What do you want to see when you open a new tab?

20011015-chrome-newtab-apps 20011015-chrome-newtab-recent

I’ve been thinking about browsers’ new tab pages recently. My default browser is Google Chrome so I’ll largely be focusing on that in this post.

By default, certainly on the version that I have installed (I’m on the Dev channel which allows me to see up-and-coming features—and bugs—before they are available on the stable channel) I get two options:

  • Apps
  • Most visited pages

Most visited pages

The most visited pages feature is the sort of thing that many browsers do now. Opera does it; I’ve a vague notion that they were the first with their speed dial page:

20011015-opera-newtab 

The Apple Safari one is really attractive, almost cinematic.

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Even Internet Explorer 9 does it.

Most visited doesn’t mean favourite

The thing is, when I open a new tab in my browser, as you would expect, it’s usually because I want to open a new page, visit another web site, or open a new web application. But I am finding that I rarely, if ever, use these most popular/most visited pages for a number of reasons.

First, I don’t find their design particularly helpful.

Chrome, Safari and Opera all show a resized screenshot of the website. But there is too much detail in a screenshot, that when it gets squeezed down to 205 x 128 pixels it loses its immediacy and usefulness.

Usually, it’s not immediately obvious what the site is from a tiny screenshot, so I find that I waste a lot of time trying to determine whether these are the links I need or not. Also, depending on your browser’s theme, the text beneath the screenshot isn’t always obvious either.

Some browsers will also update the screenshot if you’ve not visited the site in a while, or have cleared your browser’s cache so the page may actually look completely different from the last time you visited (remember) it.

It doesn’t pass the Steve Krug Don’t make me think! test.

Internet Explorer 9, on the other hand, takes a different approach. IE shows white boxes containing the site’s favicon and a bar, which indicates how often you’ve visited the site (e.g. “Very active”, “Active”, etc.).

20011015-ie9-newtab

As you can see from the screenshot above, though, is that 4/10 sites there don’t have icons, or they’ve not been downloaded for some reason.

So the horizontal bar then becomes the most obvious feature of each box; given that we lazy humans will tend to pay attention to pictures and coloured shapes before we attempt to read anything, because that uses energy!

There are blue, green and purple bars. But what do the colours represent? It’s not obvious. It turns out that IE rather cleverly draws the colour from the favicon.

It’s better, but it’s still not perfect. What if the sites listed aren’t actually the sites that I want to visit most frequently?

Second, most visited doesn’t necessarily mean favourite.

IE tells me that these sites are my “most popular sites”, Chrome that they are my “most visited”, Safari that they are simply, and rather neutrally, “top sites”. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are my favourite.

Because I visit a particular location many times doesn’t immediately make it one of my favourite locations.

In St Andrews I generally park on Langlands Road. That makes it one of my most visited streets. But it’s not my favourite location in St Andrews; St Mary’s quad is.

Because I’m involved in Web design I generally find myself flipping between different browsers frequently, in order to test pages. So my “most visited” sites quickly fill up with screenshots of test pages. And different browsers may require more testing than others.

That’s not useful.

Third, I clear my cache a lot, also for testing purposes. And every time I clear my cache it resets my “most visited” sites counter too. So any useful sites that I’ve accrued over the last week or so also get wiped.

Why not use favourites?

The browser that I think has got it closest is Opera.

Opera allows you to choose which sites are displayed on your Speed Dial/new tab page.

20011015-opera-speeddial

It also doesn’t use the entire screenshot, but a cropped portion, which tends to include the site name. I can quickly, and easily see what these sites are. It passes the “Don’t make me think!” test. I also find that I use this feature a lot in Opera Mobile on my HTC HD2.

This makes much more sense to me: show me the sites that I want to visit most often, or the resources that I find most helpful, even if I don’t visit them every day.

Google Chrome’s apps screen also comes close to what I would find useful:

20011015-chrome-newtab-apps

Now, this is getting somewhere. The icons are simple and recognisable, even though the text labels aren’t easy to read against the grass background.

The only problem is that I’m now dependent on developers creating a Google Chrome  shortcut app to the site that I want to visit. In my own Web development I use four sites frequently:

  • Heart Internet control panel
  • Pivotal Tracker
  • Assembla SVN
  • Deploy

As you can see from the screenshot above only 2/4 of those sites have shortcut apps. If I want to include them on my apps pages then I’ll need to create them myself. Which is fine for me as a Web developer, but a it of a pain for most other Web users.

My faves

I came across myfav.es today which is designed to easily allow you to choose your favourite sites and then set that page as your browser’s homepage.

This is mine:

20011015-myfaves

As you can see some of the shortcuts use built-in, default application icons such as Google, Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and YouTube.

The more generic icons (heart, notepad, cloud, download, ‘B’) are non-standard links that I’ve entered manually. There are loads of icons to choose from, and you can specify what colour they should be.

It’s very clear, and highly customizable. That’s exactly what I want when I open a new tab. Something like this would be really useful, as a built-in feature, to browsers. Particularly as user-interfaces, like Windows Phone/Windows 8 Metro UI become more popular.

There are a couple of Chrome extensions that replace the default new tab page:

But both also remove the cursor from the address bar when you open a new tab, which means if you want to start typing a new URL or a search query you have to manually select the address bar (“omnibox”) either with your mouse or a keyboard shortcut (Ctrl+D on Windows).

I’ve now simply set this as my homepage in all my browsers. And so far it’s proving very useful, and consistent.

Collage from the Potting Shed–My Web

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According to Mozilla the above collage represents my Web.

What does it all mean?!

Here’s what the objects are supposed to represent:

  1. Car Magazine—You are the Gear Head — mark of those who know their limited-slip differential from their throttle body. You get all revved up at the sound of a big V8, and the smell of burning rubber brings a wistful tear to your eye.
  2. Puppet—Everything’s better with a monkey in it. Monkeys are fun, smart, and optimistic. You got this crafty monkey because it reflects your own delightful optimism and playfulness. Or maybe you like bananas?
  3. Crayons—The symbol of unpretentious creativity and art. You are almost certainly imbued with a child-like curiosity and an unfettered imagination, enjoy self expression and bright colours. You are child-like, or may actually be a child.
  4. Statue of Liberty—Quick: look out your window. Any purple mountains’ majesty? Amber waves of grain? We wouldn’t be surprised, because you’re in the U-S-A! [Erm… I'm not, I'm in S-C-O-T-L-A-N-D!]
  5. Comb—You’ve earned The Comb! A mark of neatness that exemplifies your dedication to presenting a pleasing visage to the world. You’ve got style, and substance too.
  6. Friendship Pin—The Friendship Pin — an unbreakable bond between you and your BFF. It shows you are loyal, willing to wear your love on your sleeve (or sneaker).
  7. Friendship Bracelet—Your buddies will be overjoyed to learn that you’ve drawn the Friendship Bracelet. It stands for sociability and your talent for making each friend, online and off, feel special. So very special.
  8. USB Drive—Technology lives to serve, and you like your information portable, pocketable and sharable. That’s how data becomes action, and gadgets become essential.
  9. Name Tag—Who are you, really? That’s something you can decide, and decide again, and again. Create a persona for each world you live in. Just don’t get confused, or they’ll make a movie about you.
  10. Wrench—Wield the tools to make it yours, for you are unique — and your browser can reflect that.
  11. Mystic Crystals—When was the last time you aligned your chakras? You’re supposed to do it every 3,000 miles.
  12. Rocket—Eat my dust! I’m bumping up my browsing into hyperdrive and leaving lesser browsers behind..
  13. Disguise Mask—Internet Ninja! You leave no trace of your travels, online or off.
  14. Android Smartphone—For you, the Internet cannot be contained to a desk or a cafe. You carry it with you, not a place you go, but a tool you use. This is your Swiss Army Knife™.

You can take the Webify Me! quiz yourself and see what Mozilla offers you.

My Opera 11 and Opera Dragonfly 1.0 challenge

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I spotted on Twitter the other day that Opera have updated their web debugging application Dragonfly to version 1.0. Dragonfly is to Opera what Firebug is to Mozilla Firefox.

I’ve always been very impressed with Opera, as far back as Opera 3. I used to use Opera 5 on my Psion 5mx and I still use Opera Mobile on my HTC HD2 (Windows Mobile 6.5).

So to check it out and put it through its paces I’ve decided to use both Opera and Dragonfly exclusively for the next month in place of Google Chrome (browsing) and Firefox/Firebug (debugging).

Dragonfly is now built-into Opera. Just download Opera 11.10 and to open Dragonfly press Ctrl+Shift+I (Windows) / ⌘+⌥+I (Mac) or right-click and select “Inspect” from the context menu.

I’ll report back here, but I’ll also be blogged about it on My Opera blog.

Who wants to join me?

Google Chrome and Flash

On Monday I blogged about Shockwave Flash crashing in Google Chrome 10.

Reassuringly/disappointingly I wasn’t the only person to experience this annoyance. PC Pro published an article on Tuesday: Chrome update takes out Flash. The article highlighted a couple of things that I hadn’t realised:

  1. Google was now ‘sandboxing’ Flash; in other words, any issues experienced with a particular website that uses Flash (e.g. malware) doesn’t spread beyond the tab that is running it.
  2. The Adobe Flash plugin was crashing when there were multiple instances of Flash on a page.

The Google Chrome support forum has been a busy place of late, and I’ve been keeping a close eye on the thread entitled Chrome 10 – Flash Crashes.

Google Chrome channels

One piece of advise was to try the developer channel of Google Chrome.

Google run three release channels of Chrome:

  1. Stable
  2. Beta
  3. Developer

I generally run the Beta channel as it tends to receive the latest features a couple of weeks before Stable does.

And sure enough, now that I’m running the dev channel version of Chrome the issue with Flash has gone.

chrome-10.0.648.134

Above: Google Chrome 10.0.648.134 beta which I’ve been having problems with.

chrome-11.0.696.12-dev

Above: Google Chrome 11.0.696.12 dev which I’ve so far had no Flash crashes with.

I really love that the image on the About Google Chrome screen on the dev channel shows that it’s not quite as polished and shiny a version as beta. Nice touch.

Microsoft releases Internet Explorer 9

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At 04:00 this morning (UK-time) Microsoft released the latest version of its Web browser software Internet Explorer 9. Needless to say I didn’t stay up for the launch… although, thanks to my youngest son I was awake at that time.

Why 4am?! Well, seemingly it coincided with the official launch during the South by Southwest (SXSW) conferences and festivals in Austin, Texas.

The road to IE9

I was genuinely excited following the development of IE9. Over the years it’s become almost fashionable to be negative about Internet Explorer; Internet Exploder.

Hey! I have a poster on my wall in the office that says “God made the earth in 1 day and then spent the next 5 trying to make it look good in Internet Explorer 6”. And another that says “Keep calm and debug IE6”.

I found Internet Explorer 7 a disappointment. It fixed some of the IE6 bugs but introduced a few new ones. It was reminiscent of the Philip Larkin poem ‘This be the verse’:

They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

IE8 was an a great improvement over both IE6 and IE7 but it was still lagging in terms of keeping up Web standards.

So IE9 had a lot to live up to if it was to claw back respect in the Web development community. And from what I was reading on the IE9 blog and in the Web-media I was genuinely quite excited about the prospect of a Microsoft browser holding its own alongside Firefox, Opera and Google Chrome.

What’s it like?

Having checked out a couple of the beta releases and the release candidate during the last 6 months or so, my initial excitement was quickly crushed.

Each version of IE9 beta plus the release candidate broke my personal homepage that I run on my ‘localhost’ webserver, installed on my PC.

It wasn’t a huge deal, the code is pretty old now and clunky, but it was very disappointing as it has worked perfectly in IE6, IE7, IE8; Firefox 1.0 – 4.0 RC; Opera 7 – 11.1; Safari 3 – 5; Chrome 1.0 – 10.0; and even some archaic versions of Netscape, so why not IE9?!

In installing the final version this evening, however, I was pleasantly surprised. My homepage now works perfectly in IE9.

IE9 is fast—really fast. It starts in only a few seconds and having checked out a few websites and web applications it handles them at an impressive speed too.

Goodbye IE6

I look forward to checking out IE9 more in the future. In the meantime I welcome their “Internet Explorer 6 Countdown” campaign which is dedicated to ensuring that usage of Internet Explorer 6 drops to less than 1% worldwide. It currently has around 12%.

Shockwave Flash crashing in Google Chrome 10

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Probably about a year ago I moved from using Mozilla Firefox as my number 1 browser to using Google Chrome.

I didn’t mean to switch from Firefox. I’d been a huge fan of Firefox since before version 1.0 was released. Hey! I even contributed financially to Mozilla’s appeal to raise money for the launch and my name was published with thousands of others in a full-page advert in the NYTimes in December 2004.

But Google Chrome was just so fast.

It started quickly (more quickly than Opera), it rendered Web pages quickly and being built on the WebKit engine it supported Web standards well and supported the latest HTML5 and CSS3 developments.

Chrome Chrash

But since upgrading to Google Chrome 10 (and 10 beta) I’ve had nothing but trouble with the Adobe Shockwave Flash plugin crashing every few websites.  Since Chrome 5 (released in June 2010) the Flash plugin now comes built-in to the browser, rather than relying on the separate plugin installation that Firefox, Opera and Internet Explorer use.

It seems that I’m not the only person to experience this, which comes as something of a relief to me. There is currently a discussion on the Google Chrome help forum entitled ‘Chrome 10 – Flash Crashes’ which is making for an interesting read.

One suggested fix/workaround is this:

  1. Go to about:plugins
  2. Click on the [+] Details link (top right).
  3. You’ll see two listings for Shockwave Flash. I’ve got “10.2 r154” and “10.2.r152”.  The former is located in C:\Users, the later in C:\Windows\system.
  4. The advice is to disable the built-in version (the C:\Users version).

I’ve been running this workaround all evening and as yet haven’t experienced a crash.

I’ll be watching this issue very closely… who knows, I may be moving to Opera 11.1 for a while very shortly.

Update

Tuesday 15 March: that workaround didn’t last. Shockwave Flash has been crashing again this evening. So I’ve just re-enabled it, if that’s not going to do anything.

Update 2

Wednesday 16 March: I’ve now updated to the Dev channel as someone said that version 11.0.696.12 dev was working fine for him without Flash crashing.

Blocking adverts


Gary Marshall's big mouth: Shirt happens

Gary Marshall's article in .net magazine about blocking adverts ... next to an advert for Blacknight Solutions

I haven’t used an advert blocking add-on for my browsers until now, and I haven’t looked back.

In this month’s .net magazine regular journalist Gary Marshall has an article entitled “Shirt happens: When does object handling become outright harassment? Whenever you turn off your ad blocker…”

In the article Marshall described how when browsing from one site to another the adverts… well, followed him!

Being spied on

I’ve had the same experience. You know when you unconsciously just know that something’s not quite right?  I had that feeling while browsing the Web a couple of weeks ago.

I tend to ignore adverts on Web pages but this particular one caught my eye.  I wish I’d taken a screenshot at the time.  It was showing me stuff that I’d been looking at on another site a few minutes before.  Not just similar stuff, the exact same items that I’d been looking at.

I felt I was being spied on.

Gary Marshall again:

The ads are new, and they’re known as retargeting. Cookies track what you’ve looked at and follow you around the internet, shouting at you to look at them.

In theory, they’re supposed to offer extra inducements – “I see you looked at this shirt and decided not to buy it. How would you feel if I make it TWO POUNDS CHEAPER! Oh, mercy me, and here I am with a wife and three children to support” – but in practice it’s just the same things you’ve looked at, thrust in your face again and again and again. The implication is that you’re so utterly stupid, you’ll buy any old crap if you see it often enough.

Avoiding adverts

The fact of the matter is that advertising works, and we really are gullible enough to see something on the telly, or glance at it in a magazine or newspaper, and race out to buy it believing that it will help us become happier, more content, more attractive, cool.  That’s just the way that we’re wired.

However, these days Jane and I don’t tend to watch much live TV any more.  With BT Vision we record most of the programmes we want to watch, and then fast-forward through the adverts.

When listening to the digital music service Spotify I realised the other day that I completely switch off during the adverts.  I stop listening, or distract myself with something else.

It’s not a conscious thing.  I found myself, the other day, thinking it odd that there had been no adverts while I was listening.  And yet I suddenly realised there was an advert playing right now!

I’d just tuned it out.

The same kind of life skill that I see Reuben and Joshua are learning even at the ripe age of two when we tell them that it’s time for bed.

I object to adverts on my clothing. I don’t really like wearing rugby shirts that advertise whisky or stout, because I don’t drink.  Why should I be a free advert for alcohol?

I do notice adverts in magazines, though.

Blogverts

I get a lot of emails inviting me to add ads to my blog or website. I always say no.  Well, not always, I sometimes write back … but that’s another story for another day.

I always say no because, although they could potentially raise a couple of hundred quid a year adverts on blogs just annoy me so I presume that they will annoy other people too.

Besides, I’d have no control over what was being advertised on my website.

So … no adverts now or ever on this blog, folks.

AdBlock plus

Once I’d read Gary Marshall’s article I fired up my PC and installed AdBlock Plus for Google Chrome and AdBlock Plus for Mozilla Firefox.  A couple of tweaks later (to let me watch YouTube videos) and I was off…

I’ve not had a single annoying advert since, and to be honest I really don’t miss them.

Of course, the irony of seeing a piece of software advertised in a magazine which led me to immediately downloading and installing it there and then hasn’t passed me by.