ran well in my Windows and Linux tests, but I did run into some issues on an older Mac OS X system. For example, on the Mac system, Prism was unable to install Web applications when it couldn’t convert the icons from the site.

Jim Rapoza is chief technology analyst at eWEEK.