The Ubiquity Viewer contains a growing number of innovative features, and one I’d like to highlight here is the ability to pass run-time parameters for a web application, via a URL.

Note: This post originally referred to ‘Sidewinder’, which is now part of the Ubiquity Browser Extension framework, or UBX. (See Sidewinder is dead, long live UBX.)

You’ll probably already know that the UBX viewer can make use of values in the HTML meta element to set things like its initial position, the size and width of the initial window, opacity and transparency, and so on. The ability to place important information like this into the document itself is a simple but powerful technique, since it means that you don’t need to create manifests containing configuration information, giving you one less file to maintain and deploy.

However, whilst this technique is simple and straightforward when you are building your own application, what happens when you want to run someone else’s web application on your desktop? Or what should you do if you want to take the map display you’ve created and re-use it as a large desktop application one minute and a small gadget the next? Surely we don’t have to create two documents that are exactly the same except for the height and width?

The answer to both of these question is to move some (or all) of the run-time parameters that are in the head of the document, out to the end of the URL. To do this we use the meta and link XPointer schemes.

Google Reader

For example, let’s say that you wanted to load Google Reader into a window that was 900 by 500, positioned at the top of the display, and that would autohide when you moved the mouse away; this is easily achieved by slightly modifying the URL used to open Google Reader in the UBX viewer, as follows:


The result would be something like this:

Screenshoot of Google Reader running in Sidewinder

Similarly, what if you wanted to run the Facebook iPhone application as a gadget on your desktop, with no chrome, docked to the side, and using the same dimensions as an iPhone? As before, take the base URL of the iPhone application, and then add the relevant meta parameters before passing the whole thing to the viewer:


The result would be something like this:

Screenshot of Facebook iPhone application running in Sidewinder

Command-line parameters

Putting parameters into the URL like this essentially places the command-line parameters that one would ordinarily expect to use when running an application –such as blah.exe -height=500 -width=900–into the URL. This in turn has the important effect of ‘factoring out’ the application that acts on the URL, by which I mean that the application is now transparent to the whole process of running our web application.

That might seem a little obtuse, but the point I’m making is that by using XPointer frameworks like this, we have leveraged perhaps the most important invention of the web, the URI. And just as URIs are often used as a universal document identifier, independent of any browser used to view that document, so we use URIs as a ‘universal command-line’, independent of any web applications processor that might process that command-line.

User control

But this only tells half the story. For me there is something even more exciting, which is that this technique puts control over the use of an application into the hands of the people running it. For example, we just saw how the size and position of the Google Reader web application can be set in the URL with the meta XPointer framework, but we could go further than that and use the link XPointer framework so that when we run the application we use a different stylesheet. We could even refer to a script, some RDFa, and so on.

Next steps

The next step with this work is to start to formalise the concept, so that it can be used in many different circumstances. For example, although we’ve seen here how the technique can be used when running web applications with the Sidewinder Viewer, it would also be possible to use run-time parameters when loading widgets into frameworks such as iGoogle, passing in parameters such as preferred colour-scheme, nearest city, and so on. By having some kind of specification it will also make it possible for others to comment and provide input on how to take this work forward.

Further reading

There are more examples of how the XPointer frameworks can be used, in The 10 minute guide to the UBX viewer (or ‘How to turn a web app into a desktop app without programming’). For a more in-depth look at running the UBX viewer as a web applications viewer, see UBX Viewer as a web applications viewer.