A new crop of internet browsers from Brave, DuckDuckGo and others offer stronger privacy protections than what you might be used to.
FLoC is meant to be an alternative to the kind of cookies that advertising technology companies use today to track you across the web. Instead of a personally identifiable cookie, FLoC runs locally and analyzes your browsing behavior to group you into a cohort of like-minded people with similar interests (and doesn’t share your browsing history with Google). That cohort is specific enough to allow advertisers to do their thing and show you relevant ads, but without being so specific as to allow marketers to identify you personally.
This “interest-based advertising,” as Google likes to call it, allows you to hide within the crowd of users with similar interests. All the browser displays is a cohort ID and all your browsing history and other data stay locally.
The trial will start in the U.S., Australia, Brazil, Canada, India, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand and the Philippines. Over time, Google plans to scale it globally. As we learned earlier this month, Google is not running any tests in Europe because of concerns around GDPR and other privacy regulations (in part, because it’s unclear whether FLoC IDs should be considered personal data under these regulations).
Users will be able to opt out from this origin trial, just like they will be able to do so with all other Privacy Sandbox trials.
Unsurprisingly, given how FLoC upends many of the existing online advertising systems in place, not everybody loves this idea. Advertisers obviously love the idea of being able to target individual users, though Google’s preliminary data shows that using these cohorts leads to similar results for them and that advertisers can expect to see “at least 95% of the conversions per dollar spent when compared to cookie-based advertising.”
Google notes that its own advertising products will get the same access to FLoC IDs as its competitors in the ads ecosystem.
But it’s not just the advertising industry that is eyeing this project skeptically. Privacy advocates aren’t fully sold on the idea either. The EFF, for example, argues that FLoC will make it easier for marketing companies that want to fingerprint users based on the various FLoC IDs they expose, for example. That’s something Google is addressing with its Privacy Budget proposal, but how well that will work remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, users would probably prefer to just browse the web without seeing ads (no matter what the advertising industry may want us to believe) and without having to worry about their privacy. But online publishers continue to rely on advertising income to fund their sites.
With all of these divergent interests, it was always clear that Google’s initiatives weren’t going to please everyone. That friction was always built into the process. And while other browser vendors can outright block ads and third-party cookies, Google’s role in the advertising ecosystem makes this a bit more complicated.
“When other browsers started blocking third-party cookies by default, we were excited about the direction, but worried about the immediate impact,” Marshall Vale, Google’s product manager for Privacy Sandbox, writes in today’s announcement. “Excited because we absolutely need a more private web, and we know third-party cookies aren’t the long-term answer. Worried because today many publishers rely on cookie-based advertising to support their content efforts, and we had seen that cookie blocking was already spawning privacy-invasive workarounds (such as fingerprinting) that were even worse for user privacy. Overall, we felt that blocking third-party cookies outright without viable alternatives for the ecosystem was irresponsible, and even harmful, to the free and open web we all enjoy.”
It’s worth noting that FLoC, as well as Google’s other privacy sandbox initiatives, are still under development. The company says the idea here is to learn from these initial trials and evolve the project accordingly.
Google today announced that its Chrome browser is moving to a faster release cycle by shipping a new milestone every four weeks instead of the current six-week cycle (with a bi-weekly security patch). That’s one way to hasten the singularity, I guess, but it’s worth noting that Mozilla also moved to a four-week cycle for Firefox last year.
“As we have improved our testing and release processes for Chrome, and deployed bi-weekly security updates to improve our patch gap, it became clear that we could shorten our release cycle and deliver new features more quickly,” the Chrome team explains in today’s announcement.
Google, however, also acknowledges that not everybody wants to move this quickly — especially in the enterprise. For those users, Google is adding a new Extended Stable option with updates that come every eight weeks. This feature will be available to enterprise admins and Chromium embedders. They will still get security updates on a bi-weekly schedule, but Google notes that “those updates won’t contain new features or all security fixes that the 4 week option will receive.”
The new four-week cycle will start with Chrome 94 in Q3 2021, and at this faster rate, we’ll see Chrome 100 launch into the stable channel by March 29, 2022. I expect there will be cake.
In addition, the Edge team also announced a few under-the-hood changes that will allow the browser to startup significantly faster (up to 41% faster according to Microsoft’s preliminary tests, to be precise). Since Microsoft can’t speed up your hard drive or significantly shrink Edge, though, the way the team achieves this is by loading the browser in the background when you sign in and then it’ll continue running when you close all browser windows. If that’s not to your liking, you can always turn this feature off, too.
While vertical tabs are available for you to play with now, though, the startup improvements will roll out over the course of this month.
Vertical tabs, of course, are nothing new. Other browsers have long supported them, either as a built-in feature or through extensions. But it’s nice to see them finally becoming a reality in Edge, too.
“Most websites follow a conventional grid that leaves plenty of whitespace on either end of the page,” Microsoft’s Michele McDanel writes in today’s announcement. “As we began working with our users, we realized that this vertical real estate could be a better location for tabs, rather than the traditional horizontal list of tabs at the top. While vertical tabs may not be an entirely new concept, we saw an opportunity to improve the browser experience and tested several prototypes with our users.”
In its research, Microsoft discovered that users who like vertical tabs also like to switch between them and standard horizontal tabs, so it added an always-visible toggle to do so. And since users sometimes want to reclaim all of their screen estate, the team added the ability to collapse the sidebar, too.
For those of you who use Bing, Microsoft is also adding a few nifty new features to its search engine. There’s a new recipe view for when you’re once again out of ideas for what to make for dinner, improved visual search results, and the company has spruced up some of its rich sidebar snippets with a more infographic-like feel. But let’s face it: you’re not using Bing. If perchance you do, you can find more details about the udpates here.
Requiring that app makers list the data they collect reveals a lot about what some apps do with our information (ahem, WhatsApp) but creates confusion about others.
The internet is not a private place. Ads try to learn as much about you to sell your information to the highest bidder. Emails know when you open them and which links you click. And some of the biggest internet snoops, like Facebook and Amazon, follow you from site to site as you browse the web.
But it doesn’t have to be like that. We’ve tried and tested six browser extensions that will immediately improve your privacy online by blocking most of the invisible ads and trackers.
These extensions won’t block every kind of snooping, but they will vastly reduce your exposure to most of the efforts to track your internet activity. You might not care that advertisers collect your data to learn your tastes and interests to serve you targeted ads. But you might care that these ad giants can see which medical conditions you’re looking up and what private purchases you’re making.
By blocking these hidden trackers from loading, websites can’t collect as much information about you. Plus by dropping the unnecessary bulk, some websites will load faster. The tradeoff is that some websites might not load properly or refuse to let you in if you don’t let them track you. You can toggle the extensions on and off as needed, or you could ask yourself if the website was that good to begin with and could you not just find what you were looking for somewhere else?
We’re pretty much hardwired to look for that little green lock in our browser to tell us a website was loaded over an HTTPS-encrypted connection. That means the websites you open haven’t been hijacked or modified by an attacker before it loaded and that anything you submit to that website can’t be seen by anyone other than the website. HTTPS Everywhere is a browser extension made by the non-profit internet group the Electronic Frontier Foundation that automatically loads websites over HTTPS where it’s offered, and allows you to block the minority of websites that don’t support HTTPS. The extension is supported by most browsers, including Chrome, Firefox, Edge, and Opera.
Another extension developed by the EFF, Privacy Badger is one of the best all-in-one extensions for blocking invisible third-party trackers on websites. This extension looks at all the components of a web page and learns which ones track you from website to website, and then blocks them from loading in the browser. Privacy Badger also learns as you travel the web, so it gets better over time. And it requires no effort or configuration to work, just install it and leave it to it. The extension is available on most major browsers.
Ads are what keeps the internet free, but often at the expense of your personal information. Ads try to learn as much about you — usually by watching your browsing activity and following you across the web — so that they can target you with ads you’re more likely to click on. Ad blockers stop them in their tracks by blocking ads from loading, but also the tracking code that comes with it.
uBlock Origin is a lightweight, simple but effective, and widely trusted ad blocker used by millions of people, but it also has a ton of granularity and customizability for the more advanced user. (Be careful with impersonators: there are plenty of ad blockers that aren’t as trusted that use a similar name.) And if you feel bad about the sites that rely on ads for revenue (including us!), consider a subscription to the site instead. After all, a free web that relies on ad tracking to make money is what got us into this privacy nightmare to begin with.
PixelBlock & ClearURLs
If you thought hidden trackers in websites were bad, wait until you learn about what’s lurking in your emails. Most emails from brand names come with tiny, often invisible pixels that alerts the sender when you’ve opened them. PixelBlock is a simple extension for Chrome browsers that simply blocks these hidden email open trackers from loading and working. Every time it detects a tracker, it displays a small red eye in your inbox so you know.
Most of these same emails also come with tracking links that alerts the sender which links you click. ClearURLs, available for Chrome, Firefox and Edge, sits in your browser and silently removes the tracking junk from every link in your browser and your inbox. That means ClearURLs needs more access to your browser’s data than most of these extensions, but its makers explain why in the documentation.
Firefox Multi-Account Containers
And an honorary mention for Firefox users, who can take advantage of Multi-Account Containers, built by the browser maker itself to help you isolate your browsing activity. That means you can have one container full of your work tabs in your browser, and another container with all of your personal tabs, saving you from having to use multiple browsers. Containers also keep your private personal browsing separate from your work browsing activity. It also means you can put sites like Facebook or Google in a container, making it far more difficult for them to see which websites you visit and understand your tastes and interests. Containers are easy to use and customizable.
A group of industry heavyweights, including Google, Box, Citrix, Dell, Imprivata, Intel, Okta, RingCentral, Slack, VMware and Zoom, today announced the launch of the moderncomputing.com.
The mission for this new alliance is to “drive ‘silicon-to-cloud’ innovation for the benefit of enterprise customers — fueling a differentiated modern computing platform and providing additional choice for integrated business solutions.”
Whoever wrote this mission statement was clearly trying to see how many words they could use without actually saying something.
Here is what the alliance is really about: even though the word Chrome never appears on its homepage and Google’s partners never quite get to mentioning it either, it’s all about helping enterprises adopt Chrome and Chrome OS. “The focus of the alliance is to drive innovation and interoperability in the Google Chrome ecosystem, increasing options for enterprise customers and helping to address some of the biggest tech challenges facing companies today,” a Google spokesperson told me.
I’m not sure why it’s not called the Chrome Enterprise Alliance, but Modern Computing Alliance may just have more of a ring to it. This also explains why Microsoft isn’t part of it, though this is only the initial slate of members and others may follow at some point in the future.
Led by Google, the alliance’s focus is on bringing modern web apps to the enterprise, with a focus on performance, security, identity management and productivity. And all of that, of course, is meant to run well on Chrome and Chrome OS and be interoperable.
“The technology industry is moving towards an open, heterogeneous ecosystem that allows freedom of choice while integrating across the stack. This reality presents both a challenge and an opportunity,” Google’s Chrome OS VP John Solomon writes today.
As enterprises move to the cloud, building better web applications and maybe even Progressive Web Applications that work just as well as native solutions is obviously a noble goal and it’s nice to see these companies work together. Given the pandemic, all of this has taken on a new urgency now, too. The plan is for the alliance to release products — though it’s unclear what form these will take — in the first half of 2021. Hopefully, these will play nicely with any browser. A lot of these ‘alliances’ fizzle out quite quickly, so we’ll keep an eye on what happens here.
Bonus: the industry has a long history of alliance like these. Here’s a fun 1991 story about a CPU alliance between Intel, IBM, MIPS and others.
At the Chrome Dev Summit, Google’s Chrome team today announced a number of new capabilities for developers, updated rules for extension developers, as well as new steps to improve the overall performance of the browser.
In addition, the Chrome team also announced a major change for extension developers: sometime in 2021, users will get more granular control over which sites an extension can access and starting in January, every extension will feature a ‘privacy practices’ section on the Chrome Web Store that details what kind of data the extension collects.
The Chrome team also today announced that it will launch Manifest V3 in mid-January, when Chrome 88 hits the stable channel. That’s something a lot of extension developers — especially those working on ad blockers — have been dreading. Manifest V3 introduces new limits for extension developers that are meant to prevent them from accessing too much data from their users, but it also puts relatively severe limits on how extensions can interact with a web page. Google now says it has made some changes to V3 based on the feedback it has received, but this is probably not the last we’ve heard of this.
The team also continues to work on new ways to speed up the browsing experience, too. The team is doing this by actually changing the way it compiles Chrome, something it first talked about this summer, when these changes arrived in the Chrome beta channel.
“Based on looking at the usage patterns of Chrome, we asked ourselves — with insights of how users are actually using Chrome — are there things we could do in how we compile chrome itself that would make it more efficient? And we found that the answer is yes,” Google’s Ben Galbraith told me. “[…] We call it profile-guided optimization and in [certain] scenarios, we found up to 10 percent faster page loads due to these task-specific compiler optimizations.” Most of the scenarios are in the 2 to 5 percent range, but given how mature most browser engines are now, even that’s a significant difference.
The team is also recently worked on improving tab throttling and how it allocates resources to foreground and background tasks. Galbraith noted that the plan is to do more work along these lines moving forward.
Developers, too, will get some new tools to improve the performance of their web apps as part of Google’s Web Vital initiative, which aims to provide developers with the right performance metrics to help them understand how users experience their web apps. Google Search will use some of these core metrics in its rankings, starting May 2021. Google already highlights this data in the Chrome Experience Report, in its Search Console and elsewhere, but today it is also launching an open-source Web Vitals Report tool to help developers create custom visualization based on the Web Vitals data they’ve sent to Google Analytics. Google Analytics doesn’t currently surface this data in the context of Web Vitals, so developers can now run these reports using Google’s own hosted tool or fork the code and run them on their own infrastructure.
“When you look at the different metrics, we’re focused on the things that we understand the most: loading metrics, visual stability and the like, and interaction — so when you click on something, something actually happens. The mission for these metrics is to be able to really understand the quality of the experience that you’ve got.,” Google’s Dion Almaer explained.
And there is more. On the privacy front, Google continues to iterate on its Privacy Sandbox model. It’s adding two new experiments here with the Click Conversion Measurement API to measures ad conversions without using cross-site identifiers and the new Trust Token APIs that allow a site to issue a cryptographic token to a user it trusts. The idea behind this token is that the browser can then use this token in another context as well to evaluate that a user is who they say they are — and not a bot or an impostor with malicious intent.
In addition, there are also new features for developers who want to write PWAs, updates to how developers can accept payments in Chrome and more.
Google was clearly anticipating today’s U.S. Department of Justice antitrust complaint filing – the company posted an extensive rebuttal of the lawsuit to its Keyword company blog. The post, penned by SVP of Global Affairs and Google Chief Legal Officer Kent Walker, suggests that the DOJ’s case is “deeply flawed” and “would do nothing to help consumers,” before going into a platform-by-platform description of why it thinks its position in the market isn’t representative of unfair market dominance that would amount to antitrust.
Google’s blog post is even sprinkled with GIFs – something that’s pretty common for the search giant when it comes to its consumer product launches. These GIFs include step-by-step screen recordings of setting search engines other than Google as your default in Chrome on both mobile and desktop. These processes are both described as “trivially easy” by Walker in the post, but they do look like a bit of an own-goal when you notice just how many steps it takes to get the job done on desktop in particular, including what looks like a momentary hesitation in where to click to drill down further for the “Make Default” command.
Google also reportedly makes reference to companies choosing their search engine as default because of the quality of their service, including both Apple and Mozilla (with a link drop for our own Frederic Lardinois). Ultimately, Google is making the argument that its search engine isn’t dominant because of a lack of viable options fostered by anti-competitive practices, but that instead it’s a result of building a quality product that consumers then opt in to using from among a field of choices.
The DOJ’s full suit dropped this morning, and an initial analysis suggests that this scrutiny is perhaps inopportunely timed in terms of its proximity to the election to actually have any significant teeth. There is some indication that a more broad, bipartisan investigation with support from state level attorney generals on both sides of the aisle could follow later, however, so it’s not necessarily all just going to go away regardless of election outcome.
Year after year, phishing remains one of the most popular and effective ways for attackers to steal your passwords. As users, we’re mostly trained to spot the telltale signs of a phishing site, but most of us rely on carefully examining the web address in the browser’s address bar to make sure the site is legitimate.
But even the browser’s anti-phishing features — often the last line of defense for a would-be phishing victim — aren’t perfect.
Security researcher Rafay Baloch found several vulnerabilities in some of the most widely used mobile browsers — including Apple’s Safari, Opera, and Yandex — which if exploited would allow an attacker to trick the browser into displaying a different web address than the actual website that the user is on. These address bar spoofing bugs make it far easier for attackers to make their phishing pages look like legitimate websites, creating the perfect conditions for someone trying to steal passwords.
The bugs worked by exploiting a weakness in the time it takes for a vulnerable browser to load a web page. Once a victim is tricked into opening a link from a phishing email or text message, the malicious web page uses code hidden on the page to effectively replace the malicious web address in the browser’s address bar to any other web address that the attacker chooses.
In at least one case, the vulnerable browser retained the green padlock icon, indicating that the malicious web page with a spoofed web address was legitimate — when it wasn’t.
Rapid7’s research director Tod Beardsley, who helped Baloch with disclosing the vulnerabilities to each browser maker, said address bar spoofing attacks put mobile users at particular risk.
“On mobile, space is at an absolute premium, so every fraction of an inch counts. As a result, there’s not a lot of space available for security signals and sigils,” Beardsley told TechCrunch. “While on a desktop browser, you can either look at the link you’re on, mouse over a link to see where you’re going, or even click on the lock to get certificate details. These extra sources don’t really exist on mobile, so the location bar not only tells the user what site they’re on, it’s expected to tell the user this unambiguously and with certainty. If you’re on
palpay.com instead of the expected
paypal.com, you could notice this and know you’re on a fake site before you type in your password.”
“Spoofing attacks like this make the location bar ambiguous, and thus, allow an attacker to generate some credence and trustworthiness to their fake site,” he said.
Baloch and Beardsley said the browser makers responded with mixed results.
So far, only Apple and Yandex pushed out fixes in September and October. Opera spokesperson Julia Szyndzielorz said the fixes for its Opera Touch and Opera Mini browsers are “in gradual rollout.”
But the makers of UC Browser, Bolt Browser, and RITS Browser — which collectively have more than 600 million device installs — did not respond to the researchers and left the vulnerabilities unpatched.
TechCrunch reached out to each browser maker but none provided a statement by the time of publication.
With its Edge browser now stable, Microsoft’s current focus for its Chromium-based browser is to build features that differentiate it from the competition.
With the holiday season coming up fast (though who knows what that will actually look like this year), it’s maybe no surprise that one of the first new features the company is announcing is a price comparison tool as part of its ‘Collections’ bookmarking service. That was always an obvious next step, but it’s nice to see Microsoft add some more functionality here.
Also coming to Edge is the general availability of its integration between Collections and Pinterest, as well as a new screenshot tool for capturing web content, improved PDF support and an update to its Teleparty extension for streaming TV shows in sync with your friends and chat about it in your browser’s sidebar.
In addition, you can now also start free video meetings with your friends and family (or co-workers), right from the browsers through an integration with Microsoft’s Meet Now service. You can have up to 50 people in these video chats, share screens and record these sessions. While this is rolling out in Edge first, it’s also coming to Outlook on the web and the Windows 10 taskbar in the next few weeks.
You can’t say Microsoft held back on new features with this release, but the highlight is surely the new price comparison engine, though.
“We’ve been talking about how collections is a great feature for anyone who wants to do research — whether that’s research in education or work, but a lot of people do research for shopping,” said Divya Kumar, Microsoft’s Director of Product Management for its browser and search tools. “We’ve really started to talk about this rhythm of, ‘okay, if use drop things into Collections, we should be really smart enough to give you the data that you’re looking for.’ This felt like a really natural next step for us to do.”
As long as Edge — through its connection with Microsoft Bing‘s existing price comparison engine — recognizes that you’re saving a product site, maybe from Amazon or Best Buy, it’ll show you the option to compare prices right in the browser tools bar. The next logical step now is for the team to add alerts when prices change and Kumar tells me that this is on the roadmap, together with several other features the team wasn’t ready to discuss yet.
Microsoft says it does not get affiliate fees when you buy through one of the links in Collections.
Talking about shopping, the team is also launching its Bing Rebates cashback program out of beta now (after shutting down a somewhat similar program a while back). The company signed up the likes for Walmart, Expedia, Walgreens and Nvidia for this program (though Nvidia only gives you a whopping 0.5% cashback). Still, it may just get some people to use Bing, though you have to sign up as a Microsoft Rewards member to participate.
“Rebates is a great part of the shopping story that we’re trying to land in terms of enabling smarter shopping experiences in the browser,” said Kumar.
In addition, through its Give with Bing program, you can now use your Microsoft Rewards points to donate to charitable organizations and until the end of the year, Microsoft will match your gift. This is live in the including: U.S., UK, Canada, Australia, France, Italy, Germany and Spain.
As somebody who works on the web and takes screenshots all day, the updated screenshotting tool is also worth a look. Edge could already help you take screenshots, but until now, all you could do was copy what was on your screen. Now, you can also grab content from further down the page and then save it or share it directly from Edge.
If you’re an iOS user and have switched to Edge there — or thought about it — the news here is that you can now select Edge as your default browser there, a feature Apple finally enabled with the launch of iOS 14.
When Microsoft announced that it would switch its Edge browser to the Chromium engine, it vowed to bring it to every popular platform. At the time, Linux wasn’t part of that list, but by late last year, it became clear that Microsoft was indeed working on a Linux version. Later, at this year’s Build, a Microsoft presenter even used it during a presentation.
Starting in October, Linux users will be able to either download the browser from the Edge Insider website or through their native package managers. Linux users will get the same Edge experience as users on Windows and macOS, as well as access to its built-in privacy and security features. For the most part, I would expect the Linux experience to be on par with that on the other platforms.
Microsoft also today announced that its developers have made over 3,700 commits to the Chromium project so far. Some of this work has been on support for touchscreens, but the team also contributed to areas like accessibility features and developer tools, on top of core browser fundamentals.
Currently, Microsoft Edge is available on Windows 7, 8 and 10, as well as
macOS, iOS and Android.
Launching IE in Windows 10 immediate brings up a page suggesting Edge. [credit: Samuel Axon ]
Microsoft 365 apps will end support for Internet Explorer 11 by the end of 2021, Microsoft announced in a company blog post this week. It’s a big step from the company, which is looking to move customers to its more modern Edge browser even as some enterprises are stuck on legacy systems running Internet Explorer (IE).
The change will begin with Microsoft Teams Web application, which will end IE support on November 30 of this year. Microsoft 365 applications will follow by August 17, 2021. Here’s how Microsoft explained the 365 changes in its blog post:
Customers will have a degraded experience or will be unable to connect to Microsoft 365 apps and services on IE 11. For degraded experiences, new Microsoft 365 features will not be available or certain features may cease to work when accessing the app or service via IE 11.
That said, Redmond was careful to clarify that IE 11 is not going away. Many enterprises have proprietary Web applications that only work on that browser and are unlikely to drop it entirely in the immediate future.
Facebook groups led to the rise of QAnon. We can only imagine what could happen with encryption.
Mozilla today announced a major restructuring of its commercial arm, the Mozilla Corporation that will see about 250 employees lose their jobs and the shuttering of the organization’s operations in Taipei, Taiwan. This move comes after the organization already laid off about 70 employees earlier this year. The most recent numbers from 2018 put Mozilla at about 1,000 employees worldwide.
“Pre-COVID, our plan for 2020 was a year of change: building a better internet by accelerating product value in Firefox, increasing innovation, and adjusting our finances to ensure financial stability over the long term,” Baker writes. “We started with immediate cost-saving measures such as pausing our hiring, reducing our wellness stipend and cancelling our All-Hands. But COVID-19 has accelerated the need and magnified the depth for these changes. Our pre-COVID plan is no longer workable. We have talked about the need for change — including the likelihood of layoffs — since the spring. Today these changes become real.”
Layed off employees will receive severance that is at least equivalent to their full base pay through December 31 and will still receive their individual performance bonuses for the first half of the year, as well as part of their company bonus and the standard COBRA health insurance benefits.
Mozilla promises that its smaller organization will be able to act more “quickly and nimbly” and that it will work more closely with partners that share its goal of an open web ecosystem. At the same time, Baker wants Mozilla to remain a “technical powerhouse of the internet activist movement,” yet she also acknowledges that the organization as a whole must also focus on economics and work on creating sustainable business models that still stay true to its mission.
‘We are also restructuring to put a crisper focus on new product development and go to market activities,” writes Baker. “In the long run, I am confident that the new organizational structure will serve our product and market impact goals well, but we will talk in detail about this in a bit.”
On the product side, Mozilla will continue to focus on Firefox, as well as Pocket, its Hubs virtual reality project, its new VPN service, Web Assembly and other privacy and security products. But it is also launching a new Design and UX team, as well as a new applied machine learning team to help bring machine learning to its products.
A few months ago, we declared that “browsers are interesting again,” thanks to increased competition among the major players. Now, as more startups are getting onboard, things are getting downright exciting.
A small but growing number of projects are building web browsers with a more specific type of user in mind. Whether that perceived user is prioritizing improved speed, organization or toolsets aligned with their workflow, entrepreneurs are building these projects with the assumption that Google’s one-size-fits-all approach with Chrome leaves plenty of users with a suboptimal experience.
Building a modern web browser from scratch isn’t the most feasible challenge for a small startup. Luckily open-source projects have enabled developers to build their evolved web browsers on the bones of the apps they aim to compete with. For browsers that are not Safari, Firefox, Chrome or a handful of others, Google’s Chromium open-source project has proven to be an invaluable asset.
Since Google first released Chrome in late 2008, the company has also been updating Chromium. The source code powers the Microsoft Edge and Opera web browsers, but also allows smaller developer teams to harness the power of Chrome when building their own apps.
These upstart browsers have generally sought to compete with the dominant powers on the privacy front, but as Chrome and Safari have begun shipping more features to help users manage how they are tracked online, entrepreneurs are widening their product ambitions to tackle usability upgrades.
Aiding these heightened ambitions is increased attention on custom browsers from investors. Mozilla co-founder Brendan Eich’s Brave has continued to scale, announcing last month they had 5 million daily active users of their privacy-centric browser.
Today, Thrive Capital’s Josh Miller spoke with TechCrunch about his project The Browser Company which has raised $5 million from some notable Silicon Valley operators. Other hot upstart efforts include Mighty, a subscription-based, remote-streamed Chrome startup from Mixpanel founder Suhail Doshi, and Blue Link Labs, a recent entrant that’s building a decentralized peer-to-peer browser called Beaker browser.
As front-end developers have gotten more ambitious and web applications have gotten more complex, Chrome has earned the reputation of being quite the RAM hog.
Apple is turning the tables on invasive ad trackers.
The tech giant announced Monday a new privacy feature in its underdog browser, Safari, which will shine a spotlight on all of the ad trackers embedded on each article or website you visit.
Safari’s new anti-tracking feature sits in the top part of the browser next to the address bar, and blocks intrusive trackers as you browse the web. Users can also open the anti-tracker and view a privacy report, which details all of the trackers on the page.
The page you’re reading, for example, had over 200 trackers on it when we checked.
Rival browsers, like Firefox and Brave, already have anti-tracking features built in.
It’s the latest feature that tries to turn the tables on the targeted ad and tracking industry. As targeted advertising became more invasive over the years, Apple has responded by bundling features to its software, like its intelligence tracking prevention technology and allowing Safari users to install content blockers that prevent ads and trackers from loading.
The new Safari features will land in the latest version of macOS Big Sur, expected out later this year.
Apple quietly made a major announcement that will change life for users of mobile Chrome, Gmail or Outlook. The company is shifting its view on app defaults and will be allowing users to set different app defaults for their mail and browser apps.
The company specifically denoted that this feature is coming to iPadOS and iOS 14. This likely means users can designate which browser they’re directed to when they tap a link somewhere. We’ll see whether Apple reserves any functionality for its own services. Rather than highlighting this new feature in the keynote, they snuck it into roundup screens that hovered onscreen for a few seconds. It’s hidden in the bottom center of the screen.
This is a big change for Apple but it’s no surprise they wouldn’t opt to specifically highlight this onstage. Apple has been reluctant to give users the option to use third-party apps as defaults. The big exception to date has been allowing users early on to set Google Maps as the default over Apple Maps.
Email and browsing are huge mobile use cases and it’s surprising that users haven’t had this capability to shift defaults to apps like Chrome or Gmail until this upcoming update. As Apple finds itself at the center of more anti-trust conversations, app defaults has been one area that’s always popped up as a method by which Apple promotes its own services over those from other companies.
Details are scant in terms of what this feature will look like exactly and what services will boast support, but I imagine we’ll hear more as the betas begin rolling out.
Browser developers love to add small Easter Eggs to their apps to help you while away the hours when your Interent is down, for example. Chrome has long had the Dino game, that you can start from the ‘No internet’ error screen, for example. With its surf game, Microsoft’s Edge team built something similar into its pre-release channels earlier this year and as the company announced today, it’s now also available in the stable channel, too.
Just type in ‘edge://surf’ into your URL bar and you’re off to the races. The surf game is an endless scroller where you try to avoid obstacles, other surfers and the occasional attention-starved kraken. It’s more fun than the Dino game and also a bit more fully-featured. There are different game modes (endless, time trial, zig zag) and you can play with keyboard, mouse, touch or gamepad. If you like your games even more casual, there is a reduced speed mode and there is a high visibility mode for those with visual impairments.
After almost a year in public preview, the Edge team launched its first stable version earlier this year and only last week, Microsoft announced a slew of new features at its virtual Build developer conference. Even during its preview period, Edge was already a capable browser, though it lacked any killer features — unless being a very good Chromium-based browser made by Microsoft was really what you were always looking for. That’s slowly changing now, as the team is now building out the Edge feature set. The surf game isn’t exactly a killer feature, but it does help set the overall vibe for the browser and shows that Microsoft is looking to go beyond the basics now.
Cliqz, a Munch-based anti-tracking browser with private search baked in that has sought to offer a local alternative to Google powered by its own search index, is shutting down — claiming this arm of its business has been blindsided by the coronavirus crisis.
The bigger challenge is of course competing in a market so dominated by Google .
In Europe, where the tech giant’s search engine commands a marketshare approaching 95%, trying to lure users to an alternative ecosystem is difficult at the best of times, and a pandemic is certainly not that.
“We didn’t see a pandemic coming,” Cliqz wrote in a farewell blog post yesterday. “We didn’t expect that a virus could have impact on Cliqz. And even just one and a half months ago, we completely underestimated what this would do to the economy and even more so to the political priorities. It became clear to us in the last weeks, that all political initiatives to create an independent European digital infrastructure have been stalled or postponed for years. Covid-19 is overshadowing everything. This is not a climate where we will have any meaningful discussion about a public funding of a solution like Cliqz.”
It’s been a long road for Cliqz, which was founded back in 2008 — initially focused on German-speaking markets. The browser was a fork of Mozilla’s Firefox, and Cliq went on to take investment from Mozilla, in 2016, when it was eyeing expanding to more markets.
In 2017 it acquired the Ghostery anti-tracking tool, which had around 8 million users at the time, with the aim of combining algorithmic and blocklist anti-tracking approaches. But the wider challenge for Cliqz’s browser+search effort was not a lack of tech but the difficulty of building broad backing for its alternative approach.
The farewell blog post says the company failed to raise enough awareness among mainstream web users to convince them to step off Alphabet’s beaten path. But it’s also true that, in recent years, mainstream browsers have been baking in anti-tracking and steadily upping their own splashy privacy claims.
Even Google has said it will phase out third party cookie tracking in its Chrome browser — so the available space for ‘easy’ differentiation around privacy is shrinking. Unless you can clearly and powerfully articulate key technical nuance and complex wider market dynamics related to how user data is passed around in the background.
There is also ongoing regulatory failure in Europe around privacy, despite a recently updated data protection framework, with many national watchdogs failing to grasp the nettle of rampant unlawful online tracking.
The lack of GDPR enforcement against major tech and adtech platforms also means there’s been less succour for those businesses that are making privacy respecting choices than they might have been led to expect, having read the rules on paper.
“We failed to make people truly aware of the problem; we failed to reach a scale that would allow our search engine to be self-financing,” Cliqz writes. “We have reached several hundred thousand daily users. But — and this is the disadvantage of running our own technology — this is not enough to run a search engine, to cover our costs. And most of all, we failed to convince the political stakeholders, that Europe desperately needs an own independent digital infrastructure.”
While the Cliqz browser and search is being shuttered, the company is not closing down entirely — and a spokesman confirmed Ghostery will continue.
Cliqz investor, Hubert Burda Media, which holds a majority stake in the business, said Thursday that the resulting “restructuring” of the business will affect 45 employees — “for whom individual solutions are currently being sought”.
“The 100% Cliqz subsidiary Ghostery, headed by Jeremy Tillman, will continue to bundle Cliqz’s expertise in the area of anti-tracking,” it wrote. “In addition, a team of experts will be formed from Cliqz, which will take care of technical issues such as artificial intelligence, search and the influence of technology on media.”
Burda added that it’s looking at a possible integration of Cliqz’s MyOffrz unit — aka the division that had sought to monetize use of the anti-tracking browser via contextually targeted (and thus privacy sensitive) ads.
In a wider statement on the restructuring, Burda CEO Paul-Bernhard Kallen said: “We have invested in Cliqz for years because we believe that Europe needs its own digital infrastructure to stay fit for the future. Without the necessary political structures at European level for this, however, we will not be able to overcome the superiority of the tech giants from the USA and China. In addition, the Corona pandemic is unlikely to lead to a far-reaching innovation program in Europe in the foreseeable future, so that we can no longer drive this path alone. I very much regret this because the basic idea of establishing a counterweight to the USA and China in the European search sector is still the right one.”
Google Meet, like all video chat products, is seeing rapid growth in user numbers right now, so it’s no surprise that Google is trying to capitalize on this and is quickly iterating on its product. Today, it is officially launching a set of new features that include a more Zoom-like tiled layout, a low-light mode for when you have to make calls at night and the ability to present a single Chrome tab instead of a specific window or your entire screen. Soon, Meet will also get built-in noise cancellation so nobody will hear your dog bark in the background.
If all of this sounds a bit familiar, it’s probably because G Suite exec Javier Soltero already talked to Reuters about these features last week. Google PR is usually pretty straightforward, but in this case, it moved in mysterious ways. Today, though, these features are actually starting to roll out to users, a Google spokesperson told me, and today’s announcement does actually provide more details about each of these features.
For the most part, what’s being announced here is obvious. The tiled layout allows web users to see up to 16 participants at once. Previously, that number was limited to four and Google promises it will offer additional layouts for larger meetings and better presentation layouts, as well as support for more devices in the future.
For the most part, having this many people stare at me from my screen doesn’t seem necessary (and more likely to induce stress than anything else), but the ability to present a single Chrome tab is surely a welcome new feature for many. But what’s probably just as important is that this means you can share higher-quality video content from these tabs than before.
If you often take meetings in the dark, low-light mode uses AI to brighten up your video. Unlike some of the other features, this one is coming to mobile first and will come to web users in the future.
Personally, I’m most excited about the new noise cancellation feature. Typically, noise cancellation works best for noises that repeat and are predictable. Think about the constant drone of an airplane or your neighbor’s old lawnmower. But Google says Meet can now go beyond this and also cancel out barking dogs and your noisy keystrokes. That has increasingly become table stakes, with even Discord offering similar capabilities and Nvidia RTX Voice now making this available in a slew of applications for users of its high-end graphics cards, but it’s nice to see this as a built-in feature for Meet now.
This feature will only roll out in the coming weeks and will initially be available to G Suite Enterprise and G Suite Enterprise for Education users on the web, with mobile support coming later.
Vivaldi, the browser launched by former Opera CEO Jon von Tetzchner, has long positioned itself as a highly customizable alternative to Chrome and Firefox for power users. Today, the team is launching version 3.0 of its desktop browser, with built-in tracker and ad blockers, and it’s bringing its Android browser out of beta.
I’ve long been a fan of Vivaldi, but the company was relatively late to the tracking protection game. Now, it’s doubling down on this, by integrating a blocklist powered by DuckDuckGo’s Tracker Radar.
Like competing browsers, Vivaldi offers three blocking levels that users can easily toggle on and off for individual websites. Those blocking levels are relatively blunt, though, with the options to either block trackers, block trackers and ads or disable blocking. Competitors like Edge offer slightly more nuanced options for blocking trackers, though I would expect Vivaldi to adopt a similar scheme over time.
For the most part, the Vivaldi team always said that it would delegate ad blocking to extensions, though it added the option to block highly intrusive ads in the middle of last year. And while the company still notes that blocking trackers provides enough privacy protection, with today’s update, it now also gives users the option to block virtually all ads without the need to download any extensions (as a Chromium-based browser, Vivaldi supports all Chrome extensions).
Also new in the desktop version is a clock. Yes. A clock. That may sound like a weird feature, given that your desktop of choice surely features a clock, but like all things Vivaldi, you can a) remove it and b) there is actually some usefulness here as you can, for example, set up timers if you’re into Pomodoro or similar productivity techniques. And because it is Vivaldi, you can set all kinds of custom alarms and countdown timers, too.
As for the mobile version, which is now generally available for Android 5 and higher, the most important fact is probably that it exists, given how most users expect to be able to easily sync their bookmarks, passwords and browsing history between mobile and desktop. As with other browsers, you can choose what you want to sync.
Like the desktop version, Vivaldi for Android now also features a tracking and ad blocker. There’s also a built-in screenshot tool and support for Vivaldi notes, which also sync between devices.
The mobile browser isn’t quite as flexible as the desktop version, with its plethora of options, but that’s probably not what you’re looking for in a mobile browser anyway. But having a stable mobile browser that can accompany the desktop version is a big deal for Vivaldi and may give users who were on the sidelines a reason to take another look at it.
Out of the box, there’s no other browser that will give you the kind of flexibility Vivaldi does.
Helena Price Hambrecht and Woody Hambrecht always had plans for Haus, their direct-to-consumer low-alcoholic drink, to land white-label partnerships with local restaurants. But when coronavirus spread across the country and hurt thousands of local restaurants, the Haus founders saw an opportunity to fast forward on that product plan and at the same time give back.
Haus recently announced its plans to work with restaurants across the country and co-create local digs-inspired apéritifs. For Mister Jiu’s, an upscale Chinese restaurant in San Francisco, the beverage will mix “warm black cardamom, smoky lapsang tea, spicy ginger, and floral osmanthus.” For JuneBaby, a southern fare restaurant in Seattle, the drink will have hints of elderflower and oranges. The entire profit will go to the restaurants themselves, Helena tells me. And Haus has already begun cutting five-figure checks to restaurants just from pre-orders of these Haus-powered beverages alone.
On this refreshing note, let’s get into other ways venture-backed startups are using their presence to help others struggling during this time.
1. A phone booth for COVID-19 tests. Room, which manufactures privacy-focused office phone booths, hasn’t had much of a customer base lately as COVID-19 limits people from going into the office. The company has pivoted its resources to deploy a new product: coronavirus test booths for use in hospitals. The booths allow healthcare professionals to conduct tests with a protective barrier. It has already donated the first group of test booths to hospitals around the world, and it has made the design files for the booths available for free download to encourage others to manufacture locally.
2.Mission critical deliveries for free. Onfleet is offering its delivery software free of charge for companies and organizations that have mobilized to do community building deliveries. The startup is notably focused on critical deliveries and institutions that have had to change to delivery operations overnight. It’s working with partners like SF-Marin Foodbank, The NYC Dept for the Aging, various farmers markets around the country and other PPE delivery organizations that have recently organized.
4. A daily assessment as a civic duty. A small team at Stanford Medicine created a National Daily Health Survey to help identify the prevalence of symptoms associated with COVID-19 in different ZIP codes across the United States. This survey is aimed at individuals who want to do a small part every day to help predict surges and inform response efforts. The survey takes 2-3 minutes to complete the first day, and 1 minute to complete in the days after that. It is currently being translated into five languages for broader usage. The team says that it’s looking for people who will make a long-term commitment for the survey.
5. World Without COVID. Clara Health, along with tech folks like Raj Kapoor of Lyft and Vijay Chattha of VSC, are launching a free website to track the public health status of the sick and healthy alike. The site wants to draw COVID-19 treatment data for public health professionals, as well as connect people to clinical trials. The team says that it will also track immunity status to help surface individuals that can volunteer in healthcare efforts in the future.
6. Twilio -powered hotline. WhileAtHome.org is a website spun up by volunteers to provide resources on education, healthcare tips and concerts. Recently, the team launched a Twilio-powered hotline so people can be connected to local state hotlines. If you dial 478-29COVID, Twilio will automatically route you to the hotline that is in your state.
Hiring efforts for laid-off make-up artists. Il Makiage is hiring makeup artists who were recently laid off due to COVID-19 related reasons for virtual one-on-one makeup tutorials. The direct-to-consumer beauty brand is paying make-up artists $25 an hour.
7. A charitable Chrome extension. 4thwall wants to take all the TV binge-watching and put it toward a social good. First, users can sign up for a 4th wall Chrome extension. Then, once they activate the extension, they can stream Netflix or Hulu. After 250 minutes of streaming, a relief cause is unlocked and users can pick which COVID-19 specific charity they want to support. 4thwall will make a donation at no cost to the user. Per the website, the cost-free donations are possible because the company will send the viewer demographic metrics, anonymized, to other companies to see viewing trends and create content accordingly. One of the creators, Andrew Schneider, says that the community has already raised $1,500 in the first two weeks, and the goal is to raise $40K in the next 10 weeks.
8. Bridal brand gives back. Online bridal brand Anomalie is delivering CDC-certified face masks to hospitals to help front-line healthcare workers. The company is using its supply chain and manufacturing relationships in China to make masks, instead of wedding dresses. The first two shipments of over 10,000 masks have been delivered and received.
9. Bedtime storytelling just got a glow up. Yumi, a science-based childhood meal delivery startup, has created a free children’s book to explain COVID-19 to your little ones. It is available for download, and Snoop Dogg tweeted about it.
Google today announced that it will temporarily roll back the changes it recently made to how its Chrome browser handles cookies in order to ensure that sites that perform essential services like banking, online grocery, government services and healthcare won’t become inaccessible to Chrome users during the current COVID-19 pandemic.
The new SameSite rules, which the company started rolling out to a growing number of Chrome users in recent months, are meant to make it harder for sites to access cookies from third-party sites and hence track a user’s online activity. These new rules are also meant to prevent cross-site request forgery attacks.
Under Google’s new guidance, developers must explicitly allow their cookies to be read by third-party sites, otherwise, the browser will prevent these third-party sites from accessing them.
Because this is a pretty major change, Google gave developers quite a bit of time to adapt their applications to it. Still, not every site is ready yet, so the Chrome team decided to halt the gradual rollout and stop enforcing these new rules for the time being.
“While most of the web ecosystem was prepared for this change, we want to ensure stability for websites providing essential services including banking, online groceries, government services and healthcare that facilitate our daily life during this time,” writes Google Chrome engineering director Justin Schuh. “As we roll back enforcement, organizations, users and sites should see no disruption.”
A Google spokesperson also told us that the team saw some breakage in sites “that would not normally be considered essential, but with COVID-19 having become more important, we made this decision in an effort to ensure stability during this time.”
The company says it plans to resume its SameSite enforcement over the summer, though the exact timing isn’t yet clear.