Menu

Colin Devroe

Reverse Engineer. Blogger.

Browser struggle

In the opening scene of It Might Get Loud, Jack White fashions himself an instrument from a single guitar string, a glass Coke bottle, a piece of wood, and a few nails. He goes on to describe how he appreciates an instrument that he has to physically struggle with in order to force it to perform. He also appreciates constraints while on stage. One of his bands, The White Stripes, limited their color palette for their brand and their music was all composed using a single guitar and a set of drums (though they did meander a bit from time-to-time for special occasions).

The constraints breed creativity. Much like an artist living within the bounds of their medium by forcing themselves to use their tools in ways not thought of before. Stretching, pulling, twisting.

For some odd reason I’m reminded of these constraints, this struggle, this art whenever I switch internet browsers.

To most people an internet browser isn’t something they choose to use. In fact, they use whatever comes on the device they own. If they switch to a new one it is because they were forced to or that they switched on accident.

To a web developer an internet browser is more than just the way we can view the web. It is one of the primary tools that helps us to build the web. So while just about any web browser should be fine to use for most people – a web developer like myself comes with a set of requirements above and beyond that of the common surfer.

While feature parity has settled into the browser market for the most part, there are extremely subtle yet key differences between them all. If I were forced to list all of the nuances between the browsers such as how they handle tabs, bookmarks, page rendering, etc. I’d be here for days.

Here are some very broad descriptions of the primary browsers:

Safari comes on pre-installed the Mac and seemingly puts the user’s privacy and attention at the forefront. It is seamlessly integrated on both desktop and mobile. It is also the most popular browser on mobile*.

Edge comes pre-installed on Windows 10 and isn’t available to me on desktop or mobile. While Microsoft has made enormous strides since ditching Internet Explorer I have no idea what edge Edge has. I haven’t seen huge claims made by them and I don’t know what the browser itself stands for. But, I’d wager that a large portion of Windows 10 users use that browser without even knowing it. So long as Edge works well and has enough features for Windows 10 users – most users won’t need to shop around for a new browser. Unfortunately, I cannot use it.

Chrome is the most popular browser in the world on the desktop. Mostly due to the popularity of Google Search, Google Docs, and Gmail. These three services have billions of monthly active users – each – and if you’re using any other browser except Chrome you’ll be “reminded” to download it. Also, Google has a few Chrome-only features that inevitably get people to make the switch. It is also pre-installed on many Android devices. It is very good and while I’d have a small list of asks on desktop my biggest request on mobile would be to be able to set it as my primary browser – unfortunately Apple doesn’t allow that**.

Firefox is open source and presumably cares the most about the open web. Its development is by far the most transparent of the browsers (though Apple, Google, and Microsoft do an excellent job of making their development fairly transparent) and just about anyone can contribute to the project. Firefox’s footprint in the market, however, is tiny in comparison to its competition. The latest releases seem to be leaps forward for Firefox.

There are more browsers; Opera, Brave, Tor, Konqueror, etc. but these are relatively small userbases*** and I’ve never used any of them for any length of time other than to see if they were usable.

Lately Apple is claiming that Safari is the fastest browser available. A claim each web browser maker claims with nearly each release of their software. It is sort of like having a few friends with similar dates of birth. Someone is always a few days older than the other for a few short days until everyone is the same age again. This is what it is like with speed and web browsers. One may be “the fastest” today but the other will catch up next week.

For the last few weeks I’ve been using Firefox and there are several small niggles that I have that prompted me to write, and rewrite and rewrite, this post. It is what reminded me of this struggle. This bending and twisting of metal and wood in order to get the browser to do what I need it to. I started out creating a list of things Firefox would need to do in order to have me as a user fulltime – some examples include allowing me to use my mouse’s features, enabling macOS dictionary lookup, being the default browser on iOS, etc. But then I backed off of that and realized it will always be a bit of a struggle. I’ll always switch back and forth between browsers. I’ll have a favorite. And that will change.

I’d bet Jack White has never found the perfect guitar. He has a favorite today and it may change tomorrow. Today I’m using Firefox. Tomorrow who knows? And that’s fine.

 

* Chrome has more installs on mobile, iOS has far more usage.

** Can someone please sue Apple over this already?

*** Opera seems to have a huge marketshare in mobile in places like India and Africa.

Sundar has been a good CEO for Google thus far. The next few weeks will put him to the test.

Favicons on tabs in browsers

John Gruber:

With many tabs open, there’s really nothing subjective about it: Chrome’s tabs are more usable because they show favicons.

Like John, I’m currently a Safari user. I switched to Chrome for a bit due to the Developer tools being a bit better at the time but, as you may know, I’m trying to go all in on Apple. Safari is just better all around when on the Mac, iPhone, or iPad*.

I totally agree, though, with everything John says in his piece. Go read the entire thing.

One thing that wasn’t mentioned in his piece though is Safari’s “Show all tabs” view. If you have a ton of tabs open it can be very useful to use the Show all tabs button to view them all and find the one you’re looking for. This feature alone will not pull Chrome users over to Safari but at least it is something.

* Currently iCloud tabs are not working at all for me on the Mac. But I’m guessing that may be due to me using the iOS 11 betas on both iPhone and iPad and I am not using a beta of macOS High Sierra.

Nicotine and Heroin

Roger McNamee, very early investor in both Google and Facebook (and, though he’s profited, he regrets it):

The people at Facebook and Google believe that giving consumers more of what they want and like is worthy of praise, not criticism. What they fail to recognize is that their products are not making consumers happier or more successful. Like gambling, nicotine, alcohol or heroin, Facebook and Google — most importantly through its YouTube subsidiary — produce short-term happiness with serious negative consequences in the long term. Users fail to recognize the warning signs of addiction until it is too late. There are only 24 hours in a day, and technology companies are making a play for all them. The CEO of Netflix recently noted that his company’s primary competitor is sleep.

Ouch.

Goodbye Google Instant Search

Barry Schwartz for Search Engine Land re: Google killing Instant Search:

Now as you type, you will only see search suggestions and then be able to click on those suggestions to see the results. The search results will not load any result pages without clicking on a search suggestion or clicking enter.

As I said previously, end of an era. Pretty much everything good that Mayer brought to Google they are shooting in the head. This isn’t to say these aren’t the right decisions for Google, but they’ve certainly moved on from her approach to things – which made them the #1 search engine in the world.

 

Goodbye Google.com

BBC:

Google is adding a personalised Facebook-style news feed to its homepage – Google.com -to show users content they may be interested in before they search.

End of an era.

Glass Enterprise

Jay Kothari, Project Lead for Glass:

Now the Glass product team is back at X, and we’ll be collaborating with the Google Cloud team and our partners to help customers across a variety of business sectors make the most of Glass. Together, we’re looking forward to seeing more businesses give their workers a way to work faster and in a more focused way, hands-free.

Glass Enterprise is a smart pivot by the Glass team. MR belongs at work and will have the greatest impact in these settings. More of this please!

VR180

Frank Rodriguez:

VR180 video focuses on what’s in front of you, are high resolution, and look great on desktop and on mobile.

I think this looks like an excellent format. As I’ve mentioned in the past, 360 video is very difficult to follow if there is a narrative. While 360 might be good to virtually put you somewhere, 180 will be better to help tell a story.

Rodriguez goes on to explain that VR180 is easier to create and can be much higher resolution. Me likey.

Chrome ad blocking

Sridhar Ramaswamy:

We believe online ads should be better. That’s why we joined the Coalition for Better Ads, an industry group dedicated to improving online ads. The group’s recently announced Better Ads Standards provide clear, public, data-driven guidance for how the industry can improve ads for consumers, and today I’d like to share how we plan to support it.

To that end, they are going to pre-install an ad-blocker in Chrome based on the Coalitions blacklist of annoying ads.

Chrome has always focused on giving you the best possible experience browsing the web. For example, it prevents pop-ups in new tabs based on the fact that they are annoying. In dialogue with the Coalition and other industry groups, we plan to have Chrome stop showing ads (including those owned or served by Google) on websites that are not compliant with the Better Ads Standards starting in early 2018.

Annoying is subjective. But I’m glad they’re doing something.

While they’re at it, it’d be cool if they added newsletter modal blocking too. We don’t see pop-up windows that much anymore (partly due to most modern browsers automatically blocking them by default). Nowadays we see pop-up “modals” for things like newsletter sign ups for a 10% discount. I think those are annoying and should be blocked too. Though we don’t see Chrome (or any other browser) blocking them by default yet.

I don’t understand attention hostile advertising. I work at a marketing and advertising company and I still don’t like these tactics. It isn’t a sustainable method. Imagine if newspapers in the 1800s could overlay the entire front-page of their papers with a guy fishing a Miller Lite out of a cooler? Print newspapers would have never made it as long as they did. Attention hostile advertising is a short-sighted approach. We need to think of ad units that are longterm, sustainable, and valuable to both customer and advertiser.

Is VR overrated?

Kristopher B. Jones, an entrepreneur from near my neck of the woods, weighs in on VR in a recent Forbes piece debating the applicability of the technology:

I’m a strong believer that virtual reality is overrated, as it has limited applications outside of very specific industries. Industries like gaming and medical training are likely to see a boom from VR, while other industries such as food service, retail and finance with have limited to no applicability of VR. Much like Google Glass and 3-D television, the buzz will eventually die down.

In November of 2016 I said VR wasn’t ready. But that I thought it wasn’t far away. I was wrong because I was lumping VR in with a much larger mixed reality landscape. It wasn’t until I dug deep into mixed reality that I understood the subtle nuances between VR, AR, and the various other degrees of mixed reality experiences.

Kris likely understands this landscape even better than I do. He’s is right. VR will never be as big as the hype. In fact, I’d bank on it. However, “mixed reality experiences” (such as augmented reality) are popping up in every single app we currently have and will continue to do so. You already see it in Facebook, Instagram, Apple’s Clips app, even within the Uber app and Google Maps app. Facebook, Microsoft, and Google are already shipping platforms, frameworks, and APIs to help developers bring MR into their apps and services. And Google recently demonstrated an amazing technology called Lens that will be inside of Google Assistant and Google Photos soon. I also think the automobile dashboard and windshield is a huge future play for AR.

I don’t think Forbes or Kris lumps VR together with AR. But I do think that many consumers do. They think mixed reality is all about wearing huge goggles. It isn’t until you dig a little deeper that you see that mixed reality is all around us already. It’s already a hit. And it is just going to keep growing.

VR as a subset of MR is overrated. But, MR is far from overrated.

E16: The Dark Crystal, Netflix, Amazon and more

Danny and I sat down on Saturday afternoon to chat about a few things. Below are a few links relevant to our conversation.

Links

Download MP3

Google Assistant for iOS is a clunky mess

Karissa Bell for Mashable:

For starters, Assistant’s iOS app is a confusing, disjointed, mess. You’d think the Assistant would be able to easily link up with all your other Google services, but that wasn’t the case in my initial testing.

It isn’t often that I agree with an article on Mashable. However, in this case I very much agree.

Using Assistant for iOS for a bit yesterday I found myself scratching my head thinking “but, I thought I could do this, or that, or that?”. In reality, the Assistant on iOS as it stands is Google’s search with voice input on top of it. Just like Siri. Which is equally frustrating to use.

One quick note here: Google does not have the access to iOS APIs that Apple does. For this reason Assistant is neutered from the jump. However, Google does a bad job explaining that and so user expectation is pretty high when I first installed the app. Assistant on iOS will likely never be as good as the Android or Home Assistant and that should be clear.

One other quick note: I think the entire tech industry began using the term “AI” a decade too soon. “Bot” is ok. A bot can respond to a set of commands and only those commands. That feels much more accurate when describing Google’s Assistant. But calling features like Cortana, Siri, Assistant, Bixby (or whatever Samsung’s assistant is) is a huge, huge stretch of the term AI in their current states. And likely will be for a number of years to come.

Google I/O 2017 wish list

I figured that since I wrote my Build 2017 wish list and the reviewed that list after the event, and that I plan on doing the same for WWDC this year, it would only be prudent to write down my wishes for Google I/O as well. At first when I sat down to write this list I could only think of one item:

  • Improve Google Accounts

I’ve always had issues with Google Accounts, particularly when using Google Hangouts (or whatever they’re called this week), but I must say this issue has somewhat improved lately. Likely because I’m primarily using one Google Account regularly now rather than three but I also think Google has made adjustments for those of us with personal and business Google Accounts.

However, after thinking a little harder, here are some things I was able to come up with that I’d like to see from Google this week.

  • Android. I have no idea if this possible, but I’d like to see Google flex some muscle and demand less fragmentation in their Android-versions across carriers, devices, etc. This fragmentation has been a huge headache, if not the single biggest reason Android apps can’t be “great”. Some would argue this and that is fine. But Apple’s biggest advantage in this area is that they can be relatively certain what hardware the OS will run on and as a result software developers can be fairly certain the OS will be up-to-date.
  • OK, Google. I’d like to see Google’s assistant have a much larger footprint, particularly on iOS. Again, another thing that may not be possible. I simply cannot use this service because none of my devices will run it natively. But for this week I’ve installed the Google app again on my iPhone to see how good the assistant is these days.
  • Material Design update. They been releasing updates to Material since it launched but I’d like to see something similar to what Microsoft announced at Build with Fluent. A way to tie in a much larger range of devices and perspectives (like Mixed Reality) would be well served in a design language.
  • Photos on Mac to Google Photos bridge. The linchpin on iOS/macOS for me personally is iCloud Photo Library. I have over 340GB stored there and it shows no sign of slowing down. Google Photos, though, has shown itself to be far superior in terms of visual search than Photos. However, Google Photos doesn’t allow me to have a private, local library since it doesn’t have an app for Mac or Windows. So I think I need to use both Photos on Mac and Google Photos on mobile. I would like to see them release a bridge for this. It would also make it easier to switch away from Apple products if I ever wanted to.
  • Google MR. Google has dabbled with mixed reality on several fronts. But I don’t think strapping a phone to our heads is a longterm solution – regardless of the fancy materials you use to do it. Similar to my wishes with Microsoft and HoloLens I’d like to see Google make a considerable investment in furthering a stand-alone MR device focused on business use.
  • Open-source Autonomous Driving. If anyone is going to open source their Autonomous Driving technology it might be Google. Since they have employees giving the information to their competitors anyway, perhaps they’ll be willing to push that source up onto Github and let the self-driving revolution really get into full swing. The money in this is going to be in licensing and support in the long run anyway. Think of it as the self-driving operating system.
  • The Death of AMP! I wish they’d just shoot this in the head. But, it appears they aren’t. I can’t see why this is good for the web.

I re-watched Google I/O 2016’s Keynote a bit yesterday. Hard to believe Home has only been around for far less than a year. Also, Sundar is hitting his stride around that time too (also the Alphabet split) so I’m guessing the productivity at Google is through the roof. So I expect a lot of great things this year from Google.

Duck Duck Growth

Two years ago I wrote about DuckDuckGo, my search engine of choice on all devices, reaching 12M daily active searches. They are still growing. Gabriel Weinberg:

We are proud to say that at the end of last year, we surpassed a cumulative count of 10 billion anonymous searches served, with over 4 billion in 2016! We are growing faster than ever with our first 14M day on Jan 10, 2017.

I like that DDG is anonymous. But I don’t use them because I’m paranoid that Google is tracking my searches. If I cared that much I’d have to stop using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and also turn off cookies and tracking pixels and blah blah blah. In fact, I use Google Chrome and store my entire web history (and use Google to sync that across devices) so they know what my DDG searches are and the pages I click on in those results. I’m simply not that paranoid.

I use DDG because I believe monopolies aren’t good. Bing, Yahoo!, DDG, all deserve their fair shot at being better than Google at any number of things such as relevance, speed, usability, and privacy. DDG is the best way to search if you care about privacy. But they also have great features like Instant Answers and !bangs.

If you’re using Google why not give DDG or Bing a try? Maybe you’ll like them better.

PodSearch

_DavidSmith has a new side project called PodSearch. He explains:

The concept was simple. Take a few of my favorite podcasts and run them through automated speech-to-text and make the result searchable.

It works. I’m still waiting for Google to add real contextual search to video and audio. They’ve got images working well. And Pinterest has even taken that a step further. But, at some point, every bit of content should be searchable.

This reminds me of a tool I wanted to add to Viddler years ago. I described it in this blog post. I wrote:

I remember in 2008 or 2009 when I was working at Viddler I had come up with a conceptual way of pulling this off for our platform. We never fully implemented it. But I did take a swing. I still have the code.

It went something like this; every video has a certain number of keyframes in it. You can think of those keyframes as thumbnails. In fact, at Viddler we stored several of those thumbnails per video. Imagine tagging someone’s face in a video and using facial recognition on the rest of the keyframes just to mark where in that video the person was. (at the time, face.com’s API was still a thing, it could have been done for free).

Imagine if that existed? Seeing _DavidSmith’s new side project makes me want to build it.

Google’s AMP is a gilded cage

Terence Eden:

If, like me, you made the mistake of trying out AMP on your website – you’re in a tricky position if you try to remove it. Google doesn’t like anything leaving its clutches.

I appreciate nothing about AMP. In fact, I don’t click any links that use it in protest.

/via Jeremy Keith.

Manton Reece on AMP

Manton Reece on AMP:

I want the web to be faster. Breaking links should not be part of the solution.

AMP is terrible. As is any solution that changes the URL. When wap.* or m.* was “a thing” I hated that too. Now, more than ever, there is less reasons to change the URL to load a web page tailored specifically to the viewport, device, connection. It is possible to do it without changing the URL.

E11: Browsers, Surfaces, MacBook Pros, and Tesla roof

Danny and I have an early Sunday morning conversation about our browsers of choice (he likes Vivaldi), Microsoft and Apple’s announcements this week and the Tesla roof.

Download MP3

Warning: Gmail affected by Google Drive space

A few months ago I gave Google Photos a trial. I wanted to give the service a real, honest test so I purchased one of Google’s larger Drive plans (1 TB) and started uploading.

Google Photos is great. In fact, the only reason I didn’t stick with it was because — like so many Google things — it had no desktop component. No Mac app. No way of managing or backing up my Library locally. So I’ve opted to use Apple’s iCloud Photo Library and Photos apps.

During my short trial of Google Photos I had uploaded 30 or 40 GB worth of photos and videos. I then cancelled my Google Drive plan which would expire that extra space once that plan’s expiration date came along. Once cancelled, my account would degrade back to what Google offers for free on Drive… a very generous 15 GB (especially compared to Apple’s free offering of 5 GB).

Perhaps you see the problem coming down the tracks already. Well, I didn’t. I didn’t think that my email would stop working because my Google Drive account was overfull. Well, that is exactly what happened.

This would be OK if Google Drive would have let me know that my email would stop working in a for more clear way than it tried to. Here is the email I received when I cancelled my Google Drive plan:

This message confirms that your storage plan of 100 GB for colin@cdevroe.com has been canceled. You’ll be moved to the free storage levels for Google Drive, Gmail, and Google+ Photos on the day your subscription ends.

Aside: Pretty cute that Google still calls it Google+ Photos. Hanging on by their fingernails.

So I guess you could say I was warned. But not quite strongly enough I’d say. It doesn’t say that I may want to free up some Drive space immediately so that Gmail would continue to function.

To make matters worse, once the subscription ended, it wasn’t like Google could send me an email to let me know my email wasn’t working. It wasn’t until a day or two later that my sister sent me a SMS saying that my email was bouncing. I then had to log into Gmail to read the warning banner saying that I was out of space. I almost never use Gmail.com so I wouldn’t have seen this. Also, Mail on macOS or iOS wasn’t erring either. It probably should so at least I’d look into the issue.

I quickly logged into Google Photos, deleted a bunch of videos first, and email started trickling in. The email that trickled in was only from those with mail servers that were willing to continue to try to send the message through rather than giving up entirely. For any other email, it has been lost.

Live and learn. So I’m sharing this here so you don’t have the same issue.

Trying iOS, Android, and Windows

Fred Wilson:

I plan to go back to iOS when the next iPhone ships, and then back to Android six months after that. In this way, I can stay current on both operating systems and ecosystems which I think is useful in my business.

I wish I could do this again. For a time I was when we had a number of testing devices laying around. I’d pick one up and using it for a weekend here and there. During that time my eyes were opened to what was available on all platforms.

At that time Windows Phone stuck out to me as the winner over Android but iOS was still in the lead. I wrote:

Windows Phone is a much better competitor to iOS than Android currently is. It is clean, simple to use, vastly different than iOS (which is good since Android and iOS just bite off each other with each release), and really fun to play with. The problem? Official apps.

And official apps are still a problem on Windows. Windows Phone was great the way Mac OS was great for years. Microsoft just didn’t stick with it. They got beat. And now it seems like they are moving on.

It was expensive to have multiple new and up-to-date devices in service at the same time. I think our monthly bill was roughly $700 or so. Not cheap for a small business. I like Wilson’s approach a bit more. Switch between devices completely once a year or so. Perhaps I’ll find a way to do that too.