Yesterday, Mozilla announced Snowl, a prototype of a universal messaging/content aggregation plugin for Firefox. In its current incarnation, Snowl only allows you to view your Twitter messages and RSS feeds, though Mozilla is planning on adding more messaging services in the near future. During our first tests, we came away disenchanted, as the execution of this first version leaves a lot to be desired, even if the general idea behind Snowl is quite interesting.
Marrying Messages and News
The basic idea behind Snowl is to bring together messaging and feed reading in the browser. As Mozilla points out, it shouldn’t matter where messages originate – instead, both RSS feeds, forums, social networks should all be able to live together happily in one interface. The team behind Snowl also assumes that paradigms that shape the development of browsers also apply to navigating messages.
However, at least in its current state, Snowl proves Mozilla wrong on most of these counts.
Snowl allows you to view your messages in two ways: a traditional three-pane view that looks very similar to most RSS readers or email clients. You can also view your messages in a River of News style view, but at least for us, that simply didn’t work at all.
In both views, the left sidebar displays a mix of RSS feeds, blog authors, and the people you follow on Twitter. Sadly, when we imported an OPML file, it only picked up on maybe 7 of the 300 feeds in the file. As for your Twitter followers, it apparently also only displays those who recently sent a tweet (or at least, so we assume, as there really is no way of telling).
UI: Lots to be Done
Overall, this implementation leaves a lot to be desired, not just from the technical implementation (which didn’t even allow us to update our feeds), but also from a conceptual point of view.
In the message list, for example, Mozilla stresses authorship. That makes sense for Twitter, but given that a lot of blogs have multiple authors or do not advertise a post’s author explicitly, you end up with a lot of blogs that only list the title of a post but not the name of the blog.
All of these technical problems are probably easy to fix, but it also highlights some of the important differences between messages coming in from AIM, Twitter, or your email service and your news sources. The real problem here is that there is really very little advantage to having both your conversations and your news sources flow together into one interface. News consumption is, besides maybe sharing a post in Google Reader, a relatively passive experience, while messaging is exactly the opposite.
One Client Can’t Rule Them All?
Clearly this is a version 0.1 product, so problems with the UI and other technical issues are to be expected. It is an interesting experiment, but in the end, it just creates confusion.
It would be great to have one unified client for everything, but different types of content simply require different user interfaces and a three-pane view of your Twitter messages mixed in with RSS feeds (and potentially your IM messages) simply isn’t a very effective way of handling these different types of information, especially once Mozilla starts adding more interactivity to Snowl.
In order for Mozilla to turns this experiment into a useful tool, they will have to completely rethink the interface.