Google has been busy lately updating its GMail product with some new features that could make it easier to use. User reaction to these changes, however, has already been mixed and, for some, very unwelcome. Google has likely been pushing these updates out in reaction to Microsoft’s recent release of its Outlook.com email site. Outlook.com is Microsoft’s latest and best interation of its on-line email client and this new version seems to have caught fire. I have an Outlook.com account and my own experience with it has been very positive, though not enough so (IMO) to warrant switching away from my beloved GMail.
“Customizable” Tabs – When enabled, GMail automatically sorts your messages into 5 “buckets” or tabs… Primary, Social, Promotions, Updates and Forums. By selecting one of these tabs, you are able to view messages that GMail has sorted into that particular bucket. By “customizable”, Google simply means that you can choose to enable which of these 5 tabs seem useful to you. You do not have the ability to create your own message tabs and you are not able to select which messages are actually sorted into the tabs that Google has provided… not the most friendly approach for sure. While I am sure that some will find this new feature useful, based on the limitations that Google has built into it, I do not see myself enabling this feature. Google has said that it will take a month (or more) for it to roll this new feature out to all of its GMail users… and I have not actually had an opportunity to get my hands on this feature yet. If it turns out to be as limited as some have already reported, I would hope that Google would bow to user feedback and make changes to address the identified weaknesses in the future.
New “Compose” Window – This has to be one of the most controversial new features that Google has ever introduced to its flagship email product. I can tell you from my own experience with it, that it does take some getting used to and I have actually enabled and disabled this feature several times over the last several months. There are a number of things that I simply do not like about this feature that, I feel, make it more difficult to use than the old method of creating messages. The inability to expand the compose window to something more than that 3 or 4 inches that it allows is very frustrating to me. The small narrow window greatly limits the amount of your message that can be seen at any one time. That along with my continued frustration with the inability to insert tab stops into messages give me an occasional “headache” when I am working a lot in email. As Google rolls out their latest rendition of GMail, the use of this new compose feature will become mandatory/default and the ability to revert back to the “old” compose is being phased out.
Calendar Entries From EMail Messages – The is a very welcome addition to GMail and one that I will certainly plan to use. As a Google Calendar user, I have missed the long-available feature present in the Exchange/Outlook world that allows an email message to be converted into a calendar entry/appointment.
I am certain that Google will continue to change and improve GMail over time, as it has done over the last several years. I also come to expect that some of these features will be a little rough around the edges and some of them will be truly awful changes that will make some wonder “what were they thinking”! Overall, the majority of changes that Google brings to their email client are a net gain for me and I look forward to their continual improvement process.
NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope recently made some truly amazing photographs of Comet ISON, which is still about 386 million miles from the sun and about 394 million miles from Earth. It is projected to make its closest pass to the sun, only about 773,000 miles, on or about November 18th later this year. Comet ISON is rapidly moving toward the sun and, as comets do, is becoming brighter every day. While it is still very far away from the sun, it should become more visible later in the year… bright enough to be seen without the aid of a telescope… and even bright enough, as some have predicted, to be as bright as the moon. Astronomers warn, however, that comets are notoriously fickle objects and don’t always do what has been predicted about them.
We’ll have to wait for a while for this show, but it sounds like it might be something well worth waiting for…
WordPress is a very popular platform for *MANY* blogs on the Internet. This website and blog (SKoenemann.com) is actually based on WordPress. Over the last week or so, security firms and network hosting companies have seen a huge increase in the number of “brute-force” password attacks directed at sites using this very popular blogging platform. There are, just in case you are wondering, over 70 million WordPress sites either being hosted at WordPress.com or being self-hosted on other servers around the world… so it is no wonder why WordPress is such a popular target for hackers.
This particular attack is being propagated from a very powerful “botnet” of over 90,000 Web servers; most of them added to the botnet when compromised by this attack. A botnet is typically a collection of servers under some sort of central command & control mechanism and is most commonly used to mount attacks like this one or other “unusual” and possibly illegal activities; normally associated with compromising a Web site or stealing personal information. Botnet attacks, of course, can also be used effectively to attack sites other than those running the WordPress blogging software.
When being attack by this botnet, if the administrative password for an attacked WordPress site is guessed correctly by the “bot”, the site is immediately compromised by loading “backdoor” software onto the site that allows the site to be controlled remotely through the botnet. This “zombie” site is then used to attack other WordPress sites that it can find on the Internet. As I had indicated, the botnet already consists of more than 90,000 compromised WordPress sites and that number is still growing rapidly. Some Web hosting providers have reported that they have had to handle the traffic from as many as 60 million of these attacks already and this number is also escalating rapidly as the botnet continues to grow.
There are lots of ways that the administrator of a WordPress site can protect it from all sorts of attacks; primarily through better security practices and the use of sophisticated software, some of which is free for the taking. If you host your own WordPress site, good security practice starts with a correct installation of the WordPress software. The WordPress.org site provides good instructions on how to do this. There are a lot of other good articles at this site and at other sites that give additional instructions for further hardening your WordPress installation. It is always best to used a “layered” security protection scheme… protecting your site in multiple ways to ensure that it has adequate protection and is “hole-free”… keeping in mind, of course, that there is no such thing as a site that is 100% secure!
I use both good security practices and several good security softwares on all of my WordPress installations. The security software is configured to inform me when a variety of different types of attacks and/or security-related events occur… and I can tell by the emails I get that my WordPress sites are under attack from all over the world. These attacks include everything from attempts to drop “comment spam”… to some of these brute force password attacks… to SQL injection attacks directed at my databases. I have done my homework though and, so far, nothing has gotten past the defenses I have put into place to protect these sites. In the meantime, I’ll keep these sites fully patched and updated… I’ll continue to be vigilant and reactive… and I’ll definitely be keeping my fingers crossed!
Google continues to both refine and experiment with the interface… layout, controls, icons and etc… used in their flagship Chrome browser. With a new version of this popular browser hitting the market every 6 weeks or so, it can get somewhat confusing when the interface seemingly changes without notice as these upgrades are put into place. Some of these changes are more worthwhile than others, with some definitely falling into the category of simply “bit twiddling” for change sake… not something I generally support or appreciate.
Those of us that are a bit more adventurous can (and do) periodically install the “beta” or “development” versions of Chrome so that we can gain some experience… and, at times, intense frustration… with these feature changes as they work their way through the Chrome development process. One of those changes that *could* come down the pike in the the next development or “unstable” version from the Chromies is a change in the window controls shown… normally visible as minimize, maximize and close… although those might vary with the window management settings for the OS you are using. The *proposed* change in this new Chrome version will be to change how these windows controls are displayed by the Chrome application… becoming a clickable menu instead of always-on and visible as they are “normally”, with some possibly disappearing completely.
I can honestly say that I neither like nor am I in favor of this particular change. The change seems to be targeted, as so many are these days, toward the tablet/phone environment. While it might be welcome for the mobile version of Chrome… and, I admit, I might like the proposed change there… it just makes for confusion and extra clicks on their traditional desktop version of Chrome. The dev/unstable track of Chrome will be moving to v28 very soon and we’ll just have wait and see what they actually release as a part of that!
Like many, Google’s recent announcement that they would be discontinuing their Google Reader (GReader) application as of 7/1/13 did not make me very happy, at all! They reasoned that RSS feeds had become somewhat passe, visible to them as declining use of Reader, and that they could/would no longer dedicate the resources necessary to keep the application running. From my perspective this was simply a business decision on Google’s part, but it was also a decision that not only caught me very much by surprise, it also brought into clear focus for me how much I still depend upon the RSS feeds from, literally, hundreds of websites to send me links about concerning important news about their products or about a topic that interests me.
For me, this announcement immediately triggered a search to find a replacement for my beloved Google Reader. After tossing aside about a dozen programs and Web sites, all of which claimed to be able to do “exactly” what Reader would do, I finally settled on a system put out by Feedly (Feedly.com). FINALLY I had found a worthy replacement for GReader which not only made it simple and easy for me to use, but also was able to painlessly convert all of my feeds and settings from Google Reader… there is perhaps a heaven!
I have been using Feedly for the last several weeks and have really come to like it. Sure, there are a few things that I wish that it did or did differently, but for the most part I am happy with my GReader replacement. I have been using it with Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Android (JB 4.2.2); all with a great amount of success and a somewhat similar interface on each platform. Feedly has also released versions for iOS and for Kindles, but I don’t need those (right now). Over these last several weeks, the Feedly team has hardly stood still… adding bandwidth and servers to cope with the hordes of GReader users converting to Feedly. In addition to these performance-related changes, they have been rapidly adding features and capabilities to their software… the add-on for Firefox, for example, has gone from v11 to v14 in just this short amount of time.
I think that Google is making a mistake in “retiring” their GReader product… reading RSS feeds was yet another area where they dominated their competitors… and they are throwing it all away. I, however, am not ready to give up on RSS feeds… I look at 10’s of thousands of them each month and am very heavily dependent upon this as a means of efficiently tracking hundreds of Websites and topical areas. So, for me……. GReader is dead!… Long Live Feedly!!
There were two major announcements this week concerning the development of new “browser engines”; the software at the heart of Web browsers responsible for “rendering” or displaying the actual content of Web pages. Both of these announcements, the first by Google and the other collectively made by Mozilla (Firefox) and Samsung, target the increasing capabilities of the hardware that these browsers run on and the need to ensure that Web browsing occurs in a secure environment.
The new engine from Mozilla/Samsung, dubbed “Servo”, is being coded using Mozilla’s “Rust” programming language, which Mozilla calls “safe by default” from many of the memory management and security issues that plague other programing languages. This inherent security is being coupled with the ability to spread processing across multiple hardware processing “cores”. Current browser technology mostly utilises a single processing core when, in today’s hardware world, even smartphones and tablets can have as many as 8 cores available. Mozilla and Samsung intend for this engine development to spur efforts to completely rebuild browser software “from the ground up”; better positioning it both for future hardware capabilities, the ever-changing needs of the Web and specifically targeting development for smartphones and tablets. You can read more about the new “Servo” engine at… https://blog.mozilla.org/blog/2013/04/03/mozilla-and-samsung-collaborate-on-next-generation-web-browser-engine/
The new engine from Google, which they are calling “Blink”, will be based on (is a “fork” of) the open-sourced WebKit engine currently being used by Google for Chrome/Chromium and by Apple for Safari. Google’s decision to break away from WebKit and create a new browser engine is being driven by the diverging development needs and methods of Google and Apple. These different approaches between Apple and Google have created “tension” between the two engineering groups concerning the long-term direction of WebKit. Google’s decision to abandon WebKit and go it on their own will allow both WebKit and Blink to grow and change to suit the needs of both parties. You can read more about Google’s new “Blink” engine at… http://news.cnet.com/8301-1023_3-57577790-93/google-parts-ways-with-apple-over-webkit-launches-blink/
Today Mozilla will release the newest version of its flagship browser, Firefox. Mozilla switched to an accelerated development cycle in 2011, which sees a new major version of Firefox released approximately every 6 weeks. The full development cycle for any one new feature would take about 18 weeks; transitioning through 3 “levels” of increasingly more stable development… Nightly, Aurora and Beta… before reaching the “Stable” or “Released” version of Firefox. Google Chrome follows a similar 3-tiered development approach.
There are a number of interesting new features to be found in this new release. Among them are:
Per-window private browsing mode – Matching features currently found in Chrome and Opera, private browsing allows the browsing of sites without a record of browsing history or cookies that might betray which sites the user had visited.
In-tab downloads – Rather than opening a separate window to show downloads in progress, downloads will now be shown in a newly opened tab.
In-browser support for the h.264 video codec – Previous versions only supported the Webm format when viewing HTML5 video. This causes problems with the quality of videos viewed on sites like YouTube. Unfortunately this update only fixes this problem for Windows versions Vista and newer, with which the h.264 codec is distributed.
Search engine hijacking protection – Lets you know when a site or process has altered your search engine selection and allows you to reset it to the default search engine for Firefox, which is Google.
As with other Firefox releases, v20.0 closes some security holes and fixes “bugs” found in previous versions.
In spite of Mark Zuckerberg’s proclamations to the contrary, Facebook seems poised to launch a Facebook-focused phone next week on Thursday, April 4th. Based on Google’s Android OS, the phone will (supposedly) feature content from a user’s Facebook account prominently on the phone’s main screen.
I certainly do use Facebook and have even used it from my phone… However, do I (or anyone else) need a phone that entirely caters to and is designed for Facebook? Just my opinion, but I think NOT!
In a move that could become increasingly common for large virtual data centers in the future, PayPal has announced that, over time, it will be replacing VMware in its data centers with OpenStack… as many as 80,000 servers, eventually. This was potentially a big hit for VMware and soon after the story broke it looked to cause an approximately $2 Billion drop VMware’s market cap, but the VMW stock has since recovered. Perhaps an irony to all of this is that a widely used component of OpenStack, called RabbitMQ (an open source middleware-type application deployment project), was developed and is maintained by VMware.
Will the trend toward open source become a problem for proprietary virtualization / cloud computing vendors as it has for closed-source operating system vendors? May be… 😉
Everyone likes a good “Cinderella” story, but is Mozilla on the verge of being part of such a tale? Mozilla continues to release more and increasinging interesting information concerning their “Firefox OS” for smartphones; a potential competitor to the smartphone OS giants Apple and Google. With Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android with a virtual lock on the current smartphone market, it seems somewhat unlikely, but inevitable, that “someone” would rise to that challenge eventually. Blackberry and Windows seem all but incapable at the moment of mounting that kind of challenge… Blackberry because of their nearly insurmountable reputation as an uninspired “legacy” smartphone OS vendor (Blackberry 10 could change this, of course) and Microsoft because… because they are Microsoft and well known for their previously misguided attempts to push Windows technology into non-PC devices (think Zune!).
Mozilla, on the other hand, is well known for their huge (and continuing) success in the alternative browser arena. Their new project, originally known as “Boot2Gecko”, would see a new and very interesting approach brought to smartphone app development. Instead of using complex and/or proprietary languages to build these apps, Firefox OS would see these apps built using HTML5… truly becoming “Web apps”. While it is true that full smartphone functionality under HTML5 would require that certain Mozilla extensions to this standard development language would need to be adopted by W3C, nobody said that this effort would not be without its set of challenges. Keep in mind, however, that Mozilla already has significant (!) experience in developing, proposing and implementing new Web standards… the Firefox browser has long been one of the more W3C-friendly browsers around. Mozilla was also successful recently in convincing Samsung to add a “battery status” function API to the HTML code that forms the basis of Webkit; the open source browser code used by both Apple Safari and Google Chrome browsers.
Without any question, Mozilla has a long road ahead of them… as neither Apple or Google would or should take this challenge to their current dominance in this market lying down. Mozilla has recently announced the release of “GeeksPhone Keon”, a prototype “developer preview” device to show of the early capabilities of their Firefox OS. While not without the problems expected from any early “alpha”, the reviews surrounding the capabilities and the “polish” of this build have been quite positive. Expect to hear more about this new and exciting smartphone operating system in the future chapters of this developing “Cinderella” story still to be written…