You want to do what? There’s an app for that…….

tl;dr I don’t want to write web applications which have code to do everything the world could conceivably want to use it for. I want the web to tell me what other applications can do that thing. The Web Intents standard met that requirement before it was abandoned.

The problem

The Open PHACTS Explorer is a Javascript based web application which is used to browse the Open PHACTS Pharmacology API. As well as showing facts about compounds, proteins, pathways etc. it can also be used to view and edit compound structures. It use ketcher for this. In an iFrame. Ouch. Writing our own version of this would take a long time and isn’t really our core business. Another part of the application shows proteins and a branch can render these in 3D using GLmol. This required some integration which took time we rarely have and there is always the worry that introducing a 3rd party piece of code could break your application in ways you do not notice.
What I really want is for 3rd party ‘widgets’ to take over the heavy loading for those bits of the application. If you click on a link to a PDF or on a mailto: link the browser knows what to do with those things. How cool would it be if the same could be done for a link to a molecule in PDB or a compound SMILES property. The browser would know that the link was to a SMILES through some magic formatting and pop up a dialog box – “Do you want to go to the page for that compound or view it in the compound editor?”.

The solution

The Android mobile platform has the concept of “Intents“. When you click on an email link it asks you what application you want to use to fulfil this “Intent”. When you design an application for Android you tell the outside world what Intents your application can handle. This lets the device give you the option of using it when you want to do something that application can handle.
Imagine if you could do the same in a desktop web application.
Enter the “Web intent“. This a W3C specification which defines a method for client side (i.e. browser) service discovery. An application registers it’s intents via an html tag like below or in a web application manifest file.

<intent action=""

A client application uses an intent using some javascript

var intent = new Intent("",

The browser then tries to find any installed apps which meet the intent. In this case a URL sharing application. Sounds perfect. But it was not to be.

Warning: Deprecated in Chrome 24. Web intents are no longer supported.

See here for details.

The future

Maybe there is some light at the end of the web intents tunnel though. This post implies that Mozilla might be actively looking at something and google may be willing to join them. Other people are thinking about specifications.

Putting all the pieces together

In parallel to the Open PHACTS Explorer we have been providing widgets to the BioJS registry. A BioJS widget is a snippet of HTML, CSS & JS with a documented API which generally does one life science type of thing. For example here is a compound info page. Click on the Edit button to see the re-usable code in JSBin. The registry is a little bit rough round the edges at the moment but the idea seems pretty sound. Imagine if you could easily install one of these widgets in your browser just by clicking a button which also meant that the widget registered its intents. Any web page you were viewing could then use that widgets intents.
Imagine then if you then clicked on a link on that page and your browser couldn’t handle that intent but knows that there are some apps in the chrome/firefox/whatever store that could. It could then take you to a page allowing you to decide which of these you wanted to use. Maybe the intent information is actually embedded in the links href or other property and doesn’t even need any Javascript like the Web Intents spec implied.
It is quite possible in the future that the BioJS widgets could also be packaged up as web components. This would seem to be a perfect match for Web Intents. Or this another dead end?

Who has the influence?

As a final point I make the following observation.

There always seems to be several different complimentary (or conflicting depending on your point of view) things happening in the web standards world at any one time. How does anyone manage to keep track of them? How do they then manage to influence them while keeping their workload to a sensible level and sanity intact? Answers on a postcard……

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