I rarely see the New York Times mention a Firefox extension, but it happened Sunday. John Markoff wrote an article about PicLens, a browser plugin developed by CoolIris. Browser extensions are small programs, written by third-party developers, that add or extend features in the web browser. Developers use an application programming interface (API) that includes hooks or connections to various browser features. Firefox has the broadest range of extensions available, but Safari and Internet Explorer each support their own families of extensions.
PicLens lets a web site take over the entire computer screen, displaying a seamless interactive slideshow of images from a specific web site. The user interface is minimal, and tucked away on the edges of the screen. Users move around the screen with the direction keys, or by grabbing and throwing the display with the mouse. Click or highlight a photo, and it zooms to full screen.
The experience resembles the CoverFlow interface on the iPod Touch, iPhone and the new Mac operating system, Leopard. The web version is as fast as any disk-based image viewing program I’ve used, and its a fine demonstration of how user interfaces are already changing.
“I’ve wondered for a long time why the computer interface hasn’t changed from 20 years ago,” said Austin Shoemaker, a former Apple Computer software engineer and now chief technology officer of Cooliris. “People should think of a computer interface less as a tool and more as a extension of themselves or as extension of their mind.”
Extension software is an important part of these changes. Users can customize their computer by adding highly specific features. The original browser software is still available, but the user experience becomes more personal and possibly more productive.
The PicLens browser plugin works with a small set of web sites: Facebook, Flickr, Picasa, Yahoo, Friendster, and a few others. Web publishers have to add code to their site that lets PicLens download a gallery of images. Blog and site publishers can add a server-side package to enable PicLens support on their web sites. WeSeePeople has an excellent discussion of how users might benefit from the extension.
PicLens has a demonstration site that uses WordPress, the same software that powers my blog. I am experimenting with PicLens as a PowerPoint slide viewer, but I haven’t posted any demos to my blog yet. PicLens doesn’t support audio or text notes, which are two helpful PowerPoint features.
Tomorrow, I’ll post a broader discussion of widgets, the general family of software that includes extensions.
Download and install PicLens for free for the following browsers: