March 15, 2007

Shopping with the Mozilla Amazon Browser

Author: Leslie P. Polzer

Amazon.com is the most popular online retailer. While you can, of course, access the site with any browser, developer Fabio Serra has created Mozilla Amazon Browser (MAB), a browser-based application that relies on Mozilla's XML User Interface Language (XUL) technology to implement its graphical user interface.

With XUL, developers write a user interface in XML, using a set of well-defined and portable widgets. The resulting application will run in Mozilla-based browsers only (including Firefox and SeaMonkey), although preview releases of a standalone environment under the name of XULRunner are currently being developed. MAB's Web site claims that the latest version, 1.4.1, has been tested with Firefox versions 1.5 to 2.0, running on Windows XP, GNU/Linux, and Mac OS X.

I installed the software to Swiftfox, which is a vanilla Firefox version optimized for a specific CPU. Like most Firefox extensions, installation involves downloading the XPI file (MAB-XPI for Firefox 2.0 or Firefox 1.0), allowing XPI installation for the site, and then restarting the browser. After that, MAB is accessible via the Tools menu. You have the choice of opening it in a new tab or new window; there's no way to open it in the current window.

MAB started quickly and provided me with a familiar interface, which is roughly divided into two columns: the left column shows an overview of the things you have searched for, while the right one provides details of a single item.

Solid help is available, giving you any information you might need, but most users will be able to use MAB right away without reading the help.

Searching and browsing

You can use MAB to search for the usual items: books, music, electronics -- basically every product category that Amazon offers. MAB supports searching six local subsidiaries of Amazon (com, ca, co.jp, de, fr, and co.uk), which means that China is missing. You can define the sort order of the search results using appropriate fields -- for example, price. The search doesn't offer as many options as Amazon's "Extended Search" does, but it should suffice for most purposes. The number of results returned is configurable from 10 to 50 in increments of 10. You can, however, always request more with the click of a button. When data needs to be transferred for any purpose, a progress bar shows how long it is going to take.

Mozilla Amazon Browser - click to enlarge

MAB offers one thing Amazon's Web sites do not: the search results stay. You can run three searches and then take a look at all the resulting items simultaneously. Very handy.

Another nice feature is the "Icon" view mode, which makes you feel as if you're shopping on a bazaar: a bunch of mixed things to look at, but no direct glance at any other information. Unfortunately, this mode also exposes the absence of an important feature in MAB: Amazon's standard way of displaying search results, where visitors can look at the item and at the same time read its title, rating, and price. This is reason enough for me to stick to Amazon's Web site instead of the Mozilla Amazon Browser. The "Icon" view mode also lacks a context menu, whereas the list view has a rich one that offers a lot of actions at a click.

The detailed product information MAB provides is basically the same as what's available via Amazon's Web site. However, MAB by default only gets a basic set of details. Other information, such as customer reviews, can be fetched when you need them.

MAB's user interface is a bit clumsy at times: for example, when I let one column of a table grow, I'm used to the other columns shifting to make room; that's the default behaviour of the major toolkits. In MAB, however, the next column gets squished. This is most likely a problem at the XUL layer.

Unfortunately, the keyboard shortcuts are meager. That's too bad, since a well-planned scheme could have given MAB a real edge.

MAB doesn't offer much functionality with respect to buying. It can put items in your shopping cart and later take you to the Amazon Web site, where you can complete the transaction. There's no way of looking into the shopping cart with MAB, since Amazon doesn't seem to offer an interface for this. MAB could, however track the items that were put into the basket on its own.

Conclusion

Mozilla Amazon Browser has a lot of potential, and so does XUL, since they enable developers familiar with Web technologies to break free from the constraints of traditional Web applications -- in this case, without AJAX. But both need some time to work on the problems still present.

Leslie P. Polzer is a technical writer, consultant, and Free Software advocate.