You’ve probably heard of Ubiquity by now. It was causing quite a buzz a few days ago before Google Chrome came along and stole all of its thunder.

Ubiquity is an experimental Firefox extension that bills itself as “a powerful new way to interact with the web.” One way to describe Ubiquity that gives you a clearer idea of what it’s actually all about is that it’s Quicksilver for the Internet.

We’re all used to the point-and-click, foreign and unnatural way of interfacing with the web. Ubiquity tries to change the way we interface with the web by allowing us to use language rather than buttons and endless URLs. For instance, if I want to post something I see on the web to Twitter, I’d usually have to copy the text, navigate to Twitter, log in, paste the text and press submit. With Ubiquity, I can select the text, summon Ubiquity and type “twit this.”

For me, when I realized that the developers had connected the word “this” to various means of input selection, I realized that there have been many simple ways to create more human interfaces for a long time, but we’ve ignored them. Let’s be honest, there’s nothing technologically groundbreaking about getting a computer to understand “this” as the text within your selection, but in the current state of the web, there’s something groundbreaking about it from a user interaction point of view.

Useful Commands

So what exactly can Ubiquity do? Anything really, since creating new commands is pretty easy. But most of us don’t want to do that, so here are a few of the commands that come with Ubiquity, or that you can easily get from the Herd.

Before you invoke a command, you need to summon Ubiquity. Call up the Ubiquity window by pressing Alt/Option + Space, unless you’ve changed the summon shortcut to something else.

Wikipedia: Do quick, on-the-spot research with the Wikipedia command. In full it’s wikipedia inserttopic, but you can substitute w for wikipedia to get there faster.

Define: Typing define word will return the definition of a word within the Ubiquity window.

Send This To: Select a chunk of text and, after summoning Ubiquity, type send this to person. It’s almost creepy watching it open Gmail and set up a message with the selected text in it, correctly addressed to the right person.

Get Lyrics: This one doesn’t come with Ubiquity, but you can grab it from the Herd. If you want to know the lyrics to the song you’re listening to, summon Ubiquity, type get-lyrics Welcome to the Jungle and you’ll be presented with a Google search page with various lyrics for that song. I would like it better if it took you straight to a lyrics page, but this is okay in the meantime.

Maps: When I heard Ubiquity did maps, I thought if you gave it a street number and name, suburb and state, it would throw the map up for you. It does do that, but it can do a lot more. I thought I’d see if it could find the location of my very first job when I was in high school, with only minimal information. As you can see, it did:

If you click the map thumbnail, it enlarges and provides you with a link: “insert map in page.” If you’re on a regular HTML page, you wouldn’t expect this to work, but it does. More useful, though, is the ability to quickly drop a map into an email:

To get to this point, I had to type “Helensvale KFC,” select it, summon Ubiquity and type map, click the map and click a link. It takes about ten seconds to get a map in your email, compared to the five minutes it used to take.

Room for Improvement

Let me briefly preface this section. A pet peeve of mine is when software reviewers slam an app and call it useless when it is clearly beta or even alpha software. It irritates me, so I’m certainly not joining in. So here goes: this software is a 0.1 release and any issues I’ve mentioned here are observations that I’m sure will get fixed eventually. None of this is deal-breaking because the app is very early on in its development.

The first issue I came across during my time with the software was that the weather implementation isn’t the best. If I look for Brisbane’s weather by invoking Ubiquity and typing weather brisbane, it works fine. However, if I ask it for weather gold coast, the Gold Coast being where I actually live, I get nothing.

But if I go to my OS X dashboard and type nothing but “gold coast” into Apple’s Weather widget, which uses AccuWeather.com, I get results right away. Is this a problem with Ubiquity? The weather site it uses or the API the weather site supplies? I don’t know, but I know that there are better weather services out there.

The second issue I had with Ubiquity may only be an issue because I’ve been spoiled by Quicksilver, but nevertheless there’s room for improvement in the way Ubiquity takes the text you’ve typed and looks for one of its commands that closely matches.

When you summon Ubiquity and attempt to invoke a command, the list of options presented doesn’t search intelligently. For example, I use Quicksilver to call up the Start-up Disk Preference Pane whenever I want to boot into Windows on my iMac. Quicksilver will find that pane and let me invoke the right command whether I type any of the following:

  • Of course, startup (I use it regularly enough that st or sta will work too)
  • artup
  • starupd
  • diskpane
  • starttuuu

You can make spelling mistakes, miss letters, or start from the second letter or even second word of the command, and Quicksilver will still find it for you.

As far as I’m concerned, this intelligent search is exactly why Quicksilver is so useful as an app launcher. To be truly powerful, Ubiquity must implement something like this. I know this is 0.1 software, so I don’t really expect these features to be present, but I’d say if it’s not in there by the big 1.0, then this extension is going in the wrong direction.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line? Download it and try it. See if it’s for you. Personally, I swear by apps like Ubiquity and Quicksilver and I think everybody should use them.

However, not everyone agrees, so give it a shot and see if it’s right for you – but give it a fair shot and spend some time with it before you reject it. If you can’t try it because you’re not using Firefox, that’s fine… unless you’re still using Internet Explorer. In that case, go and download a decent browser!

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