Opera’s Evangelism

Opera is said to be sending evangelism emails to websites that have compatibility problems with their browser. What’s interesting is that they are customizing the emails with actual fixes for the problems. This is pretty clever. In theory it will improve the problems regarding compatibility and make the web more standards compliant (which is where Opera excels).

One thing I do question is if webmasters will read it, at least where it matters. Most large companies have a contact form, or an email address, but it’s often forwarded to customer support, or sometimes just into a giant bin where a handful get processed. Will the information get to the people who need it? I suspect it will for small companies who read all the email they get from the web. For large companies, I doubt it, and that’s where I think it matters the most. The bigger sites that the majority of the web visit.

Regardless, it’s interesting to see, for me in particular since I wrote reporter. I suspect the best efforts are still to encourage the industry as a whole to adopt best practice. Considering the move to go mobile, and be more flexible on the front-end, using standards is just becoming more of a requirement. I think that will ultimately end up being the winning effort. It’s already winning as newer sites are generally pretty good when it comes to standards. The old ones will take time.

With Safari 3 and Opera 9.5 out, Firefox 3 taking off, IE 8 coming soon, it’s pretty obvious that standards are the future.

Customizing Reporter

Mike Kaply pointed out a blog post on customizing reporter.

For the record most changes can be made without actually touching code, simply by including the correct preferences. This is done intentionally so that upgrading later on doesn’t involve complicated merging of your changes into an updated code base.

To point reporter to an intranet server, the pref you need to use is:

extensions.reporter.serviceURL

To show a custom privacy policy, just point this preference to the page of your choice:

extensions.reporter.privacyURL

Or to not show it all, just default this pref to true:

extensions.reporter.hidePrivacyStatement

For Firefox 3.0 it will no longer use SOAP, instead it will use xmlHttpRequest since SOAP support won’t ship in Firefox 3.0. It’s also easier to implement on the server side.

At one point I half-implemented a proxy service that once installed would capture reports sent to it that matched a given list of hosts, and forwarded all the rest to reporter. Theoretically it would be even easier these days.

Barclays Blocks Firefox

Tech site The INQUIRER mentions that Barclays says no to Firefox. Reporter confirms this is a problem. Relatively speaking, it’s a small percentage compared to American Express, who was a long time problem for many Firefox users. It seems financial institutions have long been a problem in terms of Firefox compatibility and web standards in general.

Personally I think most of the larger financial institutions have resolved their issues. It’s mainly just the handful of banks who don’t don’t invest much in their online infrastructure. Compared to how the landscape looked 2 years ago, I think there has been a lot of progress.

It’s also a major win for Linux and Mac users who are finding it easier to do finances without being hassled.

Were do people feel things stand these days? Has the landscape been improving? Do you still encounter issues? With whom?

Who Dropped The Soap?

Thanks to Bug 332174 and the advanced warning system (sarcasm), reporter had been broken on the trunk for several weeks. Since I believe in debriefing (both before a shower, and after an event where one or more lesson can be learned), here’s the play by play:

2007-07-18 – Robert Sayre fixed Bug 332174 breaking reporter.
2007-07-21 – I realize what’s going on and file bugs (Bug 389128, 389131) against myself.
2007-09-29 – Rev 1 patches posted (rough, but really not to bad).
2007-10-06Hurt my wrist, cut down on typing outside of work to give it some rest for a few days.
2007-10-20 – I’m certified an idiot, it’s broken (nice fracture actually) not sprained. My defense: Didn’t swell, no protruding bone, really wasn’t that painful unless it was under force (holding something, or opening a door). Anyway, in a brace getting the rest it deserves.
2007-10-20 – What to do (Bug 400563)?
2007-10-28 – Still in a brace, still slightly sensitive (no opening doors with it) but able to get back in the saddle. The code cowboy rides again (warning: comment referencing any cowboy not played by John Wayne punishable by death).
2007-10-30 – Officially blocking Firefox 3 (being on the radar is a good thing). Nuclear option on the table (contributing to the “80%“. Where’s Jack Bauer when you need him?
2007-10-30 – receive r= (x2) and checkin(x2) on server/client. Requesting push to live (Bug 401816). Threat neutralized. Doomsday Clock goes back 3 minutes. Jack Bauer? Crying under a desk.
2007-11-01 – Pushed server side live, late at night. Thanks to Dave Miller, Michael Morgan, and Carsten Book for staying up. Clock goes back another 2 minutes. Jack Bauer? Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Code Cowboy? Cool and relaxed.

Added soon there after is support capturing the character set (Bug 324291). This will hopefully provide good data for fixing bugs. Thanks to Gavin Sharp for that. Also thanks to Reed Loden for checking in that and a few of the other bugs.

Code Cowboy

I’ve had my back broke once, and my hip twice, and on my worst day I could beat the hell out of you. ~ John Wayne (The Cowboys, 1972)

On a related note, I’m now typing brace free. Just no push-ups or other weight bearing (pulling is ironically ok) things for pretty much the rest of the year.

A few people recommended titles for this blog, I forget who came up with this one, but it was the one that made me laugh the most. So credit to whomever that was.

Blocking Firefox

There’s recently been a lot of buzz about a list of sites that make Firefox sad. Having written reporter, I’ve done a fair amount of monitoring in this area over the past few years. Overall I think the scope of sites that still block certain browsers/OS is declining. By scope I mean quantity of sites/popularity of sites. More and more often the sites are less and less popular sites. Often they are either financial institutions (known for being the last to update their tech) or media related (and dependent on Microsoft Windows Media DRM). That’s not to say the landscape doesn’t need to improve. From where I sit, it says the landscape is improving. More and more websites are realizing the need to work anywhere. No site is happy with a 5% drop in traffic. That means they can’t afford to ignore a browser with even more market share.

Things are looking a little brighter. While it’s still not good for the web, Silverlight and Flash seem to encourage much more compatibility across browsers/platforms than Windows Media Player ever has. Flash has been a major win for Firefox. Flash is rather consistent across browsers making it a popular choice for media (think YouTube). It’s leveled the playing field, since lets face it, Windows Media historically has been lacking in Firefox, though recently improving. On Mac OS X it is awful at best. h.264 support will make Flash even more attractive to content providers in the near future who are still holding out because of quality.

An interesting point made by that list is a lot of sites are “IE only” because of buggy navigation menu’s, typically due to flyout and drop down menu’s. It really is too bad. Most of those implementations aren’t even search engine friendly (they often store the entire navigation in a JS array). You’d think that would be incentive enough to change.

So those are my somewhat random thoughts on the topic for the moment.

On a sidenote, other content of the site includes a how to on Firefox pencils that look pretty cool.

Comcast Problems?

There are quite a few sites linking to this post about Comcast problems with Mac OS and/or Firefox users. I personally fall under both categories, and haven’t had a problem, though I admittedly have had Comcast for several years, and never installed their software/branding, nor do I use any of their services/websites other than connectivity.

I was curious if this is a big problem for Firefox users. A quick scan of reporter data shows a few reports a day (somewhat high, but they are a portal site for many so volume is expected), and comments on the site are somewhat varied. Most are from a very non-technical audience. I didn’t get the sense that there were certain items that were consistently a problem. My general observations are:

  1. Homepage misrenders at least part of the time.
  2. Games are “optimized” for IE/Windows (at least some appear to be .exe downloads).

Anyone have experiences? They are a somewhat flash centric site, which tends to be pretty good cross platform, making this somewhat of an unusual case. Typically sites that are problematic for Firefox/Mac users are very antiquated sites that still reference Netscape 4.x as “supported”. They on the other hand are relatively modern.

So if you, or someone you know has run across problems, let me know. I’d like to get an idea of what users face on a daily basis.

Moving Forward

It seems that since Firefox 2.0 has shipped, everyone is really taking some time to think about the future. Not that it wasn’t on peoples minds before 2.0. For me 2.0 was really a maintenance release. End users got some great new features and fixes, but all I really contributed was a small fix or two, most of the time I could allocate was spent on planning and server side development (more on that some other time). Mike Connor and I seem to have overlapped on feelings towards future improvements:

  • Site compatibility We’re doing pretty good, marketshare helps, but we need to be better. We need to push Reporter, and put real time into analysis of the top sites showing up there. Sometimes its our fault and we need to prioritize bugfixing, sometimes its Tech Evangelism (and we need to get back to doing that too).

I mentioned a few weeks ago it’s important for end users to report problems, and got some traction. But I’m still looking for ways to get more casual users reporting problems they encounter. Anyone with ideas on how this could best be accomplished, without annoying the user or adding intrusive UI should let us know. Either leave a comment here or contact me. We can’t help what we don’t know.

To help improve the quality of analysis of reports, I have gotten pretty close to a new reporter webtool. This version has much more flexibility and allows for easier viewing and manipulation of data. I hope to give it more time in the next few weeks and make a drive to go live with it. It’s been delayed several times (my fault), but it’s now in the final stretch. Future revisions will be much more incremental to prevent such delays again.

To further help improve the quality of reports, Gavin Sharp wrote a patch to capture the character encoding of web pages reported. I wrote one to allow users to send a screen shot of what they see. Both I believe should make 3.0. I think these changes will help improve things in the long term. Knowing the charset can help improve character related problems users experience (since charset detection is somewhat of a messy game), and having actual screenshots of what users see is of course beneficial for rendering issues.

Hopefully some of the bigger Gecko changes taking place on the trunk will further improve site compatibility. Of course growing marketshare has and will continue to help websites adopt a policy of cross browser compatibility. That has in the past, and will continue to be a driving force. So remember: don’t spoof your useragent more than absolutely necessary. Make sure webmasters know who you are. “Stand up and be counted”.

My personal goals for Firefox 3.0 are these:

  • Get new reporter webtool in place. Sooner the better. It’s been delayed to many times. At least now it’s close.
  • Get charset and screenshot support up and running. Investigate if there’s something else that would be really beneficial.
  • Find new ways to get more end users to let us know when they encounter a problem, rather than just keep quiet.
  • Keep reading, playing around and getting new ideas. IMHO that should be a goal for anyone doing anything in life.

I think that’s a rather obtainable set of goals with a definite positive impact.

I’m also working on an update to MozPod to allow for synchronizing your iPod calendar with Lighting (in Thunderbird) or Sunbird. It’s somewhat working but still rather buggy. There are also several fixes for other issues since the last release of MozPod. I hope to have that out by the end of the year (which would be 1 year after the last release).

On a more personal note, last month I accepted a position with CBS Digital Media as a developer at CBSNews.com. For those wondering, yes I am working on improving the experience for Firefox (and Mac users) among other development work. It’s not too bad right now (personal opinion), but being better is of course welcome. The usual disclaimer that the views on this blog are mine alone and do not represent those of my employer of course apply (but I’m sure you knew that already).

So there you have it. I plan to write a few more posts in the next few weeks more specific to individual things discussed here, but for now that should give everyone an idea about what I’ve got cooking. It’s a rather interesting mix of things I get to work on.