Open Sourcing BrowserPlus: Q & A with Lloyd Hilaiel

Editor's note: I exchanged email with Lloyd Hilaiel from Yahoo's BrowserPlus team and he answered some of my questions about how the project got started, what kept it alive, and how today we've announced our intent to open source this original technology, enabling open development on a platform for in-browser desktop applications.

1. Where did the idea for BrowserPlus come from?

A couple years ago I was on a team tasked with increasing collaboration and code-sharing between the many different development groups at Yahoo!. We were specifically looking to uncover interesting and innovative ideas in native client applications, and massage them into re-usable libraries. We were extracting gems--good solutions to problems with wide appeal--and making them easy for anyone in the company to apply.

The project, in some respects, was a failure. At the end of our two-year run we had many C++ libraries, which ran on every operating system under the sun, to perform tasks ranging from the mundane (say, logging) to the exotic (peer-to-peer nat traversal). To our dismay, we didn't have client teams all over Yahoo! scrambling to use the stuff we built. We did, however, learn a lot from this experience.

The most useful learnings were the most basic: For a tool to be interesting, it had to provide massive value at low cost. People, especially programmers, like simple solutions that have clear and immediate benefits.

Skylar Woodward should be credited as the father of the idea that ultimately emerged and led to BrowserPlus. The idea was binary: 1.Change our focus. 2. Change our audience. We’d focus on the shiniest, most interesting gems and expose them to the widest and most receptive audience. The initial features of BrowserPlus include some of our favorite gems. The audience: Web developers everywhere.

From this somewhat vague starting point, a conversation began. We did a little talking, and a lot of listening, and eventually BrowserPlus took shape.

2. I heard that BrowserPlus was built by a remote team. How did you manage the remote collaboration? How did it happen that way?

The team is indeed scattered across the United States. The initial members had already been working together and had developed strong working relationships. When we refocused our client-side explorations on the BrowserPlus project, there seemed no need to fix what wasn't broken... And, given that we wanted to serve Yahoo! folks all over the map, this turned out to be an advantage. We were able to interact with the groups we served in the same way we already interacted with each other.

To keep folks informed of our progress and elicit feedback we employed a smattering of tools: irc, blogs, and email lists. This demanded that every member of the team take extra care to communicate precisely, and also bred an extremely transparent development process. The absence of private conversations prevents a lot of miscommunication.

3. People view Yahoo! BrowserPlus as a competitor to Google Gears. Can you talk about that?

Sure. I think the best way to understand how the two technologies are related is to understand some key differences. Gears runs on desktop and mobile platforms; BrowserPlus is focused primarily on the desktop. Gears is more likely to implement HTML5; while BrowserPlus is off playing around with motion sensors. Gears is a single monolithic download; BrowserPlus draws a clear line between the "platform" and the services.

Once you consider these differences, the distinct focus of each of the projects becomes more clear. Gears is attempting to accelerate the evolution of the web by enabling features with wide appeal that can be implemented everywhere. BrowserPlus is more interested in fixing the web plug-in environment, making rapid experimentation possible.

4. Where do you want to go next with BrowserPlus? What new services are you thinking about?

As far as BrowserPlus the platform goes, it needs to be rock solid. We're looking forward to more of the precise and well thought-out feedback we’ve received from the developer community. We want BrowserPlus to be portable, crash-proof, secure, and tiny.

Services? Folks on the forums are talking about peer-to-peer support. People are suggesting screen capture technology for better bug reporting. Webcam integration! Easy import of calendaring data! Drag-and-drop of Word documents! Bittorrent! There's no shortage of ideas. Mainly I'm excited to see what the community creates in the coming weeks and months.

5. Why are you open sourcing BrowserPlus today? What do you hope to get out of it?

Openness is a key initiative and a major theme for Yahoo! this year and beyond, and open sourcing BrowserPLus is part of that commitment. In 2008, Yahoo! has released Y!OS 1.0 and opened Search with powerful, potentially disruptive tools like BOSS and SearchMonkey. Major Yahoo! properties including My Yahoo!, the Yahoo! homepage, Yahoo! Mail, and the Yahoo! media properties (News, Sports, Finance, etc.) will continue to open up for publishers and developers in the months to come. We’re dedicated to supporting open application development, open standards, and other open technologies such as OpenSocial, OAuth, and OpenID.

For today’s release of BrowserPlus, we've announced our intent to open source this original Yahoo! technology, enabling open development on a platform for in-browser desktop applications. This will allow developers to rapidly extend the platform in a distributed fashion. Our hope is that community contributions and review will ensure BrowserPlus stays a secure, robust platform running on all popular operating systems and browsers. I’d like to see BrowserPlus become a valuable piece of Internet infrastructure.

In the meantime, I don’t think we should be scared of different approaches and overlapping efforts between competitors. The more people working to accelerate the web the better, because the more paths we explore, the more we improve our chance of building useful and playful online experiences and a richer future on the web for all of us.

Got more questions or feedback? I hope so. Please ask away here, or join us in the forums.

Lloyd Hilaiel
Yahoo! BrowserPlus team