Browser, Google Chrome, Ideas, Internet Explorer, Life, Mozilla, Programming, Safari

An API for Browser Screenshots

What do the following screenshots all have in common?

From Amazon’s Cloud Reader Installation:

From the University of Virigina’s guide to setting proxy settings in Firefox:

From HootSuite’s TwitterBar acquisition announcement:

From Tecca’s Guide to Internet Explorer:

That’s right: they all include portions of browser chrome. (Chrome 13, Firefox 3, Firefox 4 for Windows, and Internet Explorer 9, I believe.)

What else do these screenshots have in common? They will all one day be out of date (if they aren’t already). As soon as Google modifies their extension installation dialog, or Mozilla changes their proxy settings tab, or the Firefox address bar gets a new background color, these screenshots will no longer accurately represent the interaction through which they’re meant to guide the user.

A Modest Proposal

I propose that this problem of stale browser screenshots could be alleviated by the creation of a Web service that exists solely to serve semi-dynamic screenshots of browser chrome. Allow me to explain with examples.

The Amazon screenshot above could be replaced with a call like this:

<img src="http://browsers.foo/addons/installation?highlight=confirm&w=460&h=60" />

Or the TwitterBar image could use this URL instead:

<img src="http://browsers.foo/toolbar/?include=url-bar,icon&icon=http://foo.com/hoot.png&highlight=icon" />

(Note the idea of being able to merge existing images into the screenshots.)

The IE add-ons dialog screenshot could just as easily call this URL:

<img src="http://browsers.foo/addons/tracking-protection?browser=ie&version=9&highlight=easy-list" />

The API would automatically use the user’s user-agent to determine what browser, version, and platform to show in the screenshot (although these could also be specified manually, as seen in the IE example). If images from the exact current version aren’t available, the most recent version could be used instead.

I think that with a couple dozen high-resolution, high-quality screenshots of the various windows and dialogs in each major browser version on each major platform combined with metadata defining the position of key elements in those screenshots (e.g., the home button, the address bar, the History menu), 90%+ of the browser-specific screenshots on the Web could be replaced by calls to this service.

What do you think?

Is this a solution in search of a problem, or is it a legitimately useful idea? I think it would be worth its development costs just for organizations like Mozilla or Google to use in order to populate their help documents with screenshots that would always be up to date. Tell me what you think in the comments below.

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Apple, Browser, Recommendations, Safari

Safari on Windows: First impressions from a browser developer

Safari LogoI’ve been playing around with the beta release of Safari on Windows XP, and here are my initial experiences and impressions: (I don’t use Safari on the Mac all that often, so I’m not claiming that these are bugs in Safari for Windows only.)

  • Bookmarks importing does not work. It didn’t auto-detect any of my Firefox, Flock, Internet Explorer, or Navigator profiles like the webpage said it would on its first run, and it also doesn’t do anything when I choose “Import bookmarks” from the File menu and give it a bookmarks file to import.
  • The tab and status bars are hidden by default, which is a shame. Tabbed browsing should be given the spotlight, and the status bar is where most people look to see where the link they’re about to click is going to take them.
  • Looking at the browser’s UI and rendered pages literally hurts my eyes. It may be due to some font setting on my computer, but while Firefox/Navigator/IE on my computer all look fine, any text in Safari (including the menu options) is slightly blurry. I won’t be able to stand this for any extended amount of time.
  • Doesn’t support middle-clicking on tabs to close them. This will frustrate me very quickly.
  • Using a blue icon that says “RSS” instead of the de facto standard orange feed icon? Lame. However, their actual feed viewer is very nice.
  • Clicking on the “Add Bookmark” toolbar button and then pressing either “Cancel” or “Add” in the resulting dialog crashes the browser. Every time. (Turns out that the same thing happens when closing the Toolbar Customization dialog.)
  • It doesn’t support adding more search engines, as far as I can tell. Yahoo! and Google are all I can have?
  • I can’t get it to display XML files as anything other than plain text.

So, while I’m glad that Apple has taken the step of releasing their browser for Windows (we welcome any competition), I’m not that impressed with the actual offering. (It kind of reminds me of Firefox 1.0 – much better than Internet Explorer, but not nearly as good as any recent Mozilla (or Netscape) browsers.) I’ll submit these bug reports to Apple and hope for something usable when Beta 2 comes out.

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