I’ve been playing a lot with Comet lately. It started with Notify.io, in which I decided to prove that HTTP streaming was a simpler alternative to XMPP in getting messages to the desktop. That went quite well, but it was easy because it wasn’t all that different from a socket connection. Then I built a yet-to-be-announced site that uses real-time updates, and I was forced to deal with Comet to the browser. That’s a bit more complicated.

Actually, I’m arguably a veteran of Comet in the browser. I was doing it before it had a name, all the way back in 2005. A friend and I were using it (without knowing that it was terribly novel) to build a real-time strategy game in the browser called AjaxWar. I haven’t really done a lot with it since, but I was hoping after almost 5 years there would be all kinds of advances in libraries and tricks that would make it super easy.

That was not really the case.

There are things, but not easy things. The Bayeux protocol? I guess all that would be easy to do if there were a lightweight Javascript library for it. But there isn’t really. There’s a jQuery one, but it’s completely undocumented. Plus I was just sitting there thinking, do I need all this? Handshaking? Message envelopes?

I was also hoping for actual persistent connections (that’s what we did in AjaxWar), but it turns out the standard today is long-polling. This is a semi-persistent connection that drops after every message and then reconnects and waits for the next message. I also wanted JSONP and cross-domain support. So I ended up using the dynamic script tag technique:

<script type="text/javascript">
	$(document).ready(function(){ waitForMsg(); });

	function waitForMsg() {
		$('body').append('\<script type="text/javascript" src="http://mycometserver.com/channel?callback=gotMsg">\<\/script>');
	}

	function gotMsg(msg) {
		// Do something with it
		waitForMsg();
	}
</script>

It’s fairly elegant in its simplicity and cross-browser support. But it has some weird side-effects that I’m not sure if any of the fancier systems got around. For one, it keeps the browser loading. While it’s waiting for messages, the browser says that page is still loading. I also ran into some issues where if I included, say, a Google Calendar widget on the page, it might not decide to keep the connection open (or even start it). I ended up putting a delay on the first call to waitForMsg() until after the calendar widget was likely loaded.

So it’s a bit brittle. You don’t know if it stops working. Therefore you can’t do retries. And you never know if you happen to miss a message between connections (unlikely, but something to worry about). Plus I think if you hit Escape it also kills it.

But this worked well enough for my projects. I knew that if I found a better way, I’d switch over to it, but it was good enough.

…heh…

Then today I decided to solve the problem right once and for all with a project called CometCatchr.

CometCatchr a lightweight Flash component to be used by Javascript that gives you a persistent connection for Comet streams.

I know a very small number of people won’t agree with my approach using Flash, but I tend to be pragmatic. I trust Flash is generally available and the benefits completely outweigh everything else to me. It’s also not new. Even the Bayeux protocol includes Flash as supported connection type. Still, I couldn’t find any simple Flash component that gave me what I wanted.

CometCatchr gives me Javascript callbacks on messages, maintains a persistent connection across messages, retries on lost connections, works in all browsers, supports (participating) cross-domain message sources, and just freaking works.

It was a drop-in replacement to my previous technique that worked right out of the box:

<script type="text/javascript">
	function gotMsg(msg) {
		// Do something with it
	}
</script>
<embed type="application/x-shockwave-flash" width="0" height="0" src="CometCatchr.swf?url=http://mycometserver.com/channel&callback=gotMsg"></embed>

It simplified my code, not just client-side, but now I don’t have to support JSONP callbacks on the server. CometCatchr also parses the JSON messages before passing the callback, so that’s taken care of too. I realize it seems less than ideal to couple this with JSON payloads, but I didn’t say it wasn’t an opinionated component.

In fact, it’s very opinionated. It likes single-line JSON messages sent via HTTP using chunked transfer encoding. That’s because that’s how I do Comet streams. Actually, that’s how Twitter does them, too. I’m quite alright with such constraints, but if you want to make changes, it’s MIT licensed and super simple to hack on.

So for the time being, I’ve more or less solved simple Comet to the browser, particularly for me. It also might be worth knowing that another motivation for building this component is that I intend to solve Comet and real-time stuff in the browser entirely… but uhh, yeah. Stay tuned.

The “real-time web” is a popular topic right now. My WebHooks initiative is both riding on this success and helping make it a reality. One sector of this trend is about notifications. Real-time notifications to you about events you care about.

For a long time we’ve had helper apps like the Google Notifier and more recently the Facebook Desktop Notifications app that bring events from the web to your desktop. Twitter has created a whole ecosystem of clients that not only let you actively check Twitter, but passively get updates from Twitter.

Simultaneously, we’ve had a bunch of systems like Growl emerge that give you a consistent, well-designed and customizable system for local applications to give you notifications. While your IM client is in the background, it can tell you somebody IM’d you and what they said in an unobtrusive way. It integrates with email applications to tell you of new emails. It gives any application developer a nice way to present notifications to the user in a way that’s in their control.

Some of the apps that bring web applications to your desktop like Tweetie, Google Notifier, etc will integrate with Growl (which has a counterpart on pretty much every platform, including the iPhone). The problem is that you only get these notifications when the desktop apps are running, despite the fact web apps are always running. And yes, you have to have an app running for each web application you use.

And that’s only if they built a desktop app and you were convinced to download it. Most web applications are never be able to notify you with any means other than email. But as I’ve argued before, notifications don’t belong in your inbox!

Another minor point is that all these apps use polling to get updates. In some cases this doesn’t matter, but as data starts moving in real-time, this batches your notifications into bursts that you may not be able to parse all at once. I use Tweetie to get Growl notifications from Twitter at the moment, and if a lot of people are updating, I get a huge screen of updates that I don’t have time to read before they disappear. It becomes useless.

A while back I attempted to make an app called Yapper that lets anybody send real-time notifications to your desktop via XMPP. It was an experiment, and ultimately not the answer. It was only part of the solution.

But today I’m announcing the full solution: a free, public, open-source web service called Notify.io (Notify-I-O).

Notify.io integrates with Growl and other local notifiers (as well as email, Jabber, Twitter, and webhooks) and provides a dead-simple API for any web developer to send real-time notifications to their users.

You can think of Notify.io as a web-level Growl system. It empowers users with a consistent, controllable way to get notifications, and it provides developers with a simple, consistent way for sending those notifications.

Notify.io is an open platform for notifications. It’s still in a pre-alpha state, but it already has several useful notification sources. Last Thursday I built Feed Notifier, which uses PubSubHubbub to give you real-time desktop notifications of Atom and RSS feed updates.

At SHDH 35 last Saturday, Abi Raja built a Facebook notification adapter for Notify.io that’s yet to be released. And there a couple more in the pipeline (by me and others) to show the power of Notify.io.

Again, it’s pre-alpha, so before I talk much more about it, I should probably finish more of it. I just wanted to make sure I blogged about it in somewhat of a timely fashion. I seem to have a backlog of blog posts about apps I’ve built recently. However, Notify.io is a pretty significant one. Feel free to check it out, just remember that despite its looks, it’s nowhere near finished — but it does work.