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 They will all one day be out of date (if they aren’t already).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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AOL, Internet Explorer, Microsoft, Mozilla, Mozilla Firefox, Netscape, Thunderbird

Netscape is dead; long live Mozilla.

Tom just posted the official announcement: As of February 1, 2008, Netscape will no longer exist as a product-producing entity.

“AOL’s focus on transitioning to an ad-supported web business leaves little room for the size of investment needed to get the Netscape browser to a point many of its fans expect it to be. Given AOL’s current business focus and the success the Mozilla Foundation has had in developing critically-acclaimed products, we feel it’s the right time to end development of Netscape branded browsers, hand the reigns fully to Mozilla and encourage Netscape users to adopt Firefox.

This means end-of-life for all Netscape desktop applications, including Navigator and Messenger. (The Netscape.com portal will still exist as a co-branded AOL service.)

Hindsight being 20/20, AOL should have made this kind of announcement immediately after the Mozilla foundation was established, rather than pitting Netscape against its former self. This is not to say that I didn’t immensely enjoy working on Navigator and Messenger, but I think we can agree that with AOL’s massive Web presence, a little support (and advertising) from them might have meant that Internet Explorer might be trying to dethrone Mozilla as the market leader, rather than the other way around.

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