Drag and drop app development from Mozilla

zteopenOne of the things we get asked about all the time, whether from artists, community groups or bigger organisations is how to develop apps for mobile.

Usually the answer has to be ‘pay someone to do it’ – even though this can be an expensive process.

There are some do it yourself options – the App Inventor for Android from MIT springs to mind – but it’s fair I think to say that they still aren’t terribly easy to use, and of course in the case of App Inventor, your projects will only work on the Android platform.

Mozilla – the cool folks behind the Firefox web browser amongst other great projects – might just have another option in the works. It’s part of their development of FireFox OS, a competitor to Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android and Microsoft’s Windows Phone. In other words, a smartphone operating system.

The unique thing about FireFox OS is it’s use of web apps rather than native apps. What this means is that instead of having apps that are written specifically for one platform, whether that be iOS or Android or whatever, these apps work through the web, and so can be accessed on any device.

This also means that no one company can control what apps you decide to put on your phone or tablet – as they are all accessed via the web, the user is completely in control.

Mozilla is also aiming this work at emerging markets – in other words, they aren’t necessarily out to steal Apple’s crown. Instead they want to bring the power of mobile computing to those areas of the world where tradition feature phones dominate.

One early example of this endeavour is the ZTE Open, a phone running FireFox OS. You can buy one, completely unlocked, here on ebay for just £60. I have one, and it’s fair to say it won’t be impacting on sales of the iPhone 5s any time soon. It’s closer to the low range Android phones, such as the Samsung Galaxy Ace range. However, as a cheap, effective and open entry point to smartphones, it’s an interesting device and it will be fascinating to watch how other manufacturers decide to use Firefox OS.

So, how to make apps for this environment? Mozilla is working on that too, with Appmaker. This is at a very early stage in its development, but you can have a play with it. It gives you a drag and drop style interface to build web apps, and seems really easy to use, and could put the power of app development into the hands of pretty much anyone.

Of course, tools like this make developing apps easy, but I suspect developing great apps is still just as hard!

Here’s a video explaining more.

Link roundup

I find this stuff so you don’t have to:

Bookmarks for June 3rd through June 7th

I find this stuff so that you don’t have to.

You can find all my bookmarks on Delicious. There is also even more stuff on my shared Google Reader page.

You can also see all the videos I think are worth watching at my video scrapbook.

Bookmarks for March 13th through March 15th

I find this stuff so that you don’t have to.

You can find all my bookmarks on Delicious. There is also even more stuff on my shared Google Reader page.

You can also see all the videos I think are worth watching at my video scrapbook.

Add LGSearch to your browser

LGSearch

LGSearch is a search engine for the UK public sector that I developed quite a while ago. It’s built on Google Custom Search, and isn’t particularly clever, but is rather useful.

Anyway, inspired by Simon’s recent efforts on behalf of DirectGov, I thought I would make it easy for Firefox and Internet Explorer 7 users to add LGSearch to the list of search engines they can access from within their browsers.

Simply click here to install LGSearch, or visit this page to find out more about it.

How do you start yours?

Browser, that is.

I was rather interested to hear what people used as their ‘home page’ in their browser – ie the page that loads when you first open your browser. Firefox makes this more interesting with its tabs, which allow you to start several sites immediately, each one in a different tab.

Personally, I start with my webmail (Gmail running through Google Apps for your Domain), Google Reader, FriendFeed, and the admin dashboard for this blog. I asked others on Twitter what they like to use, and here are the responses I got:

  • @dominiccampbell iGoogle
  • @rohan_london my ‘fox fires up with gootodo list and googlereader. I then have facebook, twitter and gmail addons so I can scope updates
  • @simonwakeman gmail, blog admin, statcounter, ping.fm
  • @justingsouter I use Session Manager in FireFox, and invariably have web pages from previous browsing session…
  • @paulhenderson 6 tabs BBC news, Cricinfo, Bloglines, ruralnet|uk, delicious & twitter
  • @watfordgap igoogle can access everything else from there
  • @citizensheep With all the tabs I had open in the previous session. Usually includes Gmail, Twitter and MonkeyGTD

Interesting mix… what do other people use?

Create your own Firefox search plugin

The search box on the FireFox toolbar is a pretty useful thing, giving you quick access to various search engines and other sites, like Amazon, eBay and Wikipedia. It’s based on a Mozilla project called Mycroft (that being the name of Sherlock Holmes’ brother) and if you have a browse around, you’ll find plugins to enable you to search loads of different sites using that single box on your browser.

Well, I found out today just how damn easy it is to make one of these for yourself. You don’t even need to know any XML – the format used to code the plugins – just fill a form in on the Mycroft site. I did this to create a search box for DavePress, which you can install by visiting this page.

The form is simplicity itself to complete, with only one tricky field, which is where you specify the URL to use when carrying out searches. Here’s a tip for WordPress users, you need to input:

http://yourblogurl.com/index.php?s={searchTerms}

For a less-than-five minute job, you’d be mad not to. Might be a useful thing for local councils, government departments etc to do to make their stuff that bit more simple to find.

Better browsers, please

There has been a conversation going on in the forums of the Public Sector Social Media Community of Practice for little while now about the browsers made available to public sector workers. Most folk seem to be running something like internet explorer 6, but there is evidence that much older technology is being used.

This must be holding people back both in terms of being able to make the most of web 2.0 technology as part of the way we work, as well as using social web tools to better engage and increase participation.

To try and garner some more views on this, I have set up a simple survey using Google Docs to try and assess where we are with things, and to see if it is worth setting up a little campaign to get Firefox onto public sector workstations. We can dream…

If you are a public servant, or spend a significant amount of time using public sector IT, do please complete the survey – it won’t take five minutes, I promise.

Mozilla Messaging

TechCrunch announces the launch of a new Mozilla (the guys behind open source projects like FireFox, to name one) site called Mozillla Messaging. This site aims to ‘fix’ internet communications, firstly by driving the development of the new version of Thunderbird, a desktop email client that replaces things like Outlook Express on Windows machines and Mail on the Mac.

Thunderbird has never really taken off like Firefox, largely, I would imagine, because people just don’t use desktop email clients much, unless it is a heavyweight like Outlook or (bleugh) Lotus Notes at work, so there isn’t much to replace. Indeed, the success of Firefox in making web based email applications even more usable, like Gmail and the new Yahoo! Mail, has reduced the possible market for Thunderbird.

Still, giving the email app. a bigger online presence, out of the shadow of Firefox, is probably a good idea. Mozilla Messaging hasn’t completed replaced the former Thunderbird online places though – you can still get it from the Mozilla.com site.

It’s not just about Thunderbird though. In a blog post, the new CEO of Mozilla Messaging David Ascher says:

It is worthwhile considering what the right user experience could be for someone using multiple email addresses, multiple instant messaging systems, IRC, reading and writing on blogs, using VoIP, SMS, and the like. What parts of those interactions make sense to integrate, and where? I don’t believe that stuffing all of those communication models inside of one application is the right answer. But the walled gardens that we’re faced with today aren’t the right answer either. There is room for innovation and progress here, and we need to facilitate it.

There has been plenty of writing recently about email actually being the hub that links all of our social networks, rather than being replaced by them. However, I’m not convinced that a desktop application is the answer. Indeed, I would imagine that you can pretty much manage all your online social networks through Gmail in FireFox now.

Breaking down the browser barrier

The problems of accessing social websites is often discussed by government webbies, and I dare say it is an issue for the private sector too. How can we be expected to engage with online communities if they can’t get past the firewall?

However, a bigger issue in my view is the fact that even if one can access Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or WordPress.com, one’s ability to use the site is quite likely to be totally hamstrung by the browser that you are using. If you work in the UK public sector, this is likely as not going to be Internet Explorer, and probably version 6, if not 5.5. IE6 was launched in 2001, 5.5 in 2000.

That’s right. The vast majority of people are using a browser that is at least seven years old. Imagine what has happened on the web in those seven years. It’s unbelievable that we are still relying on this crap. I mean, given the moaning that goes on about potential loss of information that is often heard when using social web services is suggested, it ought to be quickly pointed out that the knackered, outdated browsers that are being used are a far greater risk than a document that’s being edited on Google Docs.

Anyway, the browser usage figures are pretty depressing, especially in the UK. Take this map of Europe, for example, which has been produced by XiTi Monitor. It shows the percentage takeup of Firefox in each country:

Firefox map

Yup, we as a nation are second only to the Netherlands in our slowness to switch to a better browser. Makes you proud, doesn’t it?

If we want to be able to sell social media and web 2.0 to people, we need to make sure they have the infrastructure in place to ensure it works properly. This links in partly to issues around accessibility, which Laura Whitehead wrote about recently, and also the potential digital divide. But here’s a challenge that could have a massive positive impact on the use of the web in the public sector: get your department to switch to FireFox.

What browser do you use at work? Has it caused you any problems? It’d be interesting to find out.