Mozilla Jetpack and the battle for the Web

An experimental Firefox plug-in makes it easy to filter, modify, and mash up pages (and everything else Web content providers don't want you to do)

Everyone who uses Firefox should be excited about Jetpack, a new, experimental project from Mozilla Labs that allows developers to extend and enhance the browser in novel and exciting ways. Content producers, on the other hand, might not be so thrilled.

Firefox already has a thriving add-on community, with more than 1,000 third-party extensions available now. But so far, developing add-ons for Firefox meant you had to learn XUL, the Mozilla Project's XML-based UI language. Jetpack will further simplify the development of add-ons because it makes possible building new ones using familiar, open, Web standard technologies, including HTML, JavaScript, and CSS.

[ Mozilla recently unveiled the Jetpack project to boost Firefox add-on development process. | Discover the must-have Firefox add-ons for IT | See which open source AJAX toolkits the InfoWorld Test Center rates best. ]

With just a few lines of code, developers can use Jetpack to add information to the status bar, create mashups, and manipulate the content and presentation of Web pages -- and they can do so using the languages they already know. That's an exciting development because it brings us one step closer to a truly democratic Web.

Free Software advocate Richard Stallman believes that SaaS and cloud computing applications are dangerous, because they force users to hand over control of their computing to whomever is running the server. "It is like running binary-only software," he says, "only worse: It's even harder for you to patch the program that's running on someone else's server than it is to patch a binary copy of a program running on your own computer."

With Jetpack, however, you can patch the server, in a sense. You can't actually change the program running on the server, but you can change the behavior of the program to your liking. You can modify its output, filter it, change its presentation, and even combine it with additional data sources and new layers of computation. You can even discard some portions of the server's output if you want.

That's great for developers and for users. But it's not so great for the SaaS providers and media companies that have a vested interest in controlling the function, presentation, and distribution of their Web-based content and applications.

Jetpack: The easiest way to take control of your browser
If you're familiar with the Greasemonkey extension for Firefox, you already have a good idea of how Jetpack works. Like Greasemonkey User Scripts, Jetpack-based add-ins are written primarily in JavaScript, and they manipulate browser windows and their contents using familiar AJAX techniques. You install them directly from the Web, and they don't even require a browser restart to take effect. While developing Greasemonkey User Scripts can be somewhat cumbersome, writing add-ins with Jetpack couldn't be simpler.

Jetpack integrates the popular jQuery JavaScript library, the Firebug debugger, and Mozilla's Bespin browser-based code editor to create a complete, interactive development environment. Although it's still in a raw and experimental stage, the combination is both easy to use and incredibly powerful. For example, one of the Jetpack demos is an ad-blocking script that uses a list of regular expressions to selectively filter unwanted graphics, scripts, and iframes from Web pages. The whole script comprises only about 80 lines of code.

It's a little surprising that Mozilla Labs would choose ad blocking as one of its first demos, however, when that's precisely the sort of application that flies directly in the faces of content providers and other Web-based businesses. While the Web is inarguably a mature computing platform, as a platform for business it's still in its infancy. Media companies are struggling to create viable revenue streams, and so far advertising is one of the few that has shown promise. And yet, with just 80 lines of code, Jetpack promises to take it all away.

Of course, ad-blocking plug-ins for browsers have been around a long time, and many users wouldn't fire up a browser without one. But by announcing Jetpack with a demonstration of how easy it is to build an ad-blocking script, Mozilla Labs is in effect saying that this is only the tip of the iceberg. Mashups, filters, formatters, and tools -- when Jetpack is done, anything will be possible, and it will be easy. That's bound to send a chill up any would-be Web mogul's spine.

Going head to head with Old Media
Mind you, not every media business demands total control over its Web content. If you haven't been following the Open blog at the New York Times, you owe it to yourself to check it out. The developers at the Times post regularly about their ongoing efforts to develop open source tools and open APIs to allow third parties unprecedented access to the paper's content. It's frank, it's fascinating, and it's totally geeky.

But I'm afraid the New York Times may be in the minority. Michael Lynton, the chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment, recently said he "doesn't see anything good having come from the Internet, period." When taken to task for his comment, he explained that we need "guardrails for the Internet," insisting that "in no other realm of our society have we encountered so widespread and consequential a failure to put in place guidelines over the use and growth of such a major industry."

Guidelines? Don't kid yourself. Lynton doesn't really want guardrails -- he wants a cattle chute. He's ready to deliver media over the Web, but he wants to deliver it when, how, and at the price he chooses. That's precisely the Old Media business model that Jetpack and tools like it are already breaking down. The Web isn't television and it isn't a newspaper. Developers have already seen the possibilities of this new medium, and the momentum won't stop -- unless Lynton and his allies get their way.

So far, calls for action such as Lynton's have mostly fallen on deaf ears. But with President Obama due to announce a "cybersecurity czar" this week, there is every indication that the U.S. government is ready to become more directly involved in the workings of the Internet and the Web. According to the White House, the new position will have "broad authority" over the nation's computer networks, both public and private. If that authority includes protecting the economic interests of American Web-based businesses, we could be heading for a helluva scuffle.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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