App Review: "Fluid" Site Specific Browser (aka SSB)

by sbh on Friday - 22 February 2008

in Reviews

Lately, I’ve been using a fantastic little OS X app called “Fluid”:http://fluidapp.com/. Essentially, this is a freestanding, lightweight, WebKit-based browser that can be used to dupe you into thinking that your favorite web apps are actually desktop applications.

p=. Fluid

I’ve been using Fluid for about three weeks now, and just thought I’d offer up my experience.

__This review is based on Fluid 0.7, the most recent version that was available when this post was written.__

h3. What & Why?

As the web evolves and becomes more and more “2.0,” my reliance on web applications for tasks that used to be handled by desktop has increased. Web applications are simple, easy-to-use, and because they only require a browser, they are typically cross-platform and ultra-portable. Here is a list of the web apps that I currently use on a daily basis (and the desktop apps they replaced):

* “Gmail”:http://mail.google.com (replaced Apple Mail)
* “Remember the Milk”:http://www.rememberthemilk.com (replaced a variety of “to-do” apps including “OmniFocus”:http://www.omnigroup.com)
* “Google Docs”:http://docs.google.com (replaced Word, “Mellel”:http://www.redlers.com/, and Excel — Though I still need to use these from time-to-time)
* “Google Calendar”:http://calendar.google.com (replaced iCal)
* “Google Reader”:http://reader.google.com (replaced “Vienna”:http://www.vienna-rss.org/vienna2.php)
* “Mint”:http://www.mint.com (replaced Quicken)

In short, these web apps cover my major daily activities: email, to-do’s, light word processing and spreadsheeting, scheduling, and money management.

At one point, however, I became annoyed with this phenomenon. My annoyance had a great deal to do with my own mode of working. I prefer to use the keyboard for most tasks — the mouse is the enemy! When switching between apps, I use cmd-tab to get around. Because these applications live in web browsers, cmd-tab can’t be used. Instead, I must use your browser’s shortcuts to navigate through its tabs or windows. The problem here is that, no matter how hard I try, it is inevitable: my tabs are going to get disorganized. When this happens, and things stop working consistently, I get frustrated and want to drop this Web 2.0 thing altogether!

Fluid allows me to trick myself into thinking that I’m looking at a regular application, when, in fact, it is simply a self-contained, site-specific browser (site-specific browser = SSB).

my dockNotice how each of these web applications shows up in my Dock as its own item: Gmail, Remember the Milk, Google Calendar, Google Docs. I can cmd-tab to them, launch and select them from the Dock, etc. Some apps, such as Gmail and Google Reader, even have badges that get updated. Looks like I’ve got an unread email in my inbox. Quite nice!

If you’re a real geek then you’ll love the fact that Fluid now has a JavaScript Console, JavaScript API for dock badges as well as “Growl”:http://growl.info notifications. I’m a Growl user, so I’m down with that.

h3. Use

Fluid is quite easy to use.

1. Launch the application and you’ll be greeted with this window:

p=. Fluid App Window

2. Enter the URL (e.g., https://mail.google.com/mail) for Gmail.

3. Enter a name for the application.

4. Choose where to save the application. Of course, like any other OS X app, you can drag it wherever you want later.

5. Tell Fluid which icon to use for the app. It can use the website’s favicon — which is handy but very low-res. Luckily, there is a “Fluid Flickr Group”:http://www.flickr.com/groups/fluid_icons/pool/ where you can grab PNG icons for your favorite web apps.

Voila! You’re done. Double-click the application and get busy…

h3. The Good

1. SSBs Fit My Workflow
No elaboration needed here — I’ve said my piece above.

2. Dock Badges
What could make an app feel more Desktop-y than live updating badges on the Dock icon?

3. Control How To Handle Outside Links
A Fluid apps preferences allow you to control how that application handles links to other domains. This is especially useful when you want some apps to open links within and others to use your regular browser. For example, I hate the idea of my mail client opening up a link. My Gmail app’s preferences allow me to tell it to use FF3 to open links. Problem solved. At the same time, you might really like the idea of being able to open Google Reader stories in tabs — no problem.

Here’s a quick screenshot of the application’s preferences:

Fluid Prefs

4. “Growl”:http://growl.info Support
I love Growl. Anything is enhanced by its use of Growl. OK, maybe not anything.

5. Knocks the Socks Off of Mozilla’s “Prism”:http://labs.mozilla.com/2007/10/prism/
Prism, like Fluid, is Mozilla’s answer to the SSB need. You might be thinking, “Well, Stephen — aren’t you a Mozilla fan? Why not use Prism?” Unfortunately, as of this writing, there is no way to open more than one Prism SSB at a time (at least in OS X, maybe this works in Windows). This is beyond comprehension. It is, for lack of a better word, dumb.

6. Checks for Updates
As you can see above, there is a preference for each Fluid app to check for updates. I am hoping that when Fluid is updated, it will be able to update these apps individually so I won’t have to recreate them. If this is the case, then this rocks. If not, then we can slip this item down into “The Bad.”

h3. The Bad

1. WebKit
I am not a huge fan of WebKit. I use Camino as my primary browser, though I’m testing Firefox 3 right now. In either case, I would prefer to use Gecko as my rendering engine.

Why does it matter?

It doesn’t matter too much. However, my Fluid apps look all WebKit-ish, which means that web widgets and forms and whatnot look slightly different than they do in Camino/FF3. Consequently, my web apps look a little “off” to my eye.

2. No Keychain Access (as far as I can tell)
One of the reasons I opted for Camino over Firefox a year or two ago was the issue of saved passwords. I like the idea of having passwords saved in the keychain (still one of my issues with FF3). Fluid does not seem to have a way to access passwords from the keychain. Further, it does not have a way to save passwords. This means that I’m typing in passwords for apps like Gmail more often than before.

3. Too Many Apps
Over the past few weeks, I have sometimes felt like I have too many apps running. I like to keep things clean. If you are paranoid about the number of apps that pop up on the screen when you hit cmd-tab, then Fluid might not be for you.

h3. The Ugly

There is one little bug in Fluid that requires discussion. I didn’t put this in “The Bad” simply because I felt it belonged in its own category.

As of v. 0.7, Fluid apps have a really annoying habit. When I click on an external link in an app that does not use them (e.g., Gmail as I’ve discussed my setup above), the Fluid SSB opens a blank SSB window before opening the target in your other browser.

Example:

* -I have Gmail setup in a Fluid SSB to disallow external links.-
* -I click an external link.-
* -Gmail app opens a blank Gmail app window.-
* -A new tab in FF3 is created, displaying the target.-

This is quite annoying. This is my appeal to “Todd Ditchendorf”:http://www.ditchnet.org/wp/, the creator of Fluid, fix this please!!! FIXED

h3. Conclusion

Fluid creates great little SSBs for my favorite web apps. It’s changed the way I work with web apps, and I’m quite grateful for it. Currently, I give it 4 out of 5 stars.

What can it do to earn 5 stars?

1. -Stop the silly blank window business described above.- FIXED
2. Give me a choice of rendering engines.

Otherwise, I think this is a solid app, and I can’t wait for it to mature into 1.0.

h3. UPDATE

– The blank window opening problem now has a workaround. Check out this page at the Fluid App Google Group.

Previous post:

Next post: