Apr 042010
 
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What if all software was open source? Anybody would then be able to add custom features to Microsoft Word, Adobe Photoshop, Apple iTunes or any other program. A University of Washington project may make this possible.

“Microsoft and Apple aren’t going to open up all their stuff. But they all create programs that put pixels on the screen. And if we can modify those pixels, then we can change the program’s apparent behavior,” said James Fogarty, a UW assistant professor of computer science and engineering.

His approach hijacks the display to customize the user’s interaction with the program. He will demonstrate his system April 14 in Atlanta at the Association for Computing Machinery’s Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.

“We really see this as a first step toward a scenario where anybody can modify any application,” Fogarty said. “In a sense, this has happened online. You’ve got this mash-up culture on the Web because everybody can see the HTML. But that hasn’t been possible on the desktop.”

These days a Web page might include a map from Google, an embedded video from YouTube and a list of recent headlines. This is not yet possible on the personal computer.

“Let’s say I’m writing a paper in Microsoft Word but I want to listen to music at the same time,” explained co-author Morgan Dixon, a UW doctoral student in computer science and engineering.

Right now he would have to click back and for the between Word and iTunes, but the system he helped create can simply add a few iTunes buttons to the Word toolbar.

“I’m using some program that I love,” Dixon said, “and I’m going to stick in some features from some other program that I love, so I have a more unified interface.”

More importantly, having more control over widely used programs would allow people to benefit from accessibility tools that have been gathering dust in academic research labs.

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