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Techtip 163

Refracting the Web onto Your Desktop with Prism

By Scott Nesbitt - Sunday, April 6, 2008

Chances are you use at least one Web-based application. Don't be afraid to admit that applications like Gmail, Bloglines, Facebook, or Twitter are bookmarked in your Web browser and that you use them prism_IMseveral times a day. And you can't deny that these applications -- which range from social networking tools to office suites to email to wikis -- are immensely popular and incredibly useful.

Of course, getting to those applications means launching a browser, navigating to a URL, and logging in. If you're still doing that, then maybe you're doing things the wrong way. A better way is to put those applications on your desktop with Prism.


Prism: An Introduction

MEEBOPrism is a project from Mozilla Labs which is based on the Firefox web browser. Prism enables you to create desktop shortcuts that open Web applications in their own windows -- sort of like when you use desktop software like Microsoft Office or Photoshop. You're in a browser window, but you don't have all of the usual distractions like the browser's menus and toolbar buttons.

Prism was originally called Webrunner, and Webrunner was a real pain to use. You ran it from the command line along with the URL of the Web application that you wanted to use. It was definitely not the most user-friendly way of accessing your favorite Web applications. Fortunately, Prism now has an easy-to-use graphical user interface which makes it easy to bring web applications to your desktop.

I've been using Prism for quite a few months, and have found that it's well suited for use with:

  • Web-based email

  • Online productivity word processors or spreadsheets

  • Time and task management tools

  • Wikis

Those choices are, of course, based on the way that I use the Web. You should try Prism with all of your favorite Web applications to find out what works best for you, or if Prism is right for you.


Why Use Prism, Anyway?

What's the advantage of using Prism instead of bookmarking sites in a Web browser, or putting links on your desktop? First off, Prism loads Web applications faster than just about any Web browser. I have two computers that I use for work: a ThinkPad T40 with 1.5 GB of memory, and a ThinkPad T41 with 1 GB of memory. Both of them pack a 1.6 GHz processor. I compared the start times of various Web applications launched in Prism against Web browsers, including Firefox, Opera, and Internet Explorer. In every test, Prism loaded faster by several seconds.

On top of that, you don't get all of the clutter that you find in a Web browser. There are no toolbars or menu bars, or anything else for that matter, to distract you. All you see are the controls for the Web application that you're using. Working with Prism is a lot like working with a familiar piece of desktop software.


Getting the Software

Versions of Prism are available for Linux, Mac OS, and Windows. The installation is pretty easy, regardless of the operating system you're using. The Mac OS and Windows versions have executable installers. With Linux, just extract the contents of the Prism archive anywhere you like. After that, you can put a shortcut to Prism on your desktop and you're ready to go.


Adding Applications

prismmain_IMTo get going, double click the Prism icon that you added to your desktop. A dialog box appears.

There are only four items that you need to fill in on this dialog box. The first, obviously, is the URL of the Web application that you want to use. The second is the Name of the application -- for example, PBWiki. This will be the label of the icon on your desktop. The third is to click the Desktop option, which adds the shortcut to your desktop. Finally, click the Settings button if you want to change the icon used for the Web application. Normally, Prism chooses the correct icon for the application. If you don't like that one, you can select the Choose image option and find an icon on your computer.

The other options on the dialog box may or may not be useful to you. Click the Show location bar option to display the URL of the Web application at the top of the window. I find this distracting, though. The Show status messages and progress option adds a progress bar to the bottom of the application window. Again, it's a bit distracting. On the other hand, a number of Web applications have keyboard shortcut keys which, for example, enable you to move to the next message or to quickly page up or down. If you find that Web_apthese shortcuts are useful, then click the Enable navigation keys option.

Once you've set up the Web application, click OK. The icon appears on your desktop. To launch the application, double click its shortcut.


Tips and Tricks

There are a few things that you can do with Prism to make your experience with it even better. And there are a couple of things that you need to watch out for.

Far too many Web sites and applications use splash pages, which are introductory pages that you have to navigate past in order to log in. I find splash pages annoying, preferring to cut to the chase immediately. When setting up your Prism shortcuts, you can bypass a splash PulLQuote163page by specifying the address of the log in page rather than the application's main page. For example, I use an online photo editor called Picnik which has a splash page; the log in page is http://www.picnik.com/app. When I set up Picnik as a Prism shortcut, I pointed directly to the log in page.

When you first log into a Web application, Prism will ask whether or not you want to save the user name and password for that application. If you don't want to continually enter your user name and password when launching an application in Prism, tell Prism to save your credentials. If, on the other hand, security is an issue and you don't mind typing your login information then don't use this feature.

Of course, setting up Web applications by hand can be tedious. That's where bundles come in. Bundles are just a set of pre-packaged links for a Web application that consist of some information and icons. You can download bundles for popular Web applications like Google's suite of tools, Flickr, BBC Radio, Remember the Milk, and others. To use a bundle, just download it and copy it to your desktop. Then, double click on it. Note that in early March, 2008 Prism was updated. Most of the available bundles were for the previous version of Prism and may not work. At least, until they're updated.


Dealing with a Gotcha or Two

While Prism is a fairly solid application, you may run into problems while using it. I've consistently run into the following two.

First, when using certain Web-based mail applications or an online word processor I've found that I suddenly can't edit the body of a message or type in a text area. In this case, Prism hasn't hung up but might not like the type of text area that you're using. With some applications, Prism seems to prefer plain text to rich formatting. I've found that the best way around this problem is to save my work, close the Prism window, and then restart the application. If possible, Richtext_IMswitch the text area over to use plain text -- you can do this in applications like Gmail and Yahoo! Mail.

You can run two or more applications at the same time using Prism. But, every so often, you may get an error message complaining that another copy of Prism is running. When this happens, wait a few seconds and then try launching the application again. If the problem persists, you'll have to kill the Prism executable. In Windows, start the Task Manager by right clicking on the Task Bar and selecting Task Manager from the menu that appears. In the Task Manager window, click the Processes tab and find prism.exe in the list. Then, click End Process.

killprism_IMNote: You can find a list of the current bugs in Prism here.


Doing It from Firefox

Prism is constantly improving. The process is slow, but the software is getting there. One of the big features is an extension for Firefox 3. This extension enables you to create a Prism application from within the browser. You won't need to install the Prism application (unless you want to). Instead, you literally tear a window from your browser and turn it into a Prism application.



If you're like many people (especially the ones who regularly read these TechTips ), the Web is probably an integral part of your life. And it's only natural that many common computing needs are moving to the Web. Using Prism, you can seamlessly access and use your favorite Web applications in the same way that you do the software that's installed on your computer.

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