A site-specific browser allows you to have the convenience of a dedicated desktop app wrapped around a website. You’ve seen these before and might even have a few Fluid or Prism apps sitting in your dock. Even so, you’ve never seen an app quite like Raven before.
This innovative browser attempts to be an all-in-one hub that turns your favorite sites into custom apps that sit in a sidebar. So what happens when a site-specific browser allows you to browse and save multiple sites? Does it become just a regular browser or something new and amazing? Read on to find out.
What Is Raven?
As I explained in the introduction, Raven is likely quite unlike any browser you’ve ever used. It’s hard to nail down specifically what it is because it defies its own ideas. It claims to be a site-specific browser, but it allows you to view, browse and save as many sites as you want, which seems closer to typical browser behavior than something truly site-specific.
I would say that Raven attempts to bring an improved experience to a fairly small handful of sites and services that you access daily. If you like your current browser, you can keep it and just use Raven for a few select purposes. If not, you could use it as your primary browser. To see how this makes sense, let’s dive right in.
A New Kind of Browser
When you open Raven, you’ll immediately notice that it doesn’t look like your typical browser. In fact, it uses the increasingly popular darkened icon sidebar UI pattern made famous by Twitter for Mac. This pattern has been applied to everything from email applications to RSS readers, so why not a browser?
The home page shown above is basically a custom Google skin with a nice little tribute to Steve Jobs thrown in at the bottom. Just about everything else you see brings up questions though so let’s run through the features and UI areas one at a time.
Smart Bar: Raven App
Raven’s big claim to fame is the “Smart Bar,” which is the Twitter-like bar down the left side of the application. This bar holds custom versions of web applications that are conceptually very similar to Chrome apps.
The app that sits at the top of this bar (cloud icon) is the “Raven app.” This is basically the web browser, which is divided into four sub-sections each represented by a minimal icon.
The house is the main browser shown in the screenshot above. You can basically browse the web just like in any other browser here. Type in a URL, use back and forth buttons, and access the following menu items.
In addition to this there is a clock, which takes you to your web history, the star, which shows you favorites and bookmarks, and the down arrow, which is where you manage your downloads.
What’s the difference between a favorite and a bookmark? With other browsers, the solution isn’t clear but Raven seeks to answer this conundrum with some simple logic: Favorites are sites that you access every day and Bookmarks are pages that you want to come back to later.
Raven keeps Bookmarks and Favorites together, but in different tabs. Clicking on a favorite or bookmark brings up that page but also keeps the favorites menu open in a Reeder like multi-panel interface.
Here you also have the option to view the page in a simplified text-only format and/or send the page to Instapaper.
Up to this point, Raven has just been a pretty normal browser, but we haven’t even touched on the major premise of the app, which is dedicated site-specific applications.
Much like the Chrome Web Store, the Raven Web App Shop contains tiny apps that were built just for this browser. As you can see above, there are already a handful of popular options available with many more sure to come. The page claims that they are working on their app submission process so I imagine developers and/or users will soon be able to submit their own.
There’s not really much to a Raven app. Really, it’s just a group of sidebar icons connected to specific URLs. For instance, here’s a look at the Dropbox app:
There’s nothing here that you can’t get by visiting the Dropbox website. Each of those buttons merely takes you to a page that already existed before Raven even came around. However, there’s something extremely convenient about having a custom navigation menu for your favorite services built right into your browser.
There are quite a few social options that I immediately found useful. Of course you have big players like Facebook and Twitter but there are even some smaller networks like Dribbble, which I really love.
In this way Raven becomes a nice little social network aggregator that is already better than most other apps in that niche!
Much I Marvelled This Ungainly Fowl
Like Poe puzzling over the ebony bird perched above his chamber door, Raven proved quite confusing to me at first. The app’s site is gorgeous and the UI is really slick, so I had to download it and give it a shot. However, I didn’t really expect to like it. I have too many browsers as it is and am just fine using Fluid for site-specific app builds. Further, I was wrapped up in the confusion of not quite knowing what the app was really for versus a typical browser.
However, then I started to use it and something strange happened. I really enjoyed it. I didn’t need to wrap my head around an explanation for its purpose anymore but instead just instinctively knew what to use it for.
I am a fan of Chrome Apps, but this Smart Bar setup seems so much more logical, usable and flat out enjoyable. I’ve really started to feel like the web apps are built-in features of an incredibly flexible native app.
The bottom line is, whether you see a need for it or not, you simply have to try this app. It’s really something new and interesting and I think you’ll enjoy it.
My one complaint is that I’d really like to be able to throw anything I want into the Smart Bar. For instance, I use Basecamp to manage AppStorm articles and would love to have it in the sidebar but don’t want to wait for someone else to get around to building it. Raven should let me roll my own app on the fly. I could easily point to a list of URLS and choose from a list of generic icons to represent each link. In less than two minutes I could link my Basecamp ToDos to a checkmark icon, my Basecamp Calendar to a calendar icon, etc. This would be much more convenient than watching the Web App Shop daily and hoping someone else shares my need.
I haven’t quite decide whether Raven is really a site-specific browser or simply a better way to build a browser. Whatever it is, it’s a great and truly unique attempt to rethink the way we use the web.
Raven is free, cool, attractive, useful; what are you waiting for? Go check it out and you just might turn to your old way of using web apps nevermore.