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October 12 2012

Four short links: 12 October 2012

  1. Code Talks and Designers Don’t Speak the Language (Crystal Beasley) — Many of the bugs, however, require a deep understanding of why the product exists in the marketplace and a thorough understanding of the research that underpins the project. These strategic questions are analogous to what a software architect would do. I was on the Persona project full time for three months before I felt confident making significant choices about UX.
  2. Parachute use to prevent death and major trauma related to gravitational challenge: systematic review of randomised controlled trials (British Medical Journal) — you don’t need to subscribe to appreciate this.
  3. html5test — see how the browsers stack up in features and compliance.
  4. Backbone FundamentalsA creative-commons book on Backbone.js for beginners and advanced users alike.

March 17 2011

Browser-based privacy controls come with caveats

Privacy.pngMonday's release of the Internet Explorer 9 upgrade didn't just feature faster speeds and a shiny new interface — it included an option for users to request that sites not track them as they surf around the web.

The Firefox 4 upgrade, expected March 22, will include this feature as well, according to a Wired post by Ryan Singel. In the Wired story, Singel also highlights third-party no tracking software developed by Abine, which combines the IE9 and Firefox privacy capabilities in a Firefox add-on.

Abine co-founder Andrew Sudbury commented for Singel's post:

We strongly believe people will go out of their way to support sites and businesses that treat them well but will also go out of their way to avoid businesses that annoy them or breach their trust.

Setting aside the disruption no-tracking tools could bring to online advertising and marketing models — that's an issue for another post — there are two problems with these browser-based solutions:

  1. There's an incorrect assumption that people know how to adjust their browser settings. Put another way: they don't satisfy the "mom test." My own mother doesn't realize sites are tracking her, nor does she know how to change browser defaults or set up whitelists. I'm guessing at least some of the folks still paying $25 per month for AOL dial-up access fall into the same group.
  2. If consumers use multiple browsers, move from computer to computer, or grab their mobile phones, "no tracking" doesn't necessarily follow them. Abine appears to be addressing this to some extent — see the release notes for version 0.550 — and syncing across browsers is becoming common. But what if you use browsers from different vendors? And what about mobile browsing?

An additional caveat, unrelated to browsers, is noted in the Wired story: these systems require websites to honor user requests to not be tracked.

To achieve any real privacy utility, it would seem that Do Not Track needs to come from a level above the browser — that could mean a syncing tool across browsers and devices, cloud-based browsing, or it could involve industry regulations.

Photo: Privacy by Alan Cleaver, on Flickr

Web 2.0 Expo San Francisco 2011, being held March 28-31, will examine key pieces of the digital economy and the ways you can use important ideas for your own success.

Save 20% on registration with the code WEBSF11RAD


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January 27 2011

Four short links: 27 January 2011

  1. Mozilla Home Dash -- love this experiment in rethinking the browser from Mozilla. They call it a "browse-based browser" as opposed to "search-based browser" (hello, Chrome). Made me realize that, with Chrome, Google's achieved a 0-click interface to search--you search without meaning to as you type in URLs, you see advertising results without ever having visited a web site.
  2. Periodic Table of Google APIs -- cute graphic, part of a large push from Google to hire more outreach engineers to do evangelism, etc. The first visible signs of Google's hiring binge.
  3. NFC in the Real World (Dan Hill) -- smooth airline checkin with fobs mailed to frequent fliers.
  4. XSS Prevention Cheat Sheet (OWASP) -- HTML entity encoding doesn't work if you're putting untrusted data inside a

April 20 2010

What will the browser look like in five years?

The web browser was just another application five years ago. A useful app, no doubt, but it played second fiddle to operating systems and productivity software.

That's no longer the case. Browsers have matured into multi-purpose tools that connect to the Internet (of course) and also grant access to a host of powerful online applications and services. Shut off your web connection for a few minutes and you'll quickly understand the browser's impact.

I got in touch with Charles McCathieNevile, Opera chief standards officer and a speaker at the upcoming Web 2.0 Expo, to discuss the the current role of web browsers and their near-term future. He shares his predictions in the following Q&A.

MS: Will the web browser become the primary tool on computers?

Charles McCathieNevileCharles McCathieNevile: It isn't already? Email, document management, device control, are all done through the browser. Games are increasingly browser-based -- while it is not the only area that has taken time to move to the web, it is one of the biggest. There will always be applications that don't run in the browser, just because that is the way people are. But there is little reason for the browser not to be a primary application already.MS: Will we even see a browser in five years? Or, will it simply blend with the operating system?

CM: We will see it, but as its importance increases it will be the part people see of their interface to the computer. So it will be less noticeable. Five years ago people chose their computer for the OS, and the software available for that OS. Ten years ago much more so. Increasingly, the browser will be the thing people choose.

MS: What has been the most significant browser advancement of the last 2-3 years?

CM: There are many I could name, from the huge increase in Javascript speed (and capabilities) in all browsers, to the development of native video, or the increased interoperability of XHTML, CSS and SVG. But the most significant in the long term just might be WAI-ARIA -- a technology that makes it easier to make rich applications accessible to anyone, effectively by tagging code to say what it is meant to do. Because an important aspect of the web is its universality.

The ability to build innovative new things has always been around, and it is part of what engineers do by nature. But the ability to make sure everyone can use and benefit from them is the prerequisite for a societal shift. If you like, it isn't the "bleeding edge" that is most significant (although it is generally the most interesting and captures the most mind-share), but it's how the "trailing edge" shifts. That what changes everyone's life.

MS: How important is cloud computing to the future of the browser?

CM: It shows a pathway for things that people want that require more power than the browser could provide at the time. So in that sense, it is very important. The major successes, the Web applications with million of users, are important in the sense that their user base sets some of the requirements for browser development.

MS: Will a single company achieve cloud-based lock in?

Web 2.0 Expo San FranciscoCM: I hope not. And I don't think so. Although very few companies have the computing power to build global-scale applications that people use many times in a day, that power is not necessary for many applications. And there are plenty of things that people are not very keen to put on a cloud at all -- or at least will insist on being able to move their data from one cloud to another. So while there will be very dominant players from time to time, I don't think we will see one company take over completely.

MS: Will browser innovation come from the mobile side in years to come?

CM: Of course -- in a continuation of the contribution of mobile browsing to the overall ecosystem. While mobile is increasingly important, it will not be the only driver. Large-screen devices, which are almost of necessity static, medium-sized devices, and different interface modalities such as voice and game controllers, will also drive innovations that will contribute to the richness of the entire web platform.

MS: What impact will tablet computing have on browsing?

CM: It's another class of device. We have seen it around for years, although it is now taking off with the shiny new toy. So it will highlight the importance of developing for a range of platforms -- and I think in large part the value of developing as much as possible with the "One Web" concept -- making applications and content that are easy to adapt to the increasing diversity of devices people use.

MS: Will web applications catch up to mobile applications?

CM: Oddly enough, many people still ask the question the other way around. So I guess the real issue is whether we will see genuine convergence. And the answer is yes. There are new things being developed on the desktop browser, and they include the capabilities that we now see in mobile applications. Initiatives such as JIL and BONDI were developed to "hothouse" specifications that could form a basis for what is now W3C's Device API group, and the development of technology like Web Workers, database storage and HTML5 video is being brought to mobile as fast as we can.

Note: This interview was condensed and edited.

December 18 2009

Four short links: 18 December 2009

  1. In Character -- a journal that addresses a different virtue each quarter. I've been thinking of practical philosophy a lot, lately, as we see ever-more-dodgy behaviour. (via bengebre on Delicious)
  2. Lessons from Parallelizing Matrix Multiplication -- a reminder why low-level knowledge of your platform matters, and why motivating examples should be carefully chosen.
  3. MathJax -- MathJax is an open source, Ajax-based math display solution designed with a goal of consolidating advances in many web technologies in a single definitive math-on-the-web platform supporting all major browsers. (via Hacker News)
  4. EtherPad Source -- released as part of their Google acquisition. The announcement says: Our goal with this release is to let the world run their own etherpad servers so that the functionality can live on even after we shut down etherpad.com. This is the resolution to the bad reception of the news that EtherPad would close in March with no plan B for users. The cult of entrepreneurship worshipped the customers only as a vehicle to an exit, but I don't believe that it's moral to do well personally but leave your customers high and dry. This is a message that the EtherPad founders seem to have got loud and clear.

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