Mozilla's Social API has activated in Firefox Beta today with its first partner, Facebook Messenger. The innovation has the potential to forever alter how browsers interact with social-networking sites, but the project is still in its infancy.
The Social API (turn it on here: Firefox Beta or Firefox Aurora) looks at the problem of how to integrate modern social networking into the browser, Johnathan Nightingale, Mozilla's director of Firefox Engineering, said during a phone conversation with CNET. "People don't use social like they use other parts of the Web. It's not task based; it's something that pervades that you're constantly touching throughout the day. People put it in an app tab, or keep it on their phone, constantly glancing back at it."
To that end, the Social API creates a framework that allows social-networking services to integrate more thoroughly with the browser. It requires the browser to support the API, which currently is limited to Firefox, but it also requires the social-networking service to implement the API on its end.
"We wanted to make the experience first-class in Firefox," Nightingale said. "We felt that social had to be integrated differently. We wanted to create an API where your social provider could provide a few details, and then you're hooked in."
The Facebook Messenger integration makes a few changes to the browser (download Firefox Beta for Windows, Mac, and Linux) that Facebook addicts will appreciate. It adds a persistent sidebar that streams status updates and shows Messenger availability from friends, which you can hide at will. It also adds four buttons to the right of the location bar, which make it easy to open a new tab with Facebook, to see new friend requests, to see all messages, and to manage notifications. Finally, it makes it easy to "like" a page by placing a Like button in the location bar.
Mozilla was quick to point out that the Social API is respectful of privacy, or at least as respectful as the service it's connecting to. The social features are opt-in, even when you visit a social-networking site. They're not turned on until the user activates them, and even then the URLs that power the sharing and feature buttons are served over secure HTTP. According to Mozilla, cookies and other data are not shared any more than without the Social API activated. Activating the Social API has the same effect as signing into Facebook itself, Mozilla said.
The location bar "recommend" button manifests with Facebook as the Like button. This has the benefit of allowing you to more easily Like pages that don't have embedded buttons, and it currently only sends the page's URL to Facebook. However, in the future, it could include pictures, the page title, or Open Graph tags.
Of course, Facebook, Google, and other social-networking sites track what sites are visited even when you're not logged in. They may not know that it's you specifically visiting a site, but they do see how many people are visiting sites that have their social buttons embedded. It's possible that they could cross-reference that with the people who have the Social API activated.
Mozilla did note, though, that no additional browsing data is sent to its servers.
More social-networking services are in the cards for the Social API, but not immediately, Nightingale said. "Before we start shipping a bunch of providers, we wanted to create a solution that's really elegant," he said.
One of the big problems will be figuring out how to give social networks equal space in your browser, and the solution may mean that the user configures which networks get precedence. Personally, I use Google+, Facebook, and Twitter regularly, but that doesn't mean that I want each one to get equal weight in the browser interface.
Nightingale anticipates a positive reaction from the developer community, too. "One of the things we're really keen to see is where people take it from there," he said. "We have ideas, but we know that when we launch a feature like this that it's an API people can take to some exciting places."