Yesterday Google released its new Chrome browser. I anxiously downloaded it, tried it, then uninstalled it after 15 minutes. I failed to come across anything that compensated for the lack of extension support. Firefox has too many extensions I’m simply not willing to give up. One of these is the previously discussed add-on for the YubNub command line tool. Last week, Mozilla Labs released another console extension along similar lines that’s become indispensible to me: Ubiquity.
Once you install the extension, you call up the console window by hitting Ctrl-Space. What’s especially nice about Ubquity’s interface is that it overlays the currently displayed web page as a translucent modal window, so queries can be performed without losing sight of the information that most likely provoked the lookup. In some cases, though not enough at the moment, query results are displayed inline — directly in the console window — instead of switching focus to a new page or tab.
15 commands in action
Ubiquity handles natural language command phrases, so you can theoretically enter a command the way you intuit it, without having to learn the formal syntax. Like all putative natural language processing by computer, your mileage may vary.
Many of the commands can be abbreviated to the minimum number of letters unique to their targets. While “m” will bring up the MSN search command as the first selection, you can use “ma” to evoke the map command directly. To avoid variations that might change as new commands are added, I’ll stick to either the full commands or abbreviations that might be further abbreviated.
- Map. If Ubiquity did nothing but look up maps and embed them into an email, it would still be worth the installation. Any any message you compose in a web-based mail program, you can highlight the term you want to search, hit Ctrl-Space, type map, and the results will show up inline. Click on the relevant result, hit Space, pan or zoom to refine the Google Map displayed, then click on the footer, Insert map into page. Voila! Your recepient sees a whole map in your message, not a link. I’ve wanted this feature in Google Maps for years.
- Email. This Gmail-only command allows you to send a page, a selection on a page, or a unique message. As with all Ubiquity commands, bring up the console by hitting Ctrl-Space. If you want to send a link to your current page to a friend, type Email to [contact name], where the contact name can be anyone in your Gmail contacts, and hit Enter. Ubiquity will even recognize first names, so Email to Fred will work fine.
If you want to send a snippet of the page to Fred, highlight the selection, call up the console and type Email this to Fred. Ubiquity will substitute “this” with your selection. If you want to send a new message to Fred, like “Thanks for sending that file!”, type Email Thanks for sending that file! to Fred. Unfortunately, these messages open in a Gmail compose window in a new page or tab, but all you have to do from that point is hit Send.
- Google. You knew this was coming. Preceding any term with the letter “g” followed by a space performs a search on that term. Like the normal Google search box, you can use advanced search operators for queries like “chrome -google”. Typing any phrase that’s not preceded by something Ubiquity recognizes as a command will run as a Google search by default, so “getting a passport to spain” will — you guessed it — do a Google search on that phrase. If you highlight a word or phrase on a page, you can enter g this into Ubiquity, and Google will search the highlighted text that replaces “this.”
- Wiki. Same principle, different service. You can search Wikipedia on a highlighted term by entering wiki this, or you can do the same with a new entry by hand (“w antonio gaudi”).
- Add. This “add-to-calendar” command adds a new or highlighted selection to Google Calendar. Unlike Gmail, the event gets added in the background, and the entry is confirmed in a popup window. To reiterate, Ubiquity accepts natural language entries, so “Dinner with Melanie Thursday at 7pm” will get slated correctly.
- Check. Entering check [day or date] into Ubiqity will display your GCal entries inline. Entering check by itself returns today’s calendar.
- Weather. Entering we [city-state or zip code] into Ubiquity will display the current weather inline: the temperature, smog condition, wind velocity and humidity. I use this in conjunction with the email or twit command to tease my friends outside of California’s perpertually perfect climate.
- Twit. As much as I love full-featured Twitter clients like TweetDeck, nothing beats the simplicity of hitting Ctrl-Space and typing twit [message] to so_and_so, or sending a selection of text using twit this to so_and_so. At the moment, there’s no way to receive tweets or ping Twitter for new messages.
- Word count. As a student of copywriting, I’m frequently curious about an article’s word length. Highlighting the desired text and entering word count into Ubiquity will give you just that. There used to be a Firefox extension that did the same with a context menu, but it seems to have disappeared.
- Translate. You can translate a new entry or selected text. For new entries, type translate [word or phrase] from [language] to [language], and the result is displayed inline. If you translate this to english for highlighted text on a page, Ubiquity will actually replace the text directly on the page. When it works, it’s amazing, but I’ve had mixed results with this command. It’s worth pointing out that Ubiquity is currently at version 0.1.1 — an alpha release.
- Define. Being able to do a dictionary lookup without leaving your current page by typing define [term] or simply highlighting a word, then entering define into Ubquity, is a lot less annoying that having to look up the word in a new tab. With highlighted words, there’s no need to add “this” to define.
- Highlight. To annotate a selection with persistent highlighting, drag the cursor over the selection and type highlight into Ubiquity. When you deselect it, the text is left with a yellow highlight.
- Delete. You can actually delete images and text by highlighting (selecting) them and entering delete into Ubiquity.
- Undo. If you get carried away with highlighting and deleting passages, enter undo.
- Digg. Feel free to use this one for this article.