Tag: internet

Return of the Popup

More than a decade ago, the internet userbase (all of humanity) resoundingly rejected popup windows. Popups became a popular method for scumbag web sites to serve advertisements and malware to visitors. They annoyed, they took up system resources needlessly, and they were generally unwanted. The lowly popup was the bane of the IE6 era, and many countermeasures were employed to block them, culminating in browsers adopting default settings to block popup windows and to require the user to approve popups on a per-domain basis.

It’s 2014, and popups have been returning thanks to javascript. Now, instead of popping up a new browser window and loading an entire webpage, popups have become ajaxy, serving an html fragment inside a FancyBox or similar javascript construct. They tend to serve up nags to Like, Share, and Follow the host site, rather than display advertisements for the ad network sponsoring the site, but they are no less annoying, and a stop needs to be put to them. It’s pervasive with clickbait “viral” websites, which are themselves annoying to begin with, due to the way they craft their teasers in often misleading ways. But these modal javascript annoyboxes need to go. Especially on mobile browsers, where the close button frequently doesn’t work well, they harm the user experience on web sites that use them.

FancyBox Etiquette for the Scrupulous Web Developer

There are legitimate uses of FancyBox, to display fullsize content in image galleries, for example, or to bring up contextually relevant controls in a web application. But the social share nag needs to go. The little buttons under the headline or at the bottom of the article ought to be sufficient. If people aren’t clicking on them, you don’t need to shove it in their face after a few seconds delay, or they’ve scrolled halfway down the page.

Here’s how to know whether your popup is a good popup or bad popup:

  1. Does the content being served in the popup serve the user’s needs, or is the site asking the user to do it a favor or asking the user to buy something?
  2. Did the user do something to request it, like click a button or link? Or did you throw the popup at them because they have been in the page for more than 10 seconds or scrolled down to read more of the article?
  3. Is the popup enabling the user to do what they came to the site to do? (eg., reading content, view a gallery of images, interact with features of a web app) Or is the site interrupting what the user came to the site to do and asking them to do something else (eg, buy something, donate money, sign a petition, LikeShareFollowSubscribe?)

There’s really not much gray area possible here. If you’re a web developer, stop doing the scumbag stuff, and get back to providing a good user experience to the user.

An appeal to end FancyBox popup abuse

Unfortunately the new popup phenomenon seems to be increasing in popularity, which means that, apparently, they work. If users don’t stop clicking on the Like|Share|Follow buttons when they’re served, we’re only going to see more of them. We need to stand up and say enough is enough.

Therefore, I’m issuing this appeal:

To the masses: stop Liking, Sharing, Following, and Subscribing to sites that try to signal boost through popup social nagging. In fact, stop going to those sites altogether.

To website developers: Stop making use of popup nags. Just stop already. Stop it.

To browser developers: Javascript has become a crucial part of the web, and necessary for many web sites to serve any content at all. But it is also a too-easily exploited vector for external threats to execute malicious code through the web browser, simply by visiting a URL. Come up with a way to selectively and effectively block javascript from running, so that desired features and functions of a site can be allowed while undesired scripts can be left blocked. Let javascript be used in ways that serves the user’s needs rather than the webmaster’s.

The Internet Is Vast, But We Travel At The Speed Of Light

Ingenuity Fest Day 2 is behind us now. Lots of kids came and played JS Joust and BaraBariBall. I’m not at all surprised, but younger kids especially seemed to like BaraBariBall. It just goes to show that classic game style appeals to everyone, not just nostalgia-seeking old schoolers.

JS Joust seemed to be quite popular, lots of participation. The novelty of it is that it’s more of a kinesthetic game than anything — it uses computer technology and wireless controllers, but there’s no screen at all. It’s more like a weird game of tag. Imagine playing tag while eating ice cream cones, and the way you win is to knock off everyone else’s ice cream. Only, no one’s crying at the end because their ice cream is now melting on the ground. But also, no one has any ice cream at all.

So, the internet. It amazes me. This is the best time to be alive, I think, despite everything wrong that’s going on in the world. Two days ago, I hadn’t even heard of BaraBariBall, and within a day of posting about it, I got a comment from its creator, saying that he follows the site.

I’m really starting to feel like I’m making connections in the world of Indie game development when things like that happen. Since the end of August, this site’s daily traffic has about doubled. In the last two months, I’ve receive about 20% of the visits since I started this thing back in January 2010.

I’ve been at this for going on 3 years now, which I guess is a long time in one way, and not long at all in another. It’s hard to quantify success, and easy to discount its indicators. The stats counter tells me I have an audience, and it’s building, gradually, so I know you’re out there. I don’t know who you are, though, and I don’t really hear from most of you. I don’t really know what kind of impact what I’m doing has on you, and only my own ideas to tell me what I’m doing right or wrong, or what else I should be doing.

I guess what I’m saying is, I really thrive on feedback. Like anyone else on the internet, it’s all about knowing that you’ve got people’s attention. I’m doing all of this stuff because I love doing it, but it really means a whole lot more when I know that there are other people out there who like what I’m doing and are taking interest.

I’d love to hear from you more. Even if you don’t have anything in particular to say, if you just want to drop a comment on this post, and say “hi”, that’d be great. If you’ve done anything I might have heard of (or that you’d like me to hear of) mention that, too. Or tell me how you came to find the site, what you like about it, what you don’t, or anything else for that matter.

The Great Google Privacy Policy Consolidation

A friend of mine asked recently:

Hey Chris –

I have a question and figured you might be a good person to ask – this is regarding the Google privacy policy.

I do not have a gmail or google + or youtube account. Do I need to do anything for privacy protection, then? I do use google as a search engine for documents and images. I also use youtube.com, but just as an anonymous user without an account. Should I try to erase my browsing history? I do that anyway with my isp, but since I don’t have an official google account, do I need to worry about any of this stuff?

Thanks, Chris!

Ironically, this was on Facebook, but it’s still good to at least be concerned about privacy, right? I figured the reply I gave them was blog-worthy, so I treated it as my first draft, re-worked it a bit, added some more thoughts, and embellished.

Here’s what I said:

Ultra-short answer:

We’re screwed no matter what we do, so don’t worry about it too much.

OK, maaaaybe “screwed no matter what” is overstating it a bit, but I don’t think so. We really have very little recourse or power over how information about us is used. I suppose I could rephrase it, “We’re at their mercy no matter what.” and be slightly more accurate, but I suspect it’s just semantics at that point.

Why do I say this?

What meaning is there in a privacy policy? A privacy policy is basically a token offering of transparency, intended to show that the web site is acting in good faith to try to make it known what they will do or not do with information that you give to them.

How do you know if they act according to policy? Generally, you don’t. It’s possible you might catch them slipping up if they do something really dumb. What then? They issue a [lame] apology, the news media forgets the whole thing in a day or two.

What recourse do you have if the violate their own policy? I dunno, maybe sue them?

They can change the policy at any time to whatever they want it to be, but they already have whatever information you’ve given them, and it’s fairly reasonable to assume that they always will have it. It’s not good enough to have an acceptable policy now, if they can change it to an unacceptable policy later.

Mind you, that information you provide to them is not just the explicit, deliberate information you give purposefully, such as your user profile information. It’s also information you unconsciously provide, that they can gather from your actions on the site, such as you have a tendency to click on links that look like they might take you to pictures of boobs, or whatever. We betray ourselves constantly by doing and being ourselves and being observable.

A privacy policy is only as good as the integrity of the issuer. Policies change over time, usually without as much notice or forewarning as Google has given. When they do change, I’m always reminded of the scene in Empire Strikes Back when Darth Vader tells Lando Calrissian that he’s changing the deal.

Darth Vader: Calrissian. Take the princess and the Wookiee to my ship.
Lando: You said they’d be left at the city under my supervision!
Darth Vader: I am altering the deal. Pray I don’t alter it any further.

A privacy policy isn’t a contract. It therefore isn’t binding.

Even if a policy were binding, that policy can become null and void if the company gets acquired by another company, particularly if they go bankrupt, or if the company is forced by legal proceedings to divulge information. When a company gets split up and its assets become the property of its creditors, those assets include information about you, the user. The creditor isn’t bound by the policy, and is beholden to its investors to maximize the value of the assets it recovered from the bankruptcy. Chances are, that means your information is going to get used in ways you probably wouldn’t like if you knew about it or could do something to prevent it. Your only real hope is that the creditor cares about public opinion about it. Which, it might realize it does, but only after the fact, when it is too late to prevent the harm that violating your trust has caused.

Privacy policies also do nothing to protect you against external abuse of the service, ie “hacking”. If the service experiences a data breach, your data is being used in ways you don’t want, but the policy does nothing to prevent this or protect you. You might be able to sue, if you have the time and a good lawyer, and, if they were hacked due to willful negligence, you might even prevail in finding them liable for damages, although most likely, their Terms of Service that you agreed almost certainly indemnified them. But even if you win, and are awarded damages, that still doesn’t redact the information that’s now out there.

All of this background is pretty far afield from the specific question about Google’s privacy policy consolidation. But I think it’s the most germane thing to say about the matter, because, ultimately, privacy policies are pretty useless, meaningless things.

I’m not suggesting that Google doesn’t follow their privacy policy, or that their policy is bad, I’m just saying that policies are like promises that corporations make at their convenience, and change as suits them. So, not really promises.

Now, keeping that in mind… let’s talk about Google.

Short answer:

  • If you do not have any google accounts, you are relatively safe, and the policy changes don’t really change anything for you.
  • If you do have accounts with google, and are not logged in, you are relatively safe, as long as you always remember to log out whenever you don’t want your usage of google to be tied to an identity that you use.
  • What you do when you’re not logged in, won’t be explicitly connected to your google identity.
  • However, that’s not to say that your activity can’t be traced to your identity with a little effort. Your activity will assuredly be logged, and, combined with other information, that your computer or browser reveal about you, such as your IP address, geo-location, cookie information, your browser “fingerprint”, usage patterns, analyzing your online friends and contacts, the way you misspell words, your writing style, could all potentially be used to identify you even if you’re not giving away your identity explicitly by being logged in.
  • Google (as with any web site) can still track what visitors do when they are not logged in, but these behaviors are not explicitly tied to an identity. It’s not difficult to infer an identity of an anonymous web visitor using various techniques, given enough collected information to establish behavior patterns.
  • In fact, most web sites (including this one) use a Google product called Analytics to help them accumulate stats about the use of the site. This sort of information is pretty harmless, it just gives visitor counts, search terms used that lead someone to your site, what time of day people visit, how long they stay, where in the world they are visiting from, and that sort of thing. I wouldn’t call myself an expert, but I don’t see much potential harm in this sort of information being collected. Still, there are concerns, since other web sites using Analytics effectively multiplies Google’s reach.
  • If you use the Google Chrome web browser, or an Android phone, they absolutely do track usage, anonymously or not, and even if they don’t care who you are, specifically, they’re getting a pretty good picture of it anyway. Google most likely will not do anything with it beyond help advertisers find you so they can sell you things that you’re more likely to want to buy. That’s not to say that they couldn’t decide to use the information in other ways, if they wanted to, though. Some people in the know have said that the entire point of Chrome and Android are to gather information about their users for google’s gain.

One of the main things that people are concerned about is that their google search queries, youtube viewing history and favorites, which they had long thought were private, would be linked to your identity, and that this link would be made public through Google’s new social features.

Google has always made search trend data (aggregated statistics about supposedly-private search terms) public. That’s how we knew during the 90’s that everyone was searching for Britney Spears, remember?

What’s new is their integration of search with their new “Google+” identity service. Social search is supposed to help you find stuff that’s more relevant to you by telling you what your friends +1’d. This is great until you discover that one of your friends has some disturbing interests, and that gets you to wondering what interests you have that others might find disturbing. Anything you publicly +1 is visible to the internet at large as something you “liked”. There is a natural inclination to interpret a +1 or Like as endorsement, regardless of whether you actually agreed with it, or laughed at it, or hated it, or just thought it was interesting. It’s disturbing to most people to think that others viewing might jump to conclusions about who you are, based on the things you +1.

If you don’t like this, there are other search engines you can use, such as duckduckgo, which promise not to track you at all. Again, this is nothing more than a promise, and you really don’t know whether they do or not.

Google isn’t the only one who does this, of course. Facebook has infected virtually the entire internet, allowing you to “log in with facebook”, or “Like” anything and everything. This information is shared with your friends, with Facebook and Facebook’s partners, with the site who’s content you Liked or logged in to view. People “liking” stuff and sharing links with each other is how word spreads around and content “goes viral”. This is great if it makes you famous or puts public pressure on someone doing something we don’t like. But when it’s you doing something perfectly within your rights, and the public doesn’t like it, you can feel oppressed or threatened. Worse things than that can happen, too. You can lose your job, get arrested, lose friends. Your whole life can be ruined.

And for all that, it may be that this new social aspect of web searching is more useful than it is harmful, that on the balance it is a net good, albeit with risks and drawbacks. One benefit of public social search is that it makes it easier for you to find content that is relevant to you, and to share that content with your friends. Content your friends like is very likely to be of interest to you, so weighting a search result that has been “+1’d by someone you know” makes a great deal of sense. And, as long as the friend +1’d it knowing that their +1 would be used as a recommendation this way, it’s all well and good.

Webmasters are always clamoring for better rankings in Google’s search engine so they can get more traffic as a result. As unscrupulous sites learn to game the system, through exploiting principles of SEO to attract traffic “undeservedly” by not providing what that traffic is really looking for, thereby wasting eveybody’s time in order to reap ad revenue, Google continually has worked to refine PageRank to keep its results relevant and keep spam down. Social bookmarking is merely the next iteration in that arms race. The countermeasure, of course, is also already here: advertising campaigns which bribe you into liking or +1-ing pages in order to get points, a discount, a chance at a prize. And so it goes.

Another potential problem is that your favorite service may end up being acquired by one of the behemoths. Yahoo! loves to do this and usually screws their users in various ways. Google does to, but is usually better about preserving the quality and value of user experience. All the big players play this acquisition game to some extent. So, if you think you’re safer using a smaller web site that promises they’ll never sell you out to third parties, remember the promise is only as good as their word, and only good as long as they exist as themselves, and tomorrow they could change their mind, get acquired, or get served a subpoena. It could happen to DuckDuckGo just as well as it could happen to anyone.

Why the consolidation? What’s the problem?

I think that consolidating privacy policies and making them more consistent across the services that google offers is generally a good idea and makes sense. Over the years Google has amassed a considerable number of online services, and tying them together rather than having dozens of separate policies and keeping information about how you use each service separate doesn’t make a great deal of sense.

I think it’s to Google’s credit that they’ve been forthcoming about the changes and actively promoted what they are doing, to keep things as transparent as possible. Google does listen to user feedback and tries to do the right thing, although of course not everyone agrees that they always do.

Nevertheless, it is understandably disturbing is the concentration of the information those services collect about you, and what can happen when information from an account you created to shield your identity via pseudonym catches up with you and is linked with your “true” identity.

If you have a persona on one service that is very different from your “normal” self, it can be embarrassing or damaging for people who know you in one world to suddenly find out that you also live in another world as well. There are legitimate needs people have to compartmentalize their lives in this way, and it shouldn’t be google’s place to judge or to decide for them.

I really don’t think that they do judge, but they do seem to be deciding a bit, by linking services this way. If you thought me@gmail.com and me@youtube.com were separate, that’s probably a misconception that you bear responsibility for; you could have created separate accounts, myemailforveryseriousbusiness@gmail.com, and ilikewatchingfunnyvids@youtube.com. It’d become a pain to log out of one and into another each time you wanted to visit a site, but at least you’d have your e-life compartmentalized.

The concern with this consolidation is that, now there’s potential for inadvertant slips of information, now that your email usage data is tied to your youtube usage data and potentially becomes visible to everyone with a Plus account whom you’ve ever added to a circle, or even the public at large. Now the company you’ve emailed about a job you wanted knows you enjoy watching videos of cats doing cute things, or that you’re an ardent environmentalist, or a gun nut, or think recreational drugs should be legalized, or that you oppose war. Oops. People are really more worried about being judged by others, not just by Google.

What do do?


Be anonymous as much as you can. That means don’t log in. When you do need to log in, use https and other encrypted protocols as much as possible (sftp, ssh, etc.) Https is a good idea even for general browsing when you’re not logged in. Use Tor. Encrypt your email.

Unfortunately, so much of the web now depends on you being logged in, or identifying yourself somehow. To access content, to share it with your friends, to comment, to purchase. Sooner or later, you’re going to need to log in.


A simple solution to this is to use pseudonyms. Use myrealname@gmail.com for official business, and iloveporn@gmail.com for your nasty business. Don’t mix the two up, and don’t let your porn-loving pals know what your real name is. Have as many pseudonyms as you think you need, to keep distinct your various identities separate and segregated to whatever communities you choose to use that identity for.

Is it possible to somehow establish that there is a link between the user of your pseudonym account to your other account, or to your real identity? Sure. But that’s more something a private detective or law enforcement official might try to do, not something Google’s terribly interested in doing. Although, if Google wanted to, it’d be terribly trivial for them to do that.

Is it possible to screw up and accidentally send that email to Boss@work.com from the iloveporn account? You better believe it. Be careful.

A pseudonym is something you’d use for relative anonymity, but where you still need an identity that persists over long term, so that other users of a community can have some sense of “knowing” who you are.

Throw-away accounts

If you’re more worried about your activities being traced or tied to you in any way at all, it makes sense to create and dump accounts for specific, short-term purposes. Throw-away accounts can help a little by compartmentalizing information about you and keeping the amount of information gathered on any single account to a minimum. Each time you start over fresh with a new account, it’s as though you’ve thrown away your past information, so long as it cannot be tied to your real identity(-ies), or your other throw-away accounts.

If you ever use an account to do something you don’t want traced back to you, use a throw-away account, use it for one thing and one thing only, discontinue using the account as soon as possible, and delete the account if possible once you’re done with it — not that this will delete the data they’ve collected, but it will prevent you from re-using the account again and adding to the data trail, thereby limiting what they can acquire about you with that one account.

If you’re ultra-paranoid, use the account from a public wifi access point, using a clean-installed OS and browser with no special customizations. What are you doing, anyway, issuing death threats?

Yeah, I went there. The assumption generally will be that you’re up to no good if you’re going to that extreme. Not, for example, that you live in Syria or North Korea, and this is what you have to do if you want to live.

Privacy enemies love to brand people who take unusual measures to protect their privacy as deviants who have something to hide, likely pedophiles or terrorists. They don’t think about the French Resistance during World War II, or 1984. Unfortunately, this means that if you are one of the few people who does use a lot of privacy protecting countermeasures, you’re making yourself visible in a way that could arouse suspicion.

The only hope here is to get everyone to adopt privacy technology, which is a decidedly uphill battle. The average person knows little and cares less about how vulnerable their information is, and has a hard time understanding the threat picture or how to protect themselves. Unless privacy security is built in at the protocol and application level, and is thus on for everyone by default, the vast majority of users aren’t going to use it.

Should I delete my history?

Erasing your browsing history won’t really help all that much. If you erase it, you erase YOUR copy of it, and thereby deny access to it for people who have access to your PC, either direct physical access, or through malicious web sites that may be able to exploit a vulnerability to read cookies set by other web sites, view your history or access your saved passwords, or who knows what else.

I find local history useful to bring back something I saw recently and want to go back to for some reason, and it helps me feel like the computer is mine when it “knows” me.

Still, if you’re worried about someone snooping on your PC, erasing your history can be a sensible thing to do.

However, on the server side of the web, there will be a log of your access and what actions you performed through the browser while you are connected to that site, and that isn’t something you can delete. Even if the web site offers you the ability to delete your information, it’s entirely likely that all that does is hide the information from you, while keeping it for the use of the service, for data mining, reselling to third parties, and what have you. When it comes to “removing” data, there’s “remove permissions”, there’s “removing a softlink to an inode”, and there’s “rm -f”. Even if a web service did offer “rm -f”-level deletion of your data at your request, deleting is still legitimately hard — if you expect your data to be purged from all backup tapes and whatnot, forget about it. Ain’t happening.

What do they want from me?

It’s easy, and understandable, to feel paranoid about all of this. As the saying goes “Just because you’re paranoid, don’t mean they’re not after you.” But the inverse is also relevant: Just because they’re not after you, specifically, doesn’t mean you can relax about your paranoia. “They” are after everyone.

Most of it does not have anything to do with you as an individual. I mean, sure it’s possible that a person who has enemies could have this information gathered and used against them, but the world generally is not really that interested in any one person. If you’re a fugitive, or should be if people knew more about what you do with yourself, that’s another matter.

The biggest use of this information is to help target you with advertising that you’re more likely to respond to. Targeted advertising can actually help you — for example by informing you of a product you would like but don’t know about, or by steering discounts your way for things they know you like. I really, *really* hate advertising, but I do actually like it when I want to buy something, start searching for it, and a few days later start getting targeted ads for that thing, offering me discount incentives for it.

I suppose there’s the potential for mind control, brainwashing, and pavlovian conditioning. We are, after all, animals. We don’t like to be controlled or manipulated, and we know we are vulnerable to it. And advertisers want us to spend our money on their stuff. But, the deal is, if they know who you are better, then maybe they can sell you things you actually want and need, and maybe they really don’t care about your private business. As long as the ads aren’t annoying and in your face, I don’t mind them so much, but if they diminish my experience of using a service, I feel it’s my right to block them. They appear on my computer, which after all, I own and control.

But there’s legitimate worry, that this information can be used in ways that harm us, as when insurance companies learn more about who you are and decide you’re more costly to insure or are uninsurable, or if the government starts to suspect that you’re an enemy of the state, or a corporation determines you to be a threat of some kind, and won’t hire you.

Where, then?

Even if you are really worried about Google’s privacy change, and all this general internet privacy paranoia talk has got you thinking about ditching the internet, unplugging entirely from the net is only going to help you so much.

There’s so much information gathered about you and shared by those who gather it that they can pull up a pretty good picture of who you are.

If you have “membership” or “discount” cards with businesses, if you use credit cards, if you utilize financial products from lending institutions, if you tend to respond to surveys, if you file taxes, if you’ve lived in the same place for a while, if you haven’t changed your name recently, they have a lot of info on you already. No matter what you do, it’s possible for people to collect information about you if they can “see” you. Once a bit of information exists about you, sharing that information is trivial. It sticks around forever. And it can be combined with other little bits of information about you from all over the place. And an institution with time on its hands and a lot of resources can amass a staggering amount of information about you.

Scary stuff, but good luck fighting against it.

That’s why I say we’re all screwed no matter what, and not to worry about it too much.

Why do I say don’t worry about it too much? Well, if you want to keep your private stuff private — and there is still stuff that we legitimately ought to want to be able to keep private — at the moment it’s a bit of a losing battle. But, the upside of this is that as more and more stuff that we used to keep private becomes exposed, we’re going to find that we had less to fear.

When I said “good luck fighting against it,” a moment ago, I meant “good luck fighting alone to keep your private stuff private.” That doesn’t mean that we’re all completely powerless.

Once you’re outed, you’ll find that there are lots of people like you. And you have strength in numbers. Thinking about people and their secrets, I find it comforting to think about what the gay community has been able to do in the last 50 years to assert their legitimate right to exist and enjoy the same freedoms everyone else gets. They still struggle for acceptance, but just look at all the progress that has been made.

Live the life you want to live, not the life you’re afraid not to live because of what you think others will think of you, not even people in positions of power, who might abuse that power. The best defense against this sort of abuse, in my opinion, is openness. If lots of people stand up at once and assert their rights, they can win them, keep them, and have them. Bad things can, and, I’m sure, will happen to people, and I don’t mean to justify it or minimize it. But at this point, I think we’re better off standing up for ourselves, fighting back, and asserting our rights than we are trying to hide and exercise those rights unnoticed.

Follow the Leader: Firefox 5 and the State of the Browser Wars

Mozilla released Firefox 5 yesterday. I upgraded on one of my systems already, but haven’t done so on all of my systems due to some Extensions that are lagging behind in compatibility. These days I mostly use Chrome as my default browser, so I’m less apt to notice what might have changed between FF4 and FF5, and looking at the change list it doesn’t look like a huge release, which is another way of saying that Firefox is mature and can be expected to undergo minor refinements rather than major uhpeavals — this should be a good thing. FF4 seemed like a pretty good quality release. I’ve been a Firefox user since the early 0.x releases, and have been more or less satisfied with it, whatever its present state was at the time, since about 0.9.3. And before that I used the full Mozilla suite, IE4-6 for a few dark years when it actually was the best browser available on Windows, and before that Netscape 4. I actively shunned and ridiculed WebTV ;-). And I’d been a Netscape user since 1.1N came out in ’94. So, yeah. I knows my web browsers.

These are pretty exciting times for the WWW. HTML5 and CSS3 continue slowly becoming viable for production use, and have enabled new possibilities for web developers.

Browsers have matured and become rather good, and between Mozilla, Chrome, Opera, Safari, and IE, it appears that there’s actually a healthy amount of competition going on to produce the best web browser, and pretty much all of the available choices are at least decent.

It seems like a good time to survey and assess the “state of the browser”. So I did that. This is going to be more off the cuff than diligiently researched, but here’s a few thoughts:

After some reflection, I’ve concluded that we seem to have pretty good quality in all major browsers, but perhaps less competition than the number of players in the market might seem to indicate.

Hmm, “Pretty good quality”: What do I mean by this, exactly? It’s hard to say what you expect from a web browser, and a few times we’ve seen innovations that have redefined good enough, but at the moment I feel that browsers are mature and good enough, for the most part: They’re fast, featureful, stable. Chrome and Firefox at least both have robust extensibility, with ecosystems of developers supporting some really clever (and useful) stuff that in large part I couldn’t imagine using the modern WWW without.

Security is a major area where things could still be better, but the challenges there are difficult to wrap one’s head around. It seems that for the forseeable future, being smart, savvy, and paranoid are necessary to have a reasonable degree of security when it comes to using a web browser — and even then it’s far from guaranteed.

There has been some progress in terms of detecting cross site scripting attacks, phishing sites, improperly signed certificates, locking scripts, and the like. Still, it seems wrong to expect a web browser to ever be “secure”, any more than it would make sense to expect any inanimate object to protect you. It’s a tool, and you use it, and how you use it will determine what sort of risks you expose yourself to. The tool can be designed in such a way as to reduce certain types of risks, but the problem domain is too broad and open to ever expect anyone but a qualified expert to have a hope of having anything resembling a complete understanding of the threat picture.

That’s a can of worms for another blog post, not something I can really tackle today. Let’s accept for now the thesis that browser quality is “decent” or even “pretty good”. The WWW is almost 20 years old, so anything other should be surprising.

In terms of competition, we have a bit less than the number of players makes it seem.

Microsoft only develops IE for Windows now, making it a non-competitor on all other platforms. Yet, because its installed userbase is so large, IE is still influential on the design of web sites (primarily in that IE forces web developers to test for older versions of IE’s quirks and bugs). By now, we’re really very nearly done with this, one would hope the long tail of IE6 is flattening as thin as it can until corporations can finally migrate from Windows XP. Even MS is solidly on board with complying with w3C recommendations for how web content gets rendered. It seems that their marketshare is held almost exclusively due to IE being the default browser for the dominant OS. Particularly in corporate environments where the desktop is locked down and the user has no choice, or the hordes of personal computer owners who own a computer but treat it like an appliance that they don’t understand, maintain, or upgrade. I suspect that the majority of IE users use it because they have no choice or because they don’t understand their computer enough or have the curiosity to learn how to install software, not because there are people out there who genuinely love IE and prefer it over other browsers. I’m willing to be wrong on this, so if you’re out there using IE and love it, and prefer it over other browsers, be sure to drop me a comment. I’d love to hear from you.

Apple is in much the same position with Safari on Mac OS X as MS is with IE on Windows. Apple does make Safari for Windows, but other than web developers who want to test with it, I know of no one who uses it. Safari is essentially in the inverse boat that IE is in on its native platform: a non-competitor on every other platform.

This leaves us with Opera, Mozilla, and Chrome.

Opera has been free for years now, though closed-source, and has great quality, yet adoption still is very low, to the point where its userbase is basically negligible. There are proud Opera fanboys out there, and probably will be as long as Opera sticks around. But they don’t seem like they’ll ever be a major player, even as the major players always seem to rip off features that they pioneered. They do have some inroads on embedded and mobile platforms (I use Opera on my Nokia smartphone rather than the built-in browser, and on my Wii). But I really have to wonder why Opera still exists at this point. It’s mysterious that they haven’t folded.

The Mozilla Foundation is so dependent on funding from Google that Firefox vs. Chrome might as well be Google vs. Google. One wonders how long that’s likely to continue. I guess as long as Google wants to erode the entrenched IE marketshare and appear not to be a drop-in replacement for monopoly, it will continue to support Mozilla and, in turn, Firefox. Mozilla does do more than just Firefox, though, so that’s something to keep in mind. A financially healthy, vibrant Mozilla is good for the market as a whole.

Moreover, both Chrome and Firefox are open source projects. This makes either project more or less freely able to borrow not just ideas, but (potentially, from a legal standpoint at least) actual source code, from each other.

It’s a bit difficult to be able to describe to a proverbial four year old how Mozilla and Chrome are competing with each other. If anything, they compete with each other for funding and developer resources (particularly from Google). Outwardly, Firefox appears to have lost the leadership position within the market, despite still having the larger user base, they are no longer driving the market to innovate. Firefox largely has given that up to Google (and even when they were given credit for it, much of what they “innovated” was already present in Opera, and merely popularized and re-implemented as open source by Mozilla. And with each release since Chrome was launched, Firefox continues to converge in its design to look and act more and more like Chrome.

It’s difficult to say how competing browsers ought to differentiate themselves from each other, anyway. The open standards that the WWW is built upon more or less demand that all browsers not differentiate themselves from each other too much, lest someone accuse them of attempting to hijack standards or create a proprietary Internet. Beyond that, market forces pretty much dictate that if you keep your differentiating feature to yourself, no web developers will make use of it because only the users of your browser will be able to make use of those features, leaving out the vast majority of internet users as a whole.

Accelerating Innovation

After releasing Firefox 4, Mozilla changed its development process to accomodate the accelerated type of release schedule that quickly lead to Google becoming recognized as the driver and innovator in the browser market. Firefox 5 is the first such release under the new process.

This change has met with a certain amount of controversy. I’ve read a lot of opinion on this on various forums frequented by geeks who care about these things.

Cynical geeks think that it’s marketing driven, with version number being used to connote quality or maturity, so that commercials can say “our version number is higher than the competitor, therefore our product must be that much better”. Cynics posited that since Chrome’s initial release put them so many versions behind IE/FF/Opera that this put Google into a position of needing to “make up excuses” to rev the major version number, until they “caught up” with the big boys.

While this is something that we have seen in software at times, I don’t think that’s what’s going on this time. We’re not seeing competitors skipping version numbers (like Netscape Navigator skipping 5 in order to achieve “version parity” with IE6) or marketing-driven changes to the way a product promotes its version (a la Windows 3.1 -> 95 -> 98 -> 2000 -> XP -> Vista -> 7).

Some geeks, I’ll call them versioning “purists,” believe that version numbers should “have integrity”, “be meaningful”, or “stand for something”. These are the kind of geeks who like the software projects where the major number stays at 0 for a decade, even though the application has been in widespread use and in a fairly mature state since 0.3 and has a double-digit minor number. The major release number denotes some state of maturity, and has criteria which must be satisfied in order for that number to go up, and if it ever should go up for the wrong reasons, it’s an unmitigated disaster, a triumph of marketing over engineering, or a symptom that the developers don’t know what they’re doing since they “don’t understand proper versioning”.

From this camp, we have the argument that in order to rev the major number so frequently, necessarily this must mean that the developers are delivering less with each rev, which thus necessarily dilutes the “meaningfulness” of the major version number, or somehow conveys misleading information. So much less is delivered with each release that the major number no longer conveys what they believe it ought to (typically, major code base architecture, or backward compatibility boundary, or something of that order). These people have a point, if the major number indeed is used to signify such things. However, they would be completely happy with the present state of affairs if only there were a major number ahead of the number that’s changing so frequently. In fact, you’ll hear them make snarky comments that “Firefox 5 is really 4.1”, and so on. Just pretend there’s an imaginary leading super-major version number, which never changes, guys. It’ll be OK.

Firefox’s accelerated dev cycle is in direct response to Chrome’s. Chrome’s rapid pace had nothing to do with achieving version parity. In fact, when Chrome launched in pre-1.0 beta, in terms of technology at least, it was actually ahead of the field in many ways. Beyond that, Chrome hardly advertises its version number at all. It updates itself in about as silently a manner as it possibly can without actually being deceptive. And Google’s marketing of Chrome doesn’t emphasize the version number, either. It’s the Chrome brand, not the version. Moreover, they don’t need to emphasize the version, because upgrading isn’t really a choice the user has to make in order to keep up to date.

Google’s development process has emphasized frequent, less disruptive change over less frequent, more disruptive. It’s a very smart approach, and it smells of Agile. Users benefit because they get better code sooner. Developers benefit because they get feedback on the product they released sooner, meaning they can fix problems and make improvements sooner.

The biggest problem that Mozilla users will have with this is that Extensions developers are going to have to adjust to the rapid pace. Firefox extensions have a built-in check which tests an Extension to see if it is designed to work with the version of Firefox that is loading it. This is a simple/dumb version number check, nothing more. So when version numbers bump and the underlying architecture hasn’t changed in a way that impacts the working of the Extension, the extension is disabled because the version number is disqualified, not necessarily because of a genuine technical incompatibility. Often the developer ups the version number that the check will allow, and that’s all that is needed. A more robust checking system that actually flags technical incompatibilities might help alleviate this tedium. But if and when the underlying architecture does change, Extension developers will have to become accustomed to being responsive quickly, or run the risk of becoming irrelevant due to obsolescence. Either that, or Firefox users will resist upgrading rapidly until their favorite Extensions are supported. Either situation is not good for Mozilla.

Somehow, Chrome doesn’t seem to have this problem. Chrome has a large ecology of Extensions, comparable to that of Firefox. Indeed, many popular Firefox Extensions are ported to work with Chrome. Yet I can’t recall ever getting warned or alerted that any of my Chrome extensions are no longer compatible because Chrome updated itself. It seems like another win for Chrome, and more that Firefox could learn from them.

I have to give a lot of credit to Google for spurring the innovation that has fueled browser development in the last couple years. The pace of innovation that we saw when Mozilla and Opera were the leaders just wasn’t as fast, or as influential. With the introduction of Chrome, and the rapid release schedule that Google have successfully kept up with, the entire market seems to have been invigorated. Mozilla has had to change their practices in order to keep up, both in terms of speeding up their release cycle, and in adopting some of the features that made Chrome a leader and innovator, such as isolating browser processes to indivual threads, drastically improving javascript performance. Actually, it feels to me that most of the recent innovation in web browsers has been all due to the leadership of Chrome, with everyone else following the leader rather than coming up with their own innovations.

In order to be truly competitive, the market needs more than just the absence of monopoly. A market with one innovator and many also-rans isn’t as robustly healthy as a market with multiple innovators. So, really, the amount of competition isn’t so great, and yet we see that the pace of innovation seems to be picking up. Also, it’s strange to be calling this a market, since no one at this point is actually selling anything. I’d really like to see some new, fresh ideas coming out of Mozilla, Opera, and even Microsoft and Apple. As long as Google keeps having great ideas coupled with great execution, and openness, perhaps such a robust market for browsers is not essential, but it would still be great to see.

Intellectual property value of social networking referrals

One thing I have noticed over my years of using the social web (fb, twitter, livejournal) that human culture instinctively places a value on linking to things in a way that I find odd. There’s a type of “intellectual property” that people conventionally recognize as a sort of matter of natural course. I don’t know how else to describe it than that.

In real value terms this sort of intellectual property is very low value, but in social etiquette terms, the value is more substantial. The phenomena is one of credit, but it’s not credit for authorship, rather it is credit for finding and sharing. If you find something cool and blog about it, and you’re the first one in your little social group to do so, you get some kind of credit for being on top of things, being cool enough to know where to look, lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, or whatever. It’s not much more than that, but somehow if you post the same link and are not the first in your social group to do so, and don’t acknowledge the coolness of the person who you saw posted it first, it can ruffle feathers, as though people think you’re trying to be the cool, original one and are stealing other people’s “cool points” by not acknowledging where you got your cool link from.

It’s funny though since posting a link is an act of evaluation (“I judge this content to be worthy of your time, so I’m sharing it.”) rather than an act of creativity (if you want to be really cool, go author some original content and see how many people you can get to link to that.)

What I take from this is two things:

  1. having good enough taste in something to make a recommendation which one of your friends will pass along to others is an important, valuable thing in itself. Having this sort of taste implies that you are cool.
  2. Getting there first is important, OR perhaps acknowledging who was cool enough to turn you on to something that you found cool is important.

One of the things about Facebook that I like a lot is that they get this, and implement it in such a way that it basically works automatically. You can click “Share” and it just handles crediting who you got it from in a behind the scenes sort of way that forces you to follow the etiquette convention automatically, thereby avoiding being a leech or douchebag. On the other hand, in Livejournal, this is a somewhat useful way to discern who among your friends is a douchebag, since if they don’t think to credit someone for showing them something that you’ve already seen before, you know they’re not with it, or at least aren’t following their friends-list all that closely.


Another interesting thing about this is that, depending, sometimes people will just post a link to something without any comment, while other times people will post and add their thoughts to it as an annotation. Sometimes no comment is needed, or is implied by the context of how you know your Friend and what they are about and why they would be posting that link. Other times, people will post their thoughts and sometimes write something reasonably lengthy and thoughtful on the subject that they are linking to. This tends to happen much more on Livejournal than on Facebook or Twitter, which are geared toward more structured, but forced brief content. I think that Livejournal tends to encourage more expressive posts because people tend to use pseudonyms and write with somewhat more anonymity than they have with Facebook, where most people use their real name. I do like the way that Facebooks conversations of comments seem to flow very nicely once a topic hits someone’s wall. It’s also interesting to see how different groups of friends will come to the same original linked content and have different or similar conversations about it.

I think it would be fascinating to be able to visualize through some sort of graphic how sub-circles of an individual’s friends might converge though common interest in some topic. In my own Facebook experience, it has been interesting to see people I know from elementary and high school mixing with people I knew from college and afterward, and from various workplaces, and so on. I think it would be really interesting to see this sort of interaction on a very large scale, sortof a Zuckerberg’s eye view of what’s going on in various social circles that occupy Facebook. I can mentally picture colored bubbles occupying various regions of space, and mixing at the edges, colors blending like wet paint.

I also think it’s interesting how the constraints and style of the different social sites shape behavior and the characteristics of the groups who use them. Facebook users in my experience have tended to be more sedate, dryer, and thoughtful, though not always. Substantial numbers of my friends seem to be comfortable goofing and making fools of themselves, or being outspoken to the point that they run the risk of offending people of a differing political polarity. Twitter seems to be a land of important headlines mixed with one-liner witticisms and the occasional bit of Zen. Livejournal seems to be more private, insular, and diary-ish. I almost said “diaretic” but that sounds a lot like another word which, actually, might be even more appropriate, if disgusting. Discussting? Heh.

OK, I’m clearly blogging like I’ve been up for too long, and I have. But I hope to revisit and put more thought into these matters and see if something materializes out of that that is worthy of linking to and discussing. This could end up being someone’s Social Media studies PhD thesis:P

Three eras of searching the world wide web

A little late to the game and perhaps obvious, I know, but I was just musing and it occurred to me that there are perhaps three distinct eras for the way people using the world wide web have found information:

The Yahoo era: A cadre of net geeks personally indexed and recommended stuff for everyone to look at when you told them what you were looking for.
The Google era: A massive cluster of robots scoured the internet and figured out what web sites looked like they were pretty good and matched them up with what you told them you were looking for.
The Facebook era: Your friends find something cool/funny/useful/outrageous and post something about it, leading you to do the same.

Ok, so yes, that’s pretty obvious to anyone who’s been on the web and paying attention from 1994-onward or earlier. Predicting what the next era will be is of course the billion dollar question.

The obvious thing that comes to mind is that things will just remain this way forever, and of course this is false and just a failure of imagination.

The next most obvious guess at what the future will bring is to combine the stuff that happened in the previous eras in some novel way. The Facebook era is kindof like that — instead of a hand-picked WWW index managed by the geeks at Yahoo!, we have a feed (rather than an index) of links which our our social contacts (rather than a bunch of strangers working for Yahoo!) provide for us to check out.

So, perhaps just doing a mashup of the Facebook and Google eras would point to what the next breakthrough in search might look like. Let’s try that:

Mash1: Our social contacts create a cluster of robots who index the WWW and come up with a custom-tailored PageRank algorithm tied to what turns our crank.

Hmm, intriguing, but unlikely. Most of our social contacts probably don’t know enough about technology to do that.

Mash 2: The behavior of our social contacts is monitored by robots who analyze the information that can be datamined out of all that activity, and use it to beat our friends to the punch. Especially for marketing purposes.

Much more likely! What we’re doing on social networking sites is already closely watched and analyzed by hordes of robots. All it would take is for someone to come up with the idea and implement it.

And it’s a good enough idea that I bet there are already people working on this right now. In fact, there definitely are if you consider social media advertisers. But I’m also thinking about more general purpose informational search.

In fact, after I congratulate myself on what a clever prognosticator I am and hit Publish, I bet within 15 minutes someone will post a comment with a link to a company that’s doing exactly this.

I mean, of course I could save myself the embarrassment and google around and see if I could find that myself, but it’s so last-era.

I want to see whether the Facebook era will bring the information to me with less effort expended. It may or may not be faster than the google era, but faster isn’t always the most important thing — sometimes there’s a tremendous amount of value in getting information from a friend that could easily have been looked up through a simple query to google.

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