Update on Activities, Microformats and Operator

I haven’t blogged in a while, so I wanted to give everyone a quick update on som of my projects.


Version 0.7.1 of Firefox Activities is waiting patiently to be moved out of the AMO sandbox. Unfortunately my 0.7 version had a memory leak, so I missed my chance. Once Firefox 3.0b5 was released, the AMO queue got very long and 0.7.1 is lost somewhere in that queue.

That version matches the IE version of Activities feature for feature, except for the floating button that appears when you select text. Activities management is much better, and I was able to support both the uppercase and lower case version of the API (which I complained about earlier). In addition, the code has been substantially rewritten so that it doesn’t affect the global namespace at all.

Microformats in Firefox 3

I thought my Microformats API for Firefox 3 had settled down, but Dmitry’s Acid Test combined with Clint Talbert’s great unit tests and a post on the microformats-discuss list uncovered a few more issues. Unfortunately time is short, so only the API change will make it. Hopefully we’ll get the other parser fixes in a point release.


I’ve actually been spending quite a bit of time on Operator lately, working with Gustavo García to figure out how to move to an XML model for user scripts using Microsoft’s OpenService Format as a basis. Our primary motivation for this is to allow the installation of user scripts on the fly instead of the current model where you have to download them. We’ve actually made quite a bit of progress in this space, and hope to have something out soon for testing. Note Operator will still support the old user scripts model, especially for scripts that need access to things like the file system.

Here’s an example of what one of these new scripts might look like:

    Find with MapQuest


We’re also planning to allow small pieces of JavaScript to be embedded in the XML to allow more complex actions. These will be run in a sandbox to prevent security issues. If you want to be involved in the discussion of how we are going to do this, check out the microformats wiki.

Microsoft Screwed Up Activities API Docs – It's addService NOT AddService

UPDATE: jst ROCKS! – I was able to do exactly what he said and I now have both cases of APIs working in my extension.

OK, this is really starting to bother me because Activities are starting to show up and they don’t work on Firefox because Microsoft screwed up the documentation.

The correct syntax for adding an Activity (per my conversation with Microsoft) is:

as documented here

as documented here. (I have no idea what the whitepaper says – I can’t agree to the license agreement.

Note the lowercase a at the beginning. Even though both work on IE, USE THE LOWERCASE addService!

You would think people would have just cut and paste the code from the Activity Providers site and got it right.

Incidentally, if anyone knows how to create an API in Firefox that will work with either case, that would be great. Then I could work like Internet Explorer.

New Activities, Updated Operator and More

I’ve made version 0.6 of Firefox Activities available in the Add-ons Sandbox. If you like it, please review it so I can get it moved out of the Sandbox.

This version has a working preview for Firefox 3, as well as management of activities. It’s very close to the Microsoft version. The only thing it is lacking at this point is the button that appears after you select text. I’m looking at that.

I also had to make Operator 0.9.1 available due to some translation issues and some interaction issues with Firebug.

Finally, if you are a fan of GTD, I shall shamelessly plug my friend Andy Mitchell’s extension, GTDInbox which turns GMail into GTD central.


Operator 0.9 is available

NOTE: There is a problem with the zh-TW, hr-HR, cs-CZ, pt-BR and ru-RU translations. I’ll post a 0.9.1 when I get this worked out. Unfortunately this makes Operator 0.9 unusable in those languages because for some reason Babelzilla replaced the strings with blanks (not what I asked for).

Operator 0.9 is available. This was mainly done so I can get my t-shirt, although it has been overdue.

I’ve talked about what is in this release before, but to repeat:

This version includes:

  • Songbird support!
  • Fixes to make sure things work in Firefox 3
  • Menus no longer magically disappear on some pages
  • hCards supports nested menus to access actions (more logical than trying to use adr for multiple addresses)
  • adr is no longer on the menu by default (you can add it, but it has no default actions)
  • Nested microformats are now handled per the spec as best we can figure it out
  • Performance should be much better (and it has been in my experience)
  • If a microformat is not visible, it doesn’t appear in Operator (You can turn on a preference if you want to see all microformats)
  • Actions for MapQuest and Amazon.com
  • A new RDFa parser based on the new spec (pages will need to be updated)

Unfortunately, I don’t have more detail on the RDFa situation. Elias sent me a new parser, and I included it. Please bug him to know what needs to change on pages. And I apologize to the existing RDFa users out there that I have broken.

Also, there were some performance problems with the release candidate that were definitely addressed. Hopefully things should be speedy.


Group Policy Extension for Firefox

I’ve been working with Cesar Oliveira from Seneca College to put together some initial attempts at group policy support. Here’s his comment from bug 267888:

Since there doesn’t seem to have been any communication from the assignee for
over a year, I am guessing that he is no longer working on it. With big help of
Michael Kaply (mkaply), we went into a different approach with this bug.

Instead of doing our own ADM template, we decided to do an implementation using
generic IE policies (gpedit.msc) that both browsers can share. For example,
setting the home page and enforcing full screen, and even disabling tabs! This
won’t be the best solution, because Firefox and IE are different in many ways.
But it gives us something to start with, as IE is already in the corporate
world, we might as well try imitating some of their success 😉

We haven’t implemented every policy (only slightly over a dozen). And it
definitely needs some polish to the functionality and the code. There are some
ways to get around certain policies (we don’t do any preference locking), but
it is certainly better than not moving forward.

The code was designed to go into the mozilla\extensions directory. It works
with the latest version of Firefox3 (Firefox3.0b5pre), but not Firefox 2
(started using fuel). You can check out the source code via svn:

I am also making available an extension you can use. I haven’t done much
testing with it, other than it installs and works with no tab browsing and
enforce full screen:

I also made a list of policies that we implement. Please feel free to look and
give feedback.

So now I am requesting community feedback. What is going to stop this from one
day getting into the tree (I assume everyone on the CC list wants something
like this in)? Other than using IE’s policies, of course 😉

I think I got everything. If something is not working, feel free to email me.

This is really a first step, but I hope people will try it out.

Microsoft Activities for Firefox – New Version

I have an update for Activities that adds preview and fixes some bugs. If you just want that, skip to the end of the post.

One of the things I realized as I worked on this extension is just how amazingly easy it is to write Firefox extensions. When you combine great technology (Firefox extensions), great people (like Mark Finkle, for example), great documentation (developer.mozilla.org, XULPlanet) and open source, it’s amazing what you can produce and how fast you can produce it, as noticed in Compiler from Wired.com.

Compare this to my experience with Internet Explorer.

One of the things I wanted to do with Operator was make a version for Internet Explorer. I spent a few weeks trying to find good documentation on creating a toolbar for IE, and I have to say it was sorely lacking. I got a basic HTC working, but compared to my experience working on Firefox extensions, it was just SO painful, I gave up. I realize I’m not a Windows programmer, and that might have helped, but I just couldn’t believe how hard it was to create extensions for IE. It’s not even called a toolbar, it’s called a a toolband which started me off in the wrong direction!

In a way, that was kind of sad because I was feeling like my focus on web development and in particular Mozilla and Firefox browsers was limiting my skills so that when it came to things like Windows development, I was at a disadvantage. (I’ve been working in the browser space and the development of web browsers for over 12 years). Hopefully, though, what I’ve actually done is cultivated a set of specialized, but very useful skills so that when other opportunities come up, I’ll be able to take advantage of them. Especially since it seems like my work at IBM is requiring less and less of those Mozilla/Firefox skills.

So all that to say, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed working on the Microsoft Activities extension and the other extensions I’ve done and I hope that there will be more opportunities to do that, whether inside or outside IBM. Maybe I’ll have a chance to talk to some folks about that at SXSW this weekend.

On to the new release. Version 0.3 of Microsoft Activities for Firefox is available (make sure you didn’t grab the 0.2 that was up for a few minutes this morning). Features include:

  • Preview mode (only in FF3)
  • Problems adding services in FF3 have been fixed
  • Issues with query parameters fixed (all current services have been tested)
  • UI is updated immediately when a new service is added
  • Activities menu identifies the context you are acting in, and activities are limited based on that context (selection, link, document)
  • Built-in link to take you to the IE8 Service Gallery
  • Verified it works on Mac OS X

Interaction with the preview window is a little quirky, but I’m working on that. Surprisingly it seems to work better than IE8.


More Microsoft Activities for Firefox (Calling out Microsoft)

I’ve made lots of progress since yesterday. I hope to have a new version available today. I thought I’d start the day by calling out Microsoft for not even following their own spec (and you too Yahoo!). What part of 320×240 preview window do you not understand? (And yes there is stuff offscreen even if the scrollbars aren’t there)

You can check out other providers (who got it right) here.

And one more thing – is it AddService or addService? The reference page says “AddService” but links on the Service Gallery say “addService.” (I got an answer – it’s addService)

Microsoft Activities for Firefox

After looking at Microsoft Activities in IE8 and noticing that they look suspiciously like my ideas around actions in Operator, I decided to implement them in Firefox.

For your downloading pleasure, here is a first pass at Activities support in Firefox. I haven’t actually looked at IE 8, so what I did was based on the page about Activities I saw this morning. You can install activities from the Service Gallery, and then if you open a new window, those activities will be active (they don’t become active in the page you download them from – working on that). To use an activity, highlight some text and right click on it.

If folks think this is interesting, I’ll keep working on it. Enjoy.

Note this doesn’t support previews yet – I’m working on that.

Simple Firefox Customizations: What Else Can I Do?

Before we get started on this next topic, I need to make one correction. In earlier posts, I said to use collapsed="true" to hide XUL menuitems. A better option is to use hidden="true" instead. Using collapsed doesn’t hide the margins, so you get a lot of whitespace in your menus.

I also mentioned customizing the toolbar in my last post. We’ll actually save that for a future post.

Now that we’ve seen how to create XUL overlays to modify menus, let’s try out a real world scenario to see what else we might need to do. Let’s say we want to remove the user’s access to “Full Screen” mode. (I have no idea why you would ever want to do this, but Microsoft provides it as a customization in their group policy, so someone must want it.) Removing the menu is the easy part. We look in the file browser-menubar.inc and see that the ID of the menu is fullScreenItem. So by adding this code to our overlay: we make the menu go away.

But we have a problem. The user could also press F11 to use “Full Screen” mode. How do we stop that? Luckily key commands are also defined in XUL, so we can modify those. Most key commands are defined in the file browser-sets.inc. Searching through this file, we find:

<key id="key_fullScreen" keycode="VK_F11" command="View:FullScreen"/>

By simply adding this line to our overlay:

<key id="key_fullScreen" command=""/>

we prevent the keystroke from working.

That was an easy one. Let’s try something harder. Let’s remove access to “View Source.” View Source can be accessed three different ways, the View menu, the keystroke Ctrl+U, and View Page Source on the page’s context menu. Let’s remove all three. We already learned how to remove the keystroke: What about the context menu? Removing items from the context menu can be done exactly the same way as removing items from any other menu – with hidden. The question is where do we get the IDs for items on the context menu. Similar to the main main and they keystrokes, it is stored it its own file, browser-context.inc. Here we see that the ID for the view source item on the context menu is context-viewsource so we can just add

<menuitem id="context-viewsource" hidden="true">

to our overlay. OK, one last thing. Let’s remove the actual View Source menuitem. Looking in browser-menubar.inc we see:

 <menuitem accesskey="&pageSourceCmd.accesskey;" label="&pageSourceCmd.label;" key="key_viewSource" command="View:PageSource"/>

Wait a minute. This menuitem has no ID? How can we hide it? Luckily we can put JavaScript into our XUL overlay as well. In cases where we don’t have an ID, we have to write custom JavaScript to do our work. Here’s some code that hides the View Source menuitem:

<script type="text/javascript">
    for (var i=document.getElementById("menu_viewPopup").childNodes.length; i !=0; i--) {
      if (document.getElementById("menu_viewPopup").childNodes.item(i).getAttribute("command") == "View:PageSource") {
        document.getElementById("menu_viewPopup").childNodes.item(i).hidden = true;

This code uses JavaScript to find the View Source menuitem and explicitly hide it. It does that by getting the length of the View menu popup (the number of items on it), and traversing backwards through the menuietems until it find the View Source menu. Then it explicitly sets the hidden attribute on the View Source menu. The reason we know this is the View Source menu is because we were able to look in the browser-menubar.inc to see other properties that are only set on that menu (command=”View:PageSource”).

So now you should have most of the tools in your toolbox to remove functionality from the Firefox menus using the CCK to create the XUL overlay.

Simple Firefox Customizations: The Basics

I get asked a lot of questions about customizing Firefox that are beyond the scope of the CCK. Most of these questions involve how to prevent users from doing certain things or hide certain options in the UI. My typical answer is “you can write an extension for that,” but most people don’t want to go through the hassle of figuring out how to write an extension for what in most cases is a very simple change.

To try to address these issues, I’m going to do a series where I answer questions related to making simple changes to Firefox that might be needed in an enterprise environment. My goal is that a person with no extension experience at all will be able to make these changes by simply modifying an existing CCK extension.

Before I get into the specific customizations, I’m going to start with a very high level view of how we are going to make these changes.

Let’s define some terms in case you don’t know them. XUL (pronounced “zool”) is Mozilla’s XML-based User interface Language. It is used along with JavaScript and CSS to create the user interface in Firefox. Extensions can modify XUL, JavaScript and CSS by overlaying new XUL, JavaScript and CSS that replaces what is built-in to Firefox. Most of our work is going to involve the creation of these overlays. If you want more details, check out XUL Overlays at the Mozilla Developer Center.

There are currently two changes that the CCK makes using XUL overlays – adding a menu item to the Help menu and chanding the icon, link and tool tip for the animated icon (sometimes called the throbber). Both of these involve knowing the ID of the item you want to modify and then writing XUL that either modifies or replaces the existing XUL.

Here’s the XUL Overlay for adding the Help menu item:

<menupopup id="menu_HelpPopup">
  <menuseparator insertafter="aboutSeparator"/>
  <menuitem label="Our New Help Item" insertafter="aboutSeparator"
            oncommand="openUILink('http://example.com'), event, false, true);"
            onclick="checkForMiddleClick(this, event);"/>

In this case, we needed two IDs – the ID of the help menu (menu_HelpPopup) and the id of the item after which we want to insert our menu (aboutSeparator). What this overlay says is “in the menupopup with an ID of menu_HelpPopup, insert a new separator after the exisiting item aboutSeparator, then insert a new menuitem after that old separator as well.” Don’t worry about the different attributes – we’ll cover those later.

We can also use a XUL overlay to replace content. Here’s the overlay for the animated icon:

<button id="navigator-throbber" oncommand="openUILink('http://example.com')" onclick="checkForMiddleClick(this, event);" tooltiptext="TOOLTIP" disabled="false"/>

In this case, we needed the id of the existing animated icon (navigator-throbber) and we used our XUL to actually change the animated icon. We changed it from being disabled, we added tooltip text, and we added functionality when it is clicked.

Now that you have a very basic sense of how XUL overlays work, next we’re going to take a look at where in an existing CCK XPI our new overlays are going to be placed.