Among all the projects available at the Mozilla Foundation, one little application, Prism (formerly known as WebRunner), hasn't gotten much attention. Understandable, in a way, because Prism seems like just a stripped-down Firefox window in which to view web sites—which it is, but that can be a great thing. With the help of a few utilities, web applications in Prism can be just as convenient to launch and use as your standard-installation desktop programs. Let's take a look at where Prism really works and how to get more out of it after the jump.
Get started with Prism
Prism is remarkably easy to install and start using, whether you use the Firefox extension to create your Prism apps or just use Prism itself. Simply head to your favourite webapp and pass Prism the URL, or download one of the pre-compiled app bundles of popular sites. Ubuntu 8.04 users can also grab most of the popular Google tools, plus Twitter and Facebook, through the repositories.
Once you see your app shortcuts, you may (still) be wondering what advantage Prism has over, well, a URL shortcut. Here's a few reasons you might consider using Prism instead of a Firefox tab (or five):
- Distraction-free web work: Sure, I can open up Google Docs in a tab and get typing, but, wait, the Gmail tab says I've got a new message! ... Okay, back to work. I was on the third paragraph ... But, wait, Google Reader probably has 100 new items in the time I've been doing this, right? I'll just check for a few minutes ...
- Memory savings: Firefox 2 launches on my Vista system and grabs about 30 MB of memory, and that amount grows and grows, even if I close my tabs as I go. A Prism implementation of Google Calendar uses just 16 MB, and stays there, no matter what I do with it.
- Security/privacy: A Prism app keeps its cache, temporary files or web history in a separate space from Firefox, and trades only a single set of cookies with the site it points at.
- Crash protection: Got a site or webapp that's resulted in repeated browser breaks? Run it in Prism instead, and even if it goes down, the rest of your browsing can continue uninterrupted.
If any of that sounds appealing, here's a few ways you can get more utility out of Prism, using free software tools and a little creative thinking.
Quickly access your webapps
It might go without saying for Windows power users, but you can easily integrate any Prism application into your preferred app launcher or assign a hot key to it. Launchy can find Prism apps pretty easily, and you can also assign hot keys using tools like Qliner Hotkeys, or to a desktop-side tab with Nubs. Even Vista's Start search feature can be a handy link to your calendars, email, and/or to-do lists with Prism. OS X users can keep their shortcuts on the dock, and so can Linux fans, with some help from Awn.
Keep Prism apps in the system tray
I'm a huge fan of applications that can be front-and-centre on my screen when needed, but tucked quietly into the system tray the rest of the time. Mac OS X users can reduce any window to the dock, Linux users can do much the same with the AllTray utility, but what about Windows users? You've got your pick of apps, two of which we've previously covered. I like TrayIt for its easy customisation, but our commenters have given shout-outs to 4T Tray Minimizer as well, which adds two buttons to your apps' title bars. Either way, you'll be able to keep your favourite sites running without taking up screen space.
At-a-glance web previews in Windows
Want to keep occasional tabs on your personal mail or Facebook page, but don't want the pop-ups or pings of an auto-checking app? Using tools like the previously-mentioned Thumbnail Sizer, Visual ToolTip, or a Vista registry hack, you can keep tabs on chat rooms, email, or live-blogging events in Vista (or XP) by simply mousing over a taskbar window or hitting Alt+Tab.
Create dynamic monitors with URL hacks
Sites that let you paste information into them for processing right from the URL are pretty nifty, and Prism can make them even more convenient. Want a Google Maps directions applet with your house always pegged as the starting point? Roll your own with a simple URL hack. Keep your eye on web traffic, create a window of deep Amazon discounts, and generally wrap the web around your savvy little finger.
Customized extensions (experimental)
This is more a "promising possibility" than current reality, but since Prism creates a new runtime environment for each application, each webapp can have its own extension set. Right now, unfortunately, there are no official Prism-accepted extensions—but a few handy hackers have figured out how to make some Firefox add-ons work in Prism. The trick involves modifying a configuration file and seems to work mostly with smaller, less-complicated apps, but the author claims to have gotten AdBlock working in his Prism rig. The more bright minds that turn toward this app, however, the more interesting the possibilities will become.
Intrigued enough to give Prism a shot on your desktop? Got your own clever hacks that fit inside the single-site window? Share your tips and thoughts—I'll be considering any really cool Prism uses for a future post.
Kevin Purdy, associate editor at Lifehacker, will save the lives of thousands of Firefox tabs by switching his calendar to Prism. His weekly feature, Open Sourcery, appears every Saturday on Lifehacker AU.