Do You Need a Site-Specific Browser?

As web workers, many of us do a substantial amount of our work on the web, using applications such as BaseCamp, GMail, or the Zoho office suite. But most of us also use our browser for, well, browsing. That tends to give our browsers a split personality: on the one hand, there are the tabs that we always have open, containing our daily dose of essential web applications; on the other, there are the ones that ebb and flow as we follow links and look things up.

The problem is that sometimes the transient links get in the way of the steady work. Run enough tabs through most browsers and eventually memory leaks or something crashes, and then you end up having to close and relaunch your standard set of useful applications along with everything else. Enter the site-specific browser: a dedicated web browser designed to wrap up one particular web site in its own window on your desktop, rather than mixing it in with everything else.

Mozilla Prism is the application that pioneered the notion of site-specific browsers. A spinoff of Firefox, it’s available for Windows, Mac, or Linux, though it seems to be in a state of perpetual beta at the moment. When you launch Prism, it asks you for the URL and name of the web application, and lets you set a few preferences (such as whether to show the location bar or status messages). The Prism-wrapped application launches in its own completely barebones window, with the only menu option being “Print”.

Fluid provides similar functionality but for OS X only, since it uses Safari’s WebKit rendering engine. When launched, Fluid prompts you for the URL and application name, and then creates a shortcut in your Applications folder. Launch from that, and your we application appears as a native Cocoa OS X application, though it does come with a fairly full set of WebKit menus (so you can, for example, show the toolbar or open other web pages within the shell – though if you just follow a link, it will open in your normal default browser).

Hana is another OS X only application, and the only commercial one that I looked at ($19.91 to register). Hana lets you load multiple web applications into tabs in its window, rather than putting each one into a separate window. It offers a few extra touches, such as letting you set the user-agent for each application and keystrokes for tab management.

The question remains, should you use one of these programs? If you spend your entire working day with a particular web application running, they’re worth looking into, for three reasons. First, they remove the distractions; Basecamp running in Fluid or Prism or Hana is just Basecamp, rather than Basecamp plus your bookmarks and other tabs. Second, they protect your workplace from being arbitrarily crashed by whatever arbitrary site you happen to browse to. Third, their memory use is minimal, so they’re not adding a lot of load for the benefits.


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