(Cross-posted from http://evilbrainjono.net)

I wrote a Thunderbird add-on to make the email interface I’ve always wanted — one that helps me remember to stay in touch with people I really care about, instead of always distracting me with the newest incoming trivia.

The add-on is called Lovebird and you can download it here.

lovebird screenshot (with fake names)

the names in this screenshot have been changed to protect the innocent

The rest of this post is about the philosophy behind Lovebird and why I designed it the way I did.

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“Why did my Firefox suddenly go from 3.6 to 4.0 to 5.0 in the space of half an hour?” asked my friend on the phone, in the middle of what was otherwise a conversation about role-playing games.

“Because the automatic updater system is working?” I said.

“Was Firefox 4 really so broken that you had to kill it after three months?” he asked. Except he used a ruder word than “broken”.

“No, not at all”, I said, remembering the giant launch party we had had for Firefox 4. It did feel kind of like we told everybody “Firefox 4 is the greatest thing ever, and it’s finally here! Download it now! OK now it’s obsolete already.”

“It’s just that we’ve got this new rapid-release schedule going”, I continued, “where we push out the new releases every three months, so that users always have the latest bug fixes and speed improvements and stuff.”

“OK, well, it says that Perapera-kun (the extension I use to translate Chinese) is no longer compatible. I really needed that extension.”

Oops.

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Back in — oh, I think it was around 1991 — I had a book called Stupid Mac Tricks, which came with a 3.25 inch floppy disk of INIT files that you could drop into the System Folder on your (or your victim’s) Mac to make it do strange, funny, annoying, and useless things. It was a cool demonstration of what the Mac was capable of, and it inspired me (at age 11) to start on the road to hackerdom.

Stupid Mac Tricks was the inspiration for a presentation I did last Monday for the Design Challenge. It featured the following extensions:

  1. Menubar Madness, which turns all your menus names backwards.
  2. Dodgy Navbar, which makes the buttons in your navigation bar randomly reorder themselves when you click on them.
  3. Kittens Everywhere, which replaces every image on the web with random LOLcats images.
  4. Bookmarks and Preferences, which… actually, this one doesn’t do anything too wacky, it just shows how an extension can set bookmarks and preferences.

For each extension, I took the students through the source code, explained how it worked, and had them do a few simple modifications on each one to get a little hands-on experience. Even though you would never want to, you know, install any of these extensions (at least not on any copy of Firefox you want to be able to actually use…), each one demonstrates techniques that are very useful for advanced extension development. My intention was to make a follow-up to Myk’s Extension Development Bootcamp. Techniques demonstrated include dynamic manipulation of both the XUL and HTML DOM trees, using XPCOM, setting up event handlers, using overlays to replace attributes of XUL elements, using DOM Inspector to find elements you want to overlay, running code on page load, and using XmlHttpRequest. That’s a lot of stuff! I probably erred on the side of trying to cram too many contents into one presentation.

Oh well. It’s all online now, so you can peruse it if you’re interested in learning more about extension development. Here’s the links:

Labs is currently running a Design Challenge, in which design students from around the world are taking their ideas for the interfaces of the future from the initial concept through to a working prototype.

We’re doing a series of web seminars to help these students learn the skills they’ll need to complete their prototypes.

One of these tutorial sessions, taught by Myk Melez, is now up on the web in video form for public consumption:

Extension Bootcamp: Zero to Hello World! in 45 Minutes

If you’ve ever been interested in writing a Firefox extension, but never knew how to get started, then this is the one for you. Despite the title, it’s actually over 90 minutes long. Nevertheless, I highly recommend finding 90 spare minutes to follow along with Myk’s awesomely thorough tutorial. I honestly don’t think there’s ever been a better way to learn the basics of extension development.