LearnThe Future is One Ubiquitous Interface to the Web


Ryan Carson
writes on February 4, 2009

I recently came across Mozilla’s new project Ubiquity. Here is their explanation of it:

Ubiquity logo

“Ubiquity is an experiment into connecting the Web with language in an attempt to find new user interfaces that make it possible for everyone to do common Web tasks more quickly and easily. It’s a Firefox extension, so it works on Macs, Windows, and Linux. With only a couple keystrokes, it lets you use language to instruct your browser. You can translate to and from most languages, add maps to your email, edit any page, twitter, check your calendar, search, email your friends, and much more. All without leaving the page you’re on.”

I’ll explain why I think this is such a huge deal after I show you how it works.

Ubiquity for Firefox from Aza Raskin on Vimeo.

Here are some screenshots of it in action:

1. Inserting a map into an email

You can use Ubiquity to easily insert a Google Map into an email (using Gmail). Here I am in my browser, composing an email.

I then type Apple-Space and the Ubiquity panel appears. I type ‘map 19c Charles Street, Bath’ and you get the following result. I zoom in and adjust the map until it’s the way I want it (it’s a live Google Map), then I then click the ‘Insert map in page’ link (circled red):

The final result is a Google Map that’s inserted into my email:

2. Searching Twitter

If I’m in the browser, I type Apple-Space to bring up the Ubiquity panel. I type ‘tsearch ryancarson and biscuits’. This used web services provided by search.twitter.com to return results immediately into the Ubiquity interface. No need to actually visit search.twitter.com.

3. Translate text

You can select text on a web page and use Ubiquity to translate it with Google Translate. I’ve selected some text from a story on CNN and it’s been translated into Spanish. You use the keyword ‘this’ to refer to text you’ve seletected on the web page:

Loads of others

There is a mind-boggling list of commands you can use with Ubiquity. Some of the more interesting ones are:

Map, Email, Google, Wiki, Add to calendar, Check calendar, Weather, Tweet, Word count, Translate, Define, Highlight, Delete, Undo, Digg … and more (great write-up of these commands).

What’s the big deal?

Ubiquity is step towards taking all the power and information of the web, and allowing you to weild it the way you want. The way the web works right now is clumsy. If I want to insert a map into my email, I need to take the following steps:

1. Visit a maps.google.com
2. Do a search
3. Copy the map
4. Go back to my email program
5. Paste the map

That’s actually pretty hard. Google already provides an API to maps, so why should I need to go visit the site? It’s so much quicker to just type ‘map Bath, UK’ and then click a button. Bam. Done.

As we move forward, people won’t say ‘I’m browsing the web’. That’s like saying “I’m using electricity.” Using electricity isn’t the point – you want to do something with electricty. The web is the same. The data and services from the web will be used to execute actions like map, translate, communicate, filter, post, etc. I’m excited about Ubiquity because it’s a step in this direction.

It’s open to everyone

The amazing thing about Ubiquity is that anyone who knows a bit of JavaScript can create Ubiquity commands. The cool part is that you can create commands an other people can ‘subscribe’ to them. Here’s a great video tutorial on how to do it:

Ubiquity Command Development Tutorial 1 — Mozilla Labs from Jono DiCarlo on Vimeo.

Ummm … what about the money?

The ‘trouble’ with companies offering web services for free is that it’s more challenging to monetize. How is Google going to sell ads if you don’t need to go to their site?

Here’s how:

1. Take a slice of revenue being generated by people using the API. Example: The Apple App Store.

2. Charge developers for using the API commercially (it’s still free for non-commercial use).

3. By making it easier to search and find content and products, companies will actually increase the amount of people that visit their site. Amazon search integration with Ubiquity is the perfect example. Want to find a book? Just type ‘amazon-search book-title’.

A couple issues

Ubiquity isn’t perfect though. I think there are two primary issues:

1. It really should be a desktop app, not a browser plugin. You really need to be able to use Ubiquity, whether you’re using a browser or not. In the future, the browser will be the OS, and in that case, it makes sens for it to be a browser plugin. But for now, it really should be a desktop app.

2. Subscribing to other people’s Ubiquity commands is dangerous. If they decide to change the code to do something malicious, you don’t have any control. There needs to be some sort of trust stystem established.


If you want to learn more, here are some resources you can check out.

1. Ubiquity home page
2. List of Ubiquity commands currently ‘In the wild’
3. Ubiquity Google Group
4. Rey Bango’s list of resources
5. Aza Raskin’s blog – Head of User Experience for Mozilla Labs
6. Ubiquity Blog


Please share your thoughts below or reply to me on Twitter (@ryancarson). Thanks!


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0 Responses to “The Future is One Ubiquitous Interface to the Web”

  1. A Desktop App that does all this, you say.. Check out Gnome Do on ubuntu. Everything in you computer at the touch of a button.

    I use it to twitter, play media, search folders, browse folders, email, open firefox bookmarks, open documents, move files, rename files. It does everything you can think of, it’s insane!

    The twitter in particular is brilliant, simply press you short cut key for gnome do, start typing a sentence and it automatically recognises its a sentence and hit enter to post it to twitter or hit tab for other actions to do.

    It’s so good that I don’t use any icons on my desktop.

  2. @Nev Aza is heading up Ubiquity too. I think Enso pretty much died when he joined Mozilla Labs. Enso had a ton of bugs too. I loved it while I was on a Windows box though.

  3. If you want a similar program that works at the OS level, try Enso by Humanized. It’s done by Aza Raskin, Jef Raskin’s son. http://humanized.com/enso/

  4. Wow, that was a good read!

  5. @Jon – Thanks! Glad you enjoyed the talk. I agree, voice would be even more amazing than text.

  6. @redeye Quicksilver’s developer has put his code on Google code, not “jumped ship to Google”. Google code is just a project repo, like SourceForge.

  7. Ryan,

    I enjoyed your talk on Ubiquity at #bathcamp last night.

    I’ve been using it for a few months now, mainly to manage my rememberthemilk todos.

    I think the real power of Ubiquity (or its ilk) will come if they can combine the natural language recognition with speech recognition.

    Just imagine being able to say, “calendar lunch with Ryan at 1pm on Friday”, and having Ubiquity insert the appointment into gcal. Really exciting.

  8. @Ryan – lucky you!
    Wired, firefox didn’t find any updates for Ubiquity, and This page (first on google for “Ubiquity”) Does not mention 0.2 at all.

    ubiquity.mozilla.com is dead (google’s cache as well), so I’ll have to keep wondering if there’s a “whats new” list, until it comes up…

  9. Hey everyone, thanks for the comments. We absolutely agree that the power of Ubiquity comes from being, well, ubiquitous; outside the browser.

  10. @Adam – I’m using the 0.2 beta and it’s sweet.

  11. Ubiquity is one of those things that make you look forward to 2020:)
    right now its a fun experiment, but I can only imagine how easy and fast life could be with this idea fully developed.

    BTW, Mozilla describes it as Ubiquity 0.1, which is intended to spark the minds of developers. I assume version 1.0 would probably rock much harder, especially with many more scripts, commands and integrations.

  12. I meant to say Quicksilver not Sliverlight!

  13. Wow, that’s amazing! I’m hooked already! The video explanation is so true when highlighting some of the stagnant barriers we still accept when stripping data out of web pages into other services. Ubiquity coupled with Silverlight app launcher and I’m in total wayfinding productive heaven! A very good example of truly mashing up the datasphere in realtime.

  14. Sounds like this is Quicksilver for your browser.

  15. Singularity, open enterprise, user-centric networks, value clouds: This all deals with the same logic: open up the web. The problem is how do you generate cash from an open web?

    It’s counter-intuitive for most investors, thus you have the Facebooks driving you to do EVERYTHING on their platform with apps, imports, and photo editing, etc. Because THEY want to make “information sharing even easier” but within their own ‘SILO.’

    Yes, they recognize other companies: importing feeds from Yelp or Hulu, or last.fm onto your news feed is great business; but, it’s limited.

    Mozilla’s new project Ubiquity is seriously amazing. And as it stands, I feel it’d make a GREAT Adobe Air application.

    The more you make commerce user-centric, the greater transparency of information. As this happens, a continuing paradigm shift must move away from the company-centric logic that encapsulates monetizing your business model.

    The product or utility is free, but the BRAND increases in value, leaving it open to what Carson says: charging companies to utilize it. It’s what Twitter is going to do…Charge DELL for its windfall on Twitter.

    This eyeballs first approach doesn’t work if you don’t go all the way. Digg and others fail at this.

  16. Quicksilver made the experience of using osx so much better. Ubiquitous looks like it could do the same for my browser. It would be fantastic if the two could be put together in some way.

    Great post, this kind of technology needs more promotion.

  17. Ubiquity has changed the way I use the web, from bookmarking pages on delicious.com to updating status via ping.fm or just plain vanilla searching google. The possibilities are truly endless and the fact that it uses jQuery makes development, IMO, much easier and rapid.

  18. I too started using Ubiquity when it was first ‘released’ a few months ago, and found limited use of it for a while. When I re-installed it a few weeks ago for the sole intention of quick bit.ly URL shortening, I found myself using it a whole lot more.

    I use the translate function almost hourly, since I see lots of tweets and such come through in separate languages. It’s nice to have the text translated right onto the page.

    The define function is also nice, for those who feel it necessary to use words only 1% of the population knows.


  19. Ubiquity is very neat and useful (but slows my browser way down). Take a look at the Aurora concept videos – Ubiquity seems a small step in that direction.


  20. The closer we inch to the singularity, the less options I see for making money on the web.

    As hard as good products are to find, once something is done nearly perfectly on the web (Google Maps), it vaporizes monetizing opportunities for competition (look how many ads are on http://www.mapquest.com/).

  21. Great article! This is absolutely awesome! You mention the future of the OS being ‘the’ browser and a mechanism for interacting with content around the web – I think this is one big step towards that. I can’t wait to play around with it.

  22. Great Post, I’ve installed the plugin and I’m going to give it a try.

    I imagine if it did take off that Google, or the providers would want some form of adwords inclusion / banners on the interface much like other services like Windows live. It would also be great to have an api that code be ported to devices like the iphone and s60 phones.

  23. I started using Ubiqitous when it was first released quite a few months ago with a very limited command list, and even back then I was impressed.. They have made a huge amount of progress in the past few months and I am now a regular user! It does have a slightly steep learning curve (learning the commands) but once you’ve got them down you really see the benefits.

    I think the monetisation will come from transactional websites offering an easy way to search products (eg amazon). Coming from a ecommerce dev/marketing background this really starts to open the doors to previously unseen streams of traffic.

    This form of ‘browsing’ really begins to define the lines between design and data, a line that in recent times has become blurred.

    Really look forward to future development of this project!

  24. Hmm… Not sure that I want this in my browser. I’d like it in my OS, so I agree with you there – like Quicksilver on the Mac (or the new Google version seeing as the Quicksilver developer has jumped to Google).

    The general idea though is fantastic which is why the Quicksilver fanatics can no longer use anything else.

    Is it strange how the interface to control something is slowly shifting towards real people as opposed to a few elite people’s ideological perception?

    I.e. We are all so hooked on abstract icons, pointers and the like, that we forget that the best way to interact is with speech and words…

    Starting to rant, best stop…


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