A new piece of software has come to my attention today, a Mozilla project called WebRunner that aims to provide an easy way to create site-specific browsers (SSBs). The project is basically an extension on the XULRunner software, which itself is standalone version of the XUL engine that underpins the big Mozilla projects (Firefox, Thunderbird, Sunbird, Seamonkey).
When I first heard of it I immediately thought that the Mozilla guys were setting up to challenge Adobe Air but I no longer think that is the case. The project looks to be fairly small and aimed at providing an easier way to integrate web applications such as Gmail, Google Calendar and Facebook into your desktop. From what I've seen there doesn't appear to be any offline capabilities or any of the more advanced features of Air but I imagine it wouldn't be that difficult to get Google Gears integration or simply use the offline storage that's been offered by Firefox for some time. Perhaps a true open-source competitor to Air may be one of the eventual goals so I look forward to seeing what else the project puts out.
As for actually using the software, it's quite easy: first you need to download and extract the WebRunner software, then you download a webapp bundle (bundles are already provided for several popular web applications) and run it. Voila! I find it quite handy to have something like Gmail available in a separate application as I often run into problems running Gmail from Firefox when I have a bunch of other tabs open – if only because my mail application gets lost among the throng.
One problem I have with it is that you lose a lot of the feedback provided by a traditional web browser: you basically get a blank screen when first loading a webapp and not a lot else. There's a status bar but it doesn't display any information on it; there's no progress bar, indication of network activity and the files being loading, etc. So far the purpose of the status bar seems to be to display the SSL icon for relevant sites.
It's early days yet for the project, which is currently at version 0.7 (whatever that really means) so I'm keen to see what other features they come up with.