Amazon Silk

Today Amazon.com launched three new versions of their Kindle e-reader including a color tablet called Kindle Fire. In terms of hardware it’s about what you’d expect to see from something competing with the Barnes & Noble NookColor that’s launched a year later; it’s slightly better, but nothing that stands out as revolutionary.

But included with the Fire is a new web browser called Amazon Silk. And Amazon would like you to know this is a new and different browser from anything you’ve seen before.

So what’s the big deal about Silk? All you web requests go through Amazon’s servers which will handle retrieving all the content for you and optimize it wherever possible (e.g. a 3mb jpeg that’s sized to 300×200 pixels will be resized by Amazon before being sent to you as a 50k jpg). Because Amazon’s servers are sitting on some of the fattest pipes on the interwebs, it’ll be able to pull down and deliver all this content to your Kindle significantly faster and more efficiently than if your browser was doing the work all by itself.

Sounds pretty nice, but I’m a bit of a pessimist.

I wonder if the image resize example given in the above video might have unexpected consequences. For example there may be web applications that purposely load a large image into your browser and allow you to zoom in and out and move around the image. Will Amazon’s services understand that scenario and know to not shrink the image? I can think of a few examples that use image clipping and revealing the full image when hovering over the clipped area using CSS. Will Amazon know that the clipped area is not the only part of the image being displayed? Perhaps only known situations are optimized rather than Amazon using software to guess.

My biggest worry, however, is that all your web browsing is now going through a third-party. If Amazon is making requests on your behalf it will need to preset session cookies to those sites your browsing. What happens when you need to log into a system over SSL? Does Silk make the HTTPS request through Amazon’s? Does that mean all your passwords will be, at some point, on Amazon’s servers? What happens if they’re ever compromised? Does Amazon log and can they track your browsing history? What happens when I try to go to Barnes & Noble to buy something online through Amazon’s servers? Some web sites use session-hijacking prevention by comparing looking at things like your IP address. Amazon’s servers, as they point out in the video, are all over the world. Will my IP address stay the same throughout a session or will it change as requests are routed through different Amazon servers? Some web applications might break because of that.

Amazon must be logging your browsing with Silk. Imagine a scenario where someone posts some illegal material through Amazon Silk. Authorities will track down the IP which will lead them back to Amazon. Amazon must then have some mechanism to identify the user who posted the illegal material otherwise Silk becomes a giant anonymous proxy machine.

I’m very wary of Amazon Silk. I do not think I would never use it unless forced into a situation where no alternative was available. I don’t want some third-party sitting between me and the web sites I interact with, watching and recording everything I do.

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Apple’s Latest

First a follow-up to my previous post abot MPEG-LA. The current MPEG-LA license was renewed through 2015. That means any change in pricing wouldn’t occur until then. So we’ve got at least another 5 years where we don’t have to worry about web video. What happens then? Who knows. There’s a nice breakdown of the MPEG-LA licensing in this article over at ZDNet along with some numbers on just how many patents and from how many countries that are involved with MPEG-LA. It’s mind boggling.

Safari 5

Safari 5 was released today.  Among its new features is one called Safari Reader which will recognize a web page that contains an article (or blog post), pull out the content of just the article and format it in a way that’s easier to read. Essentially it’s a chrome and ad remover. (“Chrome” in the sense of pretty, but useless bits of a page layout, not the browser.) This feature has interesting implications, especially if it’s popular enough to be copied by the other major browsers (which I think it will). The obvious issues are, a) stripping presentation control away from the content publisher and b) stripping revenue-generating ads away from the page.

But are they really issues?

The page needs to load, inside its intended chrome, before the reader option kicks in. Page views will still be generated. However if the ad is animated or relies on user-interaction the ad will, essentially, be useless. It will also probably work around those particularly lame ads that pop up over the content you’re trying to read. This will probably piss advertisers off.

As for the stripping away of chrome, I have mixed opinions. It makes very busy web pages much easier to read by removing distractions that are outside the content of the article. It might even teach some web developers that perhaps some simple layouts without a lot of distraction are actually preferred by users.

One problem I do have with the reader feature is that it doesn’t do enough to distinguish links from regular text. The content is displayed as black text on a white background with links colored in a dark blue. There are no underlines and no mouseover action to provide feedback that your mouse is over a link. Low-contrast users will especially find it difficult to identify links among the text.

Another problem I have is that it removes chrome within the article itself. Perhaps you’ve done something to highlight certain terms or use color to visually represent some relationship in the textual content. All that is stripped away. Reader-fied pages may actually lose some of its meaning. On the other hand it’s web development best practice to avoid using colors alone to represent such relationships in textual content as vision-impaired users would not be able to use such information.

Still, switching to reader mode requires an act by the end-user. Meaning if you don’t want to use it you don’t have to.

Safari has also created APIs to allow developers to create extensions to Safari. Perhaps ad blocker and noscript (or equivalent extension) will soon find a home on Safari.

iPhone 4

You’re probably aware by now that Apple has announced its new iPhone this week. Prices will be equivalent to the iPhone 3GS when it was released. The hardware is all new including a special glass for the front and back which is scratch, fingerprint, and impact resistant. There are two cameras (front and rear facing) which means video chat or video phone calls. The case is smaller. There’s a new processor. There’s about a second microphone for the purpose of noise cancellation. The camera will record HD video (720p) and you’ll be able to edit video right on the iPhone. But the biggest feature is probably the new screen. The screen boasts 326dpi and it’s around 300dpi that our eyes become unable to distinguish individual pixels. This means text will look smoother, photos will look crisper, and more information can be packed into a single screen. It was also noted that all existing iPhone apps, because they use Apple’s APIs, will be scaled up automatically to work with the new, higher-resolution display.

But most of Steve Jobs’ keynote address at WWDC was focused (as it should) at developers. Lots of numbers about the kind of revenue generated by the App Store and the money developers make off the App Store. The introduction of a new feature called iAds which allows developers to identify a space within their app where ads can be placed. Apple will handle putting the actual add into the application and developers get a cut of the revenue. On the one hand, this is very cool for developers who want to offer free or trial apps without having to give their work away. On the other hand it’s annoying because Apple controls what % of revenue the developer gets and there’s no competition so Apple can set any price or percent it wants.

Which is my biggest problem with Apple: they are too controlling. AT&T does not have the best network and if I purchased an iPhone I would prefer to have it on another network. But that won’t happen with the iPhone (unless you jailbreak it, which has its own pros and cons).

I also wish there was a micro SD card slot on the iPhone. The $100 difference between the 16 and 32gb just doesn’t make sense. If there was a micro SD card slot I could buy the 16gb, buy a 16gb micro SD card for $30 and put the $70 I’ve saved towards something else. Beer, for example.

And, c’mon Apple, make the battery replaceable. It’s quite possible that in a year or two we’ll have better battery technology and I could swap out an old iPhone battery for a newer, longer-lasting one. That’s certainly something users of the new HTC EVO 4G are hoping for.

At least, it appears, tethering will come to the iPhone 4 (without the need to jailbreak it). But AT&T wants to charge you an extra $10 a month for this luxury. That’s pretty lame, especially on top of the 2gb/month limit that’s been imposed on all AT&T customers. If you have a cap in place and people pay if they go over that cap, why have a tethering fee? My guess is that AT&T’s network is still too fragile and they’re trying to dissuade average users from tethering to keep their networks as free from congestion as possible. Which brings me right back to the argument that the iPhone 4 should be allowed on other networks.

At the moment I don’t feel the new iPhone is worth the hassles and limitations that come with it. I really like the new screen and dual cameras and the HD video recording at a high bitrate and being able to edit and upload the video from the phone itself. All of that is very cool. And no other phone has that right now. But there will probably be a lot of them that do a year from now. Do I wait? Probably.

Synergy

A cool, free tool that you may very well find amazingly useful.

It’s called Synergy and what Synergy does is allow you to share one keyboard and mouse across many computers. But it’s not just a software KVM, Synergy makes switching to and controlling other computers feel a bit like a single computer with dual screens. Let’s say I have a desktop and laptop computer. I can put my laptop next to my desktop’s monitor, configure Synergy on both machines, and then simply move my mouse off the left of my desktop’s monitor and magically the cursor appears on my laptop screen. I can now run whatever applications I want on my laptop, then simply move the mouse cursor off the right of the laptop screen and I’m back on my desktop.

This is not a remote desktop program like VNC. You do not see a mirror of the desktop on the remote system. Instead you are controlling the remote system directly. This means whatever system(s) you’re controlling with Synergy will (typically) need to be within sight.

I use Synergy in a laptop/desktop environment like the example given above. I already have two monitors plugged into my desktop. Now I have my laptop as well for a total of three screens. I can use the laptop to handle simple tasks that don’t require constant attention such as monitoring e-mail, server status, etc., while I use my desktop screens to work on my current project. I also intend to bring an old Macbook back to life and add it to my configuration. In this way I’ll be able to test page development on a Mac without having bother moving over to the tiny Macbook keyboard and oddly-sensitive touch pad. Rather, I can use the keyboard and mouse I’m already quite comfortable with.

Maybe that sounds a bit lazy, but it sounds damn cool to me. Perhaps I’ll find another laptop, maybe a netbook or two, and wind up with an array of 6 or 10 screens surrounding me in my cube, each doing… something (just looking cool I suspect).

So if you’ve got a laptop and a desktop or a couple of desktops (maybe a homebrew HTPC) I’d say give Synergy a go. It’s very cool.

One small note:

Synergy has no encryption or authentication mechanism. Don’t use this over the internet or even your home wireless network unless you take some extra precautions, such as using SSH tunneling to encrypt the connection for you.

Inkscape

Right now work has me creating some maps to put on the web based of scanned drawings from the contractor behind a bunch of on-campus construction. In the past I would use Adobe Illustrator to do this by importing the maps and then tracing over it with vector lines. This process is relatively quick and easy. I can use grids to control the initial lines and keep them straight. I can then go in and manipulate points (or add more as needed) along the lines to fine tune things.

Well I don’t have Illustrator installed and the only version the office has is old and, from my experience, not very responsive. So I set out to find a free alternative. Enter Inkscape. Inkscape is a free, open source vector graphics program that you can use on Windows, Mac, and Linux platforms (and is probably portable to others should you be into that sort of thing).

I’ve been using it for just the day and I’m already in love. The controls are intuitive. There’s a ton of power in just the mouse commands. I hardly need to touch the keyboard for anything (hiding and unhiding the guides I’ve created). Working with layers may feel a bit odd; it’s nothing like Photoshop or Gimp in terms of the UI. But after a few hours I find myself right at home.

It’s native format is SVG, which open standards people will love. But if that’s not your thing you can save is most major vector graphic formats (eps, pdf, etc). You can also export the work as a bitmap and tweak it as needed in your favorite graphics editor.

This is a great application. I suggest you give it a try if you’re ever in the market for a vector graphics format.