Tom Insam has posted news of Shelf, a Mac program that queries your currently running applications in order to provide you with supplementary information about the people related to the data you’re currently interacting with.
A revival of the GNOME Dashboard concept, Shelf uses Apple’s Open Scripting Architecture to query your applications, looking for matches in your address book. If it finds somebody you know, you’re presented with a summary of related information, such as their recent blog entries, or travel plans from Dopplr (Tom’s employer).
This screenshot shows Shelf displaying information about Tom Insam, in response to his web page being visited in Safari.
As a one-time participant in the Dashboard experiment, I’m happy to see Shelf resurrect the concept. One problem for Dashboard was that it expected every application to become Dashboard-aware and send Dashboard hints about what it was doing. Shelf takes the opposite approach, sniffing out information from applications.
Semantic technology — making data smarter than just a string of bytes — has taken longer to emerge in desktop computing than many hoped it would. Aside from the barriers to integration that the Dashboard project encountered, one of the biggest problems is in figuring out how to actually make it all work well for the user. I can’t be the only person who sees and admires technologies such as microformats and then fails to find any immediate practical use for them.
Semantic technology on the desktop, and the web for that matter, is a long game. Even though some of the backend technology is increasingly mature, the user interface issues are the gnarly problem, and the cooperation of the operating system vendors themselves is paramount.
The tide does seem to be turning with the OS vendors. We’re seeing a growing uptake of practical semantic technology in desktop user interfaces: consider, for example, the heuristic sniffing of dates and people performed in OS X’s Mail program. Shelf is a great addition to the experimentation, and especially so since its source is now available for people to play with. The code is in its early stages, but well worth giving a try.