Safari 14

Last week the 10.15.7 update to macOS Catalina came with a nice surprise: Safari 14. I was caught off guard by this since I had assumed we wouldn’t see Safari 14 until Big Sur released later this year. It was also a nice surprise for me since Safari has become my browser of choice, not just on my iPhone and iPad, but also on my MacBook Pro. The big reason for this is that I do my best to avoid any Chromium-based browser. Over the last few years we’ve seen diversity in browsers erode more and more as new browsers are built based on Chromium (e.g. Brave) while others abandon their own engines in favor of using Chromium (e.g. Opera and Edge.) I personally see this homogeneous browsing platform as being pretty bad for the Internet as a whole, as it opens up the possibility for web developers to focus all of their development on Chrome and ignore everything else. This leads to sites that only work on Chrome and that ignore web standards, just like we saw back in the day when much of the web was developed with only Internet Explorer 6 in mind. The difference now is the way the web has evolved into an entire platform. In 2004 the main issue was that sites developed just for IE 6 wouldn’t quite render properly on other browsers. In 2020, there are entire web apps that straight up won’t work on non-Chromium browsers. That’s something I can’t support.

The two major browsers moving forward with different engines are Firefox (with Gecko) and Safari (with WebKit.) I was previously using Firefox on my laptops, but I became extremely concerned recently when Mozilla had massive layoffs and switched their mission to focus on revenue. I certainly understand that Mozilla needs to make money in order to continue making Firefox, but when a group lays off their entire incident response team, I don’t exactly feel warm and fuzzy inside about using the product. I still use it on my Linux installations, but on macOS I switched to Safari.

The pleasant part about switching to Safari is that, for the most part, it’s been a very slick browser that I’ve enjoyed. While Safari 14 doesn’t do anything too Earth-shattering or even different from any other browsers, it does bring Apple’s offering up to parity with some of the major players. For example, Safari will now finally display favicons for websites on tabs. How they’ve made it this far without supporting them I’ll never understand, but it immediately makes a huge difference in quickly finding the tab I want… and I say this as a person who typically doesn’t have more than 10 tabs open at any given time. Tab addicts (you know who you are) will especially appreciate this when Safari starts stacking tabs on top of one another. As another update to tabs, Safari can now preview the content of a page when the mouse is hovered over a tab. This can also be useful for quickly finding the appropriate tab without actually having to switch to anything.

The big change, though, is how Safari communicates with the user about how it has helped protect against invasive tracking. This feature is extremely similar to the Protections Dashboard in Firefox. There’s an icon to the left of the address bar that can be clicked at any given time to see a breakdown of trackers on the current page. Clicking will also allow me to see the specifics of what trackers are being blocked:

For a bigger picture, I can also get an overall view of what’s been blocked in the past 30 days. I can see which sites were attempting to be the most invasive, and similar to the per-site rendering, each can be expanded to show which trackers they had embedded:

Similarly, I can click on the Trackers heading in order to see a list of which trackers appear the most frequently across the sites I’m visiting. I can expand those listings to see which specific sites are hosting that tracker:

I don’t think it should come as a surprise to anyone that Google, Bing, and Facebook appear the most frequently after just a short period of testing. It’s also interesting to see trackers from both Facebook and Snapchat when I don’t use either of those “services”. It really shows you how pervasive they are across the Internet.

While I can already hear the Apple-haters I know railing on the fact that Firefox already has this feature, in my opinion it’s nice to see Apple bringing their browser up to feature parity and offering a more transparent and secure browsing experience to people in a package that also does not leverage Chromium but which does have a support team behind it that’s more than a skeleton crew. Similarly, you still don’t see anything like this today in Chrome or Edge, likely because the companies behind them both appear relatively high up in the tracker list.

Back To Firefox

Back in 2002, Firefox was the new hotness in the world of web browsers. Rising from the ashes of Netscape Navigator, the browser emerged as a true competitor to the horror of Internet Explorer. It offered competition with superior rendering and web compliance without the plethora of security issues plaguing Internet Explorer. While Firefox grew in popularity against Internet Explorer through the mid-2000’s, it eventually started to decline in the face of Google’s Chrome browser which took the browser market by storm with its release in the latter half of 2008. People appreciated the speed and efficiency of Google’s new browser, leaving Firefox to languish.

Over the past decade, however, Firefox has undergone a slow yet steady transformation. Prior to the arrival of Chrome, Firefox was fixed on becoming the browser that could do everything, for better or for worse. At the peak of its decline, Firefox was trying to be your web browser, your RSS reader (for the minority of users who had any clue what RSS was), and your IRC client (for the significantly smaller minority of users who had any clue what the hell IRC was), which overall made the browser require more resources for features that most users didn’t need or want, all the while the browser existed inside of a single, monolithic binary. By comparison, the Chrome browser broke each tab into a separate process so that complications with one tab wouldn’t impact the operation of the others.

Recently, though, the tables have begun to turn yet again. After achieving dominance in the browser market, Google has started to act like a GOP senator; they’re willing to sacrifice the good of their constituents (users) in favor of their own interests. For example, Google recognizes the impact of adblocking on its own business. As a result, they’ve proposed changes which would cripple adblockers. While they’ve bounced back and forth on this particular change since they first proposed it in January, they’ve continued to flirt with the idea; clearly Google doesn’t see blocking advertisements as a good thing. Chrome’s resource utilization continues to grow.

At the same time, Firefox began a re-architecture of their browser which allowed for separate processes per tab. Since then, Mozilla has continued to refine their experience.

  1. Firefox at 15: Its Rise, Fall, and Privacy-First Renaissance

  2. Give Firefox a Chance for a Faster, Calmer, and Distraction-Free Internet

  3. Compositor improvements in Firefox for macOS that reduce power consumption, speed up page load by as much as 22 percent and reduce resource usage for video by by up to 37 percent

  4. Restricting Notification Permission Prompts in Firefox

  5. Bad News: ‘Unblockable’ web trackers emerge. Good news: Firefox with uBlock Origin can stop it.

There’s a lot to unpack here, and if you want the full details just read all of the articles linked above. The tl;dr is that Firefox now opens a separate process per tab so that each tab can operate independently. Firefox has taken a stance on blocking trackers and other invasive behavior to fingerprint users. Firefox has improved performance on macOS significantly over the past year. Do you fucking hate the pop-up you get from what feels like every website where they want to give you notifications? Firefox is going to block those by default, and users have to actively opt into them. And as ISPs start to act even more shady in an attempt to circumvent user attempts to block tracking, Firefox is the browser empowering you to put the power over that tracking into your own hands.

As time goes by, it becomes more and more clear to me that Firefox is the browser focused on user rights and privacy. While I like the idea of Chromebooks and the simplicity they represent, they continue to become less attractive as I have to look at other options which don’t completely disregard my privacy. I’m feeling as though I’m better off getting a cheap laptop that I install my Linux distribution of choice on and use Firefox over opting for a Chromebook where Google will dictate my privacy choices on my behalf.

Microsoft Edge Insider: It’s Actually Not That Bad

If you happened to listen to our Introduction Episode of the podcast, you’ll know that Brandi and I are sysadmins who work together in a highly Microsoft-centric environment. Essentially all of the servers we manage run some flavor of Windows, we make heavy use of Office 365 and Azure, and both of us spend our entire day either typing email into Outlook or commands into PowerShell.

You may read that and think, “Wow, they really like Microsoft stuff.” At least for me (John, if that’s not clear by now) that’s not the case. I tend to be extremely critical and frequently frustrated with a lot of Microsoft’s offerings. I’ve poured a healthy bit of salt into the Internet over the years at Microsoft’s expense. I could even share some of my more recent frustration with Microsoft products if it wouldn’t spoil what will likely be content for a near-future podcast episode. Suffice to say, there’s a reason one of my former coworkers threw together this image… that’s my face on the can if you’re confused.

And there’s a reason why I made this image at one point. Cut me some slack… I didn’t really know how to use GIMP that well at the time.

That being said, I’m all about trying the new hotness where software is concerned, so I decided to install the new Microsoft Edge Insider build on my work machine. If you haven’t been keeping score at home, Microsoft essentially admitted that the current, production version of Edge that ships with Windows 10 is a disaster. No one uses it according to every metric, despite Microsoft’s attempts at forcing it on users. They also accepted that their rendering engine under-performed. Perhaps the biggest problem, though, was how the Edge browser was inextricably tied to the underlying operating system, meaning that Edge essentially only got updates during Microsoft’s major updates to Windows 10. Going 6+ months between browser updates is a pretty massive blow when competitors are releasing new versions every month.

The new builds of Edge are based on the open-source Chromium project. While perhaps most notably serving as the underpinnings for Google’s behemoth of a browser that has come to dominate the web, Chrome, it’s also come to serve the same function for plenty of other noteworthy browsers, such as Opera and Brave.

So I threw the Insider build on my work PC to check it out. If you happen to be curious, you can install it alongside the current version of Edge. The icon looks the same but has a green “Dev” stamp over the blue “e”. If you fire it up, it looks essentially like what you’d expect to see opening the current version of Chrome. You get the option to sign in with a Microsoft account, though, rather than a Google account. The various options and settings have been changed up in how they appear, but they’re basically all the same. If you’d like to use an extension, you can select from a subset of Chrome extensions that are currently working with this build of Edge in Microsoft’s own gallery; I’ve read that they’re working to make every extension supported by Chromium and Chrome work with Edge eventually. I was just happy enough that I could get uBlock Origin.

I’ve been running with it as my default browser for a couple of weeks now, and I have to admit that I haven’t run into any issues yet. Everything just works the same as I’d expect, only with a bit of a smaller footprint than with Chrome. I assume this is due to all of the Google services Microsoft ended up removing. If so, it almost reminds me of how Firefox was before the Electrolysis rebuild, where it had become a bit slow and clunky due to bloat. Or how Opera was back in the day when the browser featured a mail client, IRC client, toaster oven, vacuum cleaner, etc. A good feature purge isn’t necessarily the worst thing to happen to some software projects as they expand over time.

Speaking of Firefox, one of the downsides to this is the fact that it means yet another browser is now based on Chromium. Outside of looking as extremely niche browsers, this means that Firefox is now the only non-Chromium-based mainstream browser. That’s a sticky situation since it means that a single project (Chromium) can essentially dictate the growth and direction of the web if they so choose. If that project opted to move away from established standards to do their own thing, for example, no one would be able to ignore that many impacted users. Switching to a Chromium base is a situation that I would describe as good for Microsoft and extremely bad for the web as a whole.

And if you’re one of the three people in the world using the current stable version of Edge with Windows 10 and you’re mad that it will be going away, please just read this article about a nasty Edge vulnerability that Microsoft has declined to patch. Then please stop using that browser.