The latest beta of Firefox has a new facility that might puzzle many. The social API allows developers to integrate social networks into the browser. The real question is why is this part of the remit of a browser at all?
There are many who think that Mozilla spreads its development efforts too thinly. There are too many Mozilla projects and APIs that never really get very far. The Social API might be another of these failed attempts, but at the moment it has a high profile as it is part of the latest beta, i.e Firefox 17. It is being likened to OpenSearch API but the similarity is very tenuous.
The API works via the Social API sidebar which lets users interact with services such as Facebook. As the Firefox blog says:
"..it will be easy for you to keep up with friends and family anywhere you go on the Web without having to open a new Web page or switch between tabs. You can stay connected to your favorite social network even while you are surfing the Web, watching a video or playing a game."
Currently it isn't clear which social networks are supported, but the intention is to support multiple providers. The documentation suggests that the beta will support Facebook Messenger. The interaction with the service appears to be via a separate thread - a social worker thread - that is implemented in the style of a web worker. The new thread is responsible for receiving push notifications from the server and adding them to the sidebar/share widget.
Currently the API is not a standard, but Mozilla states its intention to get it turned into one.
The main opportunities here are to provide new social services that can be interfaced to the Social API sidebar. There is also a new DOM object, MozSocial, which allows you to control the social media providers panel.
What seems to be interesting about the Social API is not that it give programmers ways to interact with existing social networks - it isn't even clear that it does. It seems to offer a chance to set up new services and have them supported by Firefox. Could this be a way of getting started in a market dominated by Facebook and Google+?
The strange truth is that if Facebook and Google simply ignore the API, then it will probably just whither. But if they do support it, they provide ways for startups to get into their territory.