Earlier this week, Mozilla Labs made news with its announcement of a social networking add-on called The Coop. According to the official post on the Mozilla Labs blog, The Coop is "a Mozilla Labs project to experiment with adding social tools to the Web browser." For those of us who know about Flock (download for Windows)--a Firefox-based browser with added "Web 2.0" features--that sounds like a very familiar concept. So what does it all mean for the future of Firefox and Flock?
Yesterday, I had a chance to briefly discuss The Coop with Chris Beard, Mozilla's vice president of products, and was a bit surprised that The Coop has no real plans for the future, at least not any that the team is willing to share, aside from the brief details offered in the Mozilla Labs wiki page.
One of the big questions about The Coop is whether it will work with existing social networking sites or offer a centralized network of its own. Based on the prototype, it appears that the team is more focused on the former. They chose Facebook to use in the prototype extension because of its large user base, full feature set, and its open API (the code that lets other services request information), but there aren't any plans for which service or features to add next.
Another big question is whether any of The Coop's features or goals will be factored into Firefox 3. Mr. Beard made it clear that no social networking features are in the roadmap for the next major update for Firefox. However, he also added a caveat that new features can rise quickly to the forefront of Firefox development, and he cited integrated search as one example of hot features that have been stovepiped in the past.
More than anything, Mr. Beard made it clear that The Coop is all part of Mozilla Lab's larger goal of creating a "shared space for innovation and exploration." The direction that the extension will take is dependent on the reaction from users and testers, and it might not go anywhere at all. Because of the transparency and open-source nature of Mozilla development, anyone can take The Coop prototype and build on it to create their own. The main purpose of The Coop is to "start a dialogue" about what social networking might look like in Firefox. It's almost fair to classify The Coop as in the brainstorming stage.
So how does Flock fit in to the picture? Well, at the least, The Coop is a validation of the theory behind the social browser. Users want the ability to interact with their online friends and Web services from within the browser. There were some stories playing The Coop's development as detrimental to Flock, but from my limited experience with Flock, The Coop seems different. Flock still has a long way to go before version 1.0, but right now it seems designed more for Flickr and del.icio.us power users than MySpace and Facebook junkies.
At this point, The Coop is only a prototype, and it can be installed via people.mozilla.com or via the Sandbox section of Mozilla's add-ons site. To find it on the site, you'll need to sign up for a free account and then check a box in your preferences that allows you to see and install Sandbox add-ons on the site.
Be warned, however, that the 0.1 version of The Coop is only "one step beyond a design." Aside from getting your friends' Facebook pictures to show up in The Coop's sidebar and sharing URLs, there's not a whole lot you can do at this point.
Other Web services have been making an effort to turn browsing into a more social experience. The browser plug-in Me.dium shows who else is visiting the same site as you, and MyBlogLog lets users "join" their favorite blogs or Web sites. It's possible that The Coop might even build that functionality into the browser. From the response to The Coop on blogs and news sites, however, most Firefox users seem to want The Coop to remain an add-on, rather than become part of the default browser experience.