Mozilla's Chromeless project is an experiment toward building desktop applications with web technologies. So far, it's been more of a fancy-free exploration of interesting features or applications than the serious and sometimes stodgy stuff that platforms are made of. A recent surge of community interest in the project, however, suggests that the best path forward is for the primary developers of the platform to buckle down and focus on producing a stable system upon which others can experiment, play, and ship products.
This post attempts to define a Minimum Viable Product for Chromeless: the simplest possible set of requirements for a meaningful 1.0.
Please note, this is a proposal intended to start the conversation. My hope is to collaboratively refine this into an actual phased plan for getting to 1.0.
So, what will 1.0 look like?
Chromeless 1.0 will be a well documented and tested platform that lets you build production quality desktop applications with web technologies. A skilled web developer can understand how it works in five minutes, and could be building their own application in about five more.
While the above statement is a pretty vision, there is no shortage of details to be worked out and priorities to be set. Let's run through the various areas where there is work to be done:
At present there are several high level tests, but a low level unit testing framework is missing. By 1.0 we should have unit tests for nearly every exposed API which may be reasonably tested.
A lot of time has been spent on the Chromeless documentation system (heck, we've written yet another documentation extractor just for it). This system in its present state is a fine foundation for quality documentation, but what's missing at this point is refined content for all exposed core APIs, as well as overview and architecture documentation.
Given the history of the project (a fork of addon-sdk that was in a heavy experimentation mode for a while), there are far too many modules that have stubbed functions or just don't make any sense in Chromeless.
Testing, documentation, and API review are complementary activities that can all occur in lockstep in one great romp through the modules of Chromeless today.
The tone of the previous tasks might lead you to think that feature explorations are dead for now in Chromeless. But no. I think attempting to freeze feature development is dumb given the inspiring community activity at the moment. Instead of trying to lock down development in some way, I believe we must instead rapidly grow core features that enable distributed development.
This means two things: First, we must be very careful about
functionality that becomes part of the Chromeless standard library:
that which resides in
So how do we determine what modules are part of Chromeless proper? I
Modules distributed with Chromeless must have utility to a significant number of applications, or must be impossible to implement effectively outside of Chromeless, or must be required by modules for which one of the previous is true.
Second, I'm proposing that the minimum viable product include basic
mechanisms to make it possible to discover and include 3rd party
modules in your apps, while simultaneously paring down the set of
modules exposed by the core platform. I personally think that git
module_dirs get us most
of the way there in terms of inclusion. As far as discovery goes,
perhaps it's as simple as a wiki page for the purposes of 1.0?
(though a system which resembles
npm is an
interesting thing to dream about for future releases).
Web Content Embedding
The initial focus of Chromeless was to make it possible for developers to prototype web browsers with web technologies. A fallout of that focus was considering the ability to safely sandbox web content inside souped up iframes a first class feature. Given that we've already committed to this feature, that some of the most interesting products of the community rely on it, and that nowadays most desktop apps need the feature anyway: web content embedding must be secure and stable in Chromeless 1.0.
There are several open issues around embedding content inside iframe (in such a way that it's not aware it's embedded), that should be addressed before we label 1.0.
printf debugging is not quite state of the art, and it's what's for dinner right now in Chromeless. While the debugging tools built into Gecko right now are not the most awesome, they are getting attention and are rapidly getting better. We should allow Chromeless developers to leverage the web console and levy requirements on the devtools team. This feels like a much more useful direction than attempting to embed firebug, a path likely wrought with peril.
Having excellent logging and debugging tools must be a prerequisite to 1.0.
command makes it easy to
go from a pile of web content to a all-in-one application folder.
There are a couple of refinements necessary to really complete the
story, basic things like application icon
In addition to the most basic required features, there are several things that are very interesting but are not required for 1.0:
- Size optimizations - Some will balk when they discover that a Chromeless application has a distribution size of around 8MB, and I believe we can do much better than this.
- Application update - A simple set of conventions and tools could be very useful to help developers integrate a secure and efficient mechanism for updating application code. While updating code is vitally important, I think 1.0 is viable without it.
- A shared runtime - Chromeless has no way of sharing the same runtime on disk. This means each Chromeless app embeds its own version of XULRunner. There are clear opportunities to optimize this, but they should be prioritized beneath the other features for 1.0.
A final missing piece for Chromeless is a web presences that properly introduces the project and provides links to all available resources. The present landing page is out of date and information poor. This task is really complementary to the labs/research site redesign that is in progress and should aim to present Chromeless with a level of polish that corresponds to the quality of the platform (which should be high at 1.0!).
This site should be useful as both a introduction into the project and a place for all to understand the present state and get involved.
There are many ways to participate in the journey to Chromeless 1.0: the first is to react to this plan.
After things settle, my hope is turn this into a concrete road-map using milestones and issues on github. Once that's done all you have to do to join all the other contributors is pick an issue you care about, fix it, and send a pull request.
The other form of participation will be telling us about modules you've written for inclusion in the module directory, or in some cases the platform itself.