<title>XPFE vs. DHTML</title>
<h2>XPFE vs. DHTML</h2>
<p>'In the beginning, there were 3 front ends: Mac, Windows and Unix. Each took a suite of developers to maintain.
Adding a new feature (even just a button) required 3 engineers to waste at least a day (more often a week) slaving
away until the feature was complete. This had to change.' This is an
<a href="http://www.mozilla.org/xpfe/ElevatorTouchyFeely.html">explanation posted</a> on mozilla.org describing
how the Netscape 4.x browsers required a different set of engineers to create and maintain the interface code for
Netscape on each different platform, even though each version looked nearly identical.
<p>For an organization committed to creating an application that runs on a range of
<a href="http://www.mozilla.org/ports/">different platforms</a> this
system of using platform specific code was a huge investment and a big waste of time. XPFE, Mozilla's
cross-platform front end, was designed to fix this by allowing engineers to be able to create one interface that would then
work on any operating system. This new technology started out as a time-saving technique and then turned into one
of Mozilla's most powerful innovations.
<p>Mozilla engineers were trying to create a more efficient process that would save them time and effort when
they started work on XPFE, but this technology ended up having the unintended consequence of lowering the barriers
to entry for application developers. Mike Cornall, in
<a href="http://linuxtoday.com/news_story.php3?ltsn=2000-07-25-001-07-OP-SM-0036">an article</a> about Mozilla
published on LinuxToday, summarizes the history of XPFE well when he says: 'The application platform capabilities
of Mozilla came about through a happy coincidence of Open Source development, good design, and far-sighted
developers who were paying attention.'
<p>All browsers allow people using any type of computer to access applications on the
Web, such as Yahoo! Mail, Amazon and Ebay. Mozilla is simply building on this idea.
Using new technologies in conjunction with existing Web standards Mozilla enables the creation of
more powerful applications, so instead of using Opera, Netscape 4.x or Internet Explorer
to access a Web page you can use a full-featured application with Mozilla.
XML (the XML component is a new language called XUL, the XML-based User Interface Language). Since well understood
Web standards are being used to create applications instead of platform-specific C code, a whole new group of people
now have the ability to create their own applications using Mozilla.
<p>In the sense that XPFE uses some of the same standards that are used to create Web pages, Mozilla-based
applications can even be thought of as Web pages. Gecko, the HTML rendering engine that Mozilla uses, also draws
all XPFE content, so a Web page and an application created with XPFE are on one level treated the same way by
<p>Web developers and designers who use Mozilla are naturally attracted to the fact that they can create
applications using the same skills and techniques that they used to create Web pages in the past. The specifics
involved with creating Mozilla applications are different but should seem very familiar to anyone who has created
for the Web before.
<p>When talking about front ends it is important to clarify what this means. In this context a front end is more
than the look and feel of a Mozilla-based application, but includes the functionality and structure of that application
as well. More simply put, XPFE allows users to do more than just create a skin for an application. For example,
Netscape 6 does use this functionality to allow for the creation of
<a href="http://www.netscape.com/themes/">different themes</a> for their browser suite, but the browser suite itself
is also created out of these same technologies.
<i>Figure 1: XPFE Framework</i>
JS ------ CSS
Figure 1: XPFE Framework
<p>To understand all of the capabilities of XPFE, we can look at how the different components of it fit together.
formatting the look and feel, and XUL is used for creating the application's structure. Viewed together these three
standards can be seen forming the triangle in Figure 1 above.
<p><b>Comparing XPFE and DHTML</b>
<p>In many ways XPFE is very similar to <a href="http://www.webreference.com/dhtml/">DHTML</a>. Dynamic HTML is
within the content area of a browser. XPFE provides a logical evolution to this idea by allowing the creation of
applications that are more powerful, more flexible and that can live outside of the browser window as stand-alone
use CSS to format the design and layout, and both use a fairly simple mark-up language to describe content. The
difference between the two is that one of these mark-up languages is HTML and the other is XUL.
/ \ / \
/ \ / \
/ \ / \
/ \ / \
JS ----- CSS JS ----- CSS
Figure 2: Comparison of DHTML and XPFE
<p>Although HTML has been put to many different uses, it was <a href="http://www.w3.org/MarkUp/#historical">originally designed</a>
as a simple system to link together separate text documents on the Internet. Later additions to the HTML standard
have extended its functionality, but even these enhancements can't make it an appropriate language to use for developing
applications. XUL is a language specifically designed for creating user interfaces, so it makes sense that XPFE is more
suited for application development than DHTML.
<p>Fortunately since XUL as a language is structurally similar to HTML it is simple enough to learn if you are already
familiar with the basic language of the Web. Even if you have never used HTML before, XUL uses a straight-forward
<a href="http://www.mozilla.org/xpfe/xulref/">collection of tags</a> that makes it easy to get comfortable with it in
a short time. Once you become accustomed to using XUL you will be ready to start using XPFE to create your own applications.
<p><b>Oversimplifying in the Metaphor</b>
<p>This overview of XPFE as a simple evolution of DHTML is an oversimplification of the story and deliberately leaves
out much important information. These details were ignored at first to give a conceptual framework for understanding
the new ideas that XPFE represent. Now that we've gotten past the basics, we can go back and talk about the rest of the
functionality available with using Mozilla to create applications.
<p>At the <a href="http://meetzilla.mozdev.org/second_meeting.html">Second Mozilla Developer Meeting</a>, Rob Ginda,
the creator of ChatZilla, lead a discussion group about Mozilla as Platform. In this session he listed all of the following
as components of a Mozilla-based application:</P>
<LI>XUL (XML-based User Interface Language) - Used to create the structure and content of an application.<br><br>
<LI>CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) - Used to create the look and feel of an application.<br><br>
<LI>XPInstall (Cross-Platform Install) - Used to package applications so that they can be installed on any platform.<br><br>
<LI>RDF (Resource Description Framework) - Used to store data and transmit information. Generally regarded to be one of the most complicated aspects of XPFE.<br><br>
<LI>DTD (Document Type Definition) - Used for localization and internationalization, more commonly referred to in short-hand as L12N and I18N respectively.<br><br>
<LI>XUL templates - Used to create a framework for importing data into an application with a combination of RDF and XUL.<br><br>
<p>Each of these technologies is important and several of these deserve to have whole books devoted to them. Although
each of these technologies is important there is a distinction to be made among them. Some of these are essential to
the creation of a Mozilla application and some of them provide powerful extra features that can be used in addition to
the basic functionality.
<p>For example, <a href="http://www.mozilla.org/rdf/doc/">RDF</a> is an extremely powerful technology for
using data in Mozilla but it is possible to create an application without using it.
<a href="http://www.mozilla.org/projects/l10n/mlp.html">Localization</a> also provides Mozilla with a great amount
of flexibility and usability but there are many existing applications that don't take advantage of this feature.
It wouldn't be possible to create an application without XUL though.
<p><b>Judge For Yourself</b>
<p>XPFE is a new technology that has yet to prove itself to the Web community and many people are skeptical
about the need for an application framework such as this. Before you make up your mind about XPFE, you should
take a look at the many different applications that have already been created using Mozilla so you can judge for
<p>If you are interested in trying out some of these, there are currently over 30 different Mozilla-based
applications being hosted on <a href="http://www.mozdev.org/projects.html">mozdev.org</a> that have been created using XPFE.
Other applications using the same technology include ActiveState's
<a href="http://www.activestate.com/ASPN/Downloads/Komodo/More">Komodo</a> IDE, Rob Ginda's
<a href="http://www.hacksrus.com/~ginda/chatzilla/">ChatZilla</a> IRC client, and Zope's
<a href="http://www.zope.org/Resources/Mozilla/">Mozilla Initiative</a>.