How to Switch Off GMail Conversation View

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Even the most ardent Google basher has a GMail account. What’s not to like? It’s fast, free, offers several GB of storage, and has one of the best spam filters available. It’s great — even if you only use it for throw-away website registrations.

However, one of the more controversial features is “conversation view”. This groups related messages into threads and it’s been the only option since day 1. It’s a hotly-debated topic: the view works well, but takes a little mental re-configuration if you’re used to a traditional inbox such as (pre-2010) Outlook or other email clients.

According to Google’s blog:

We really hoped everyone would learn to love conversation view, but we came to realize that it’s just not right for some people.

Many people simply prefer a non-threaded inbox. If you’re in that group, you’ll be pleased to hear that Google has made conversation view optional. To change it:

  1. Click the “Settings” link at the top-right of the screen.
  2. On the General tab, select Conversation on or off (it’s the sixth option down).

GMail conversation view

(Note that the facility is being rolled out this week so you may have to wait another day or two before it appears. Business users should ensure “Enable pre-release features” is selected in the Google Apps control panel.)

It’s a welcome addition. I know several people who abandoned or struggle with GMail because conversation view is too different to their previous experiences. Automated threading has benefits — especially if you receive a lot of mail — but standard inboxes can be easier to understand and work well for many users.

But seriously Google, it’s taken 6 years implement this option! Better late than never, I suppose.

Do you love or hate threaded email views? Did you abandon GMail because of it? Does the new option encourage you retry the service?

Programming Amazon S3, Part II

SitePoint’s latest title, Host Your Web Site in the Cloud: Amazon Web Services Made Easy, has just hit the shelves. In this excerpt, author Jeff Barr takes you through the steps of using the CloudFusion library to leverage Amazon’s S3 storage service from your PHP applications.




The End is Nigh for Xmarks Browser Bookmark Synchronization

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It’s been a bad month for online service closures. Bloglines, my favorite RSS aggregator, is closing this week and now Xmarks has reached the end of the road.

Xmarks is a free synchronization service which backs-up and replicates your bookmarks across Firefox, Chrome, Internet Explorer, and Safari. The product launched in October 2006 as a Firefox-only extension named Foxmarks. Additional browsers were added in 2009 and the company re-branded itself as Xmarks.

As well as bookmarks, the plug-in can also synchronize passwords, browser history, and open tabs. Early on, the company realized they were sitting on a gold mine of 100 million user-verified page links. They experimented with their own search engine but the system failed usability tests. Although it could provide spam-free categorized links, it couldn’t answer the specific questions people entered in typical search engines queries. However, the plug-in can append information to Google results to indicate the popularity of a link.

For me, Xmarks remains the best and most reliable bookmarks synchronization service. It’s invaluable if you’re using multiple PCs and it’s the only Firefox add-in I religiously install on every browser. It has 2 million users, supports 5 million desktops, and receives 3,000 new sign-ups every day.

Despite it’s success, co-founder and CTO Todd Agulnick explained they have struggled to monetize the service. The company has been for sale since early 2010, but no potential buyers have come forward. The business model may not have a viable future now that Microsoft, Mozilla, Google and Opera all offer free synchronization with their browsers. Unfortunately, few of these options are as good as Xmarks and none provide cross-browser functionality.

The company is sending emails to users and the Xmarks service will shut down at the end of 2010.

Do you use Xmarks? Will you be affected by its demise? Are you using a good alternative?

Happy 12th Birthday Google

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It’s Google’s 12th Birthday. You’d probably realized that if you’ve visited the search engine’s home page — the logo has been replaced by an image of a cake created by American artist Wayne Thiebaud.

Although Google celebrate September 27 as their official birthday, the company was incorporated on September 4, the first technical specification appeared on September 20, and the first employee was hired on September 21, 1998. The Google.com domain name was registered on September 15, 1997.

Google 12th Birthday

Whatever you think of the company, it’s difficult to imagine a web without Google. Things would have been very different had Microsoft, Netscape or any other company dominated the landscape. Most of us use the search engine and several other products such as GMail, Docs, Analytics, Adsense, Reader, or Chrome. Google already produces Android, their mobile platform, and Chrome OS should appear within the next few months.

The company and profits have grown exponentially, which is incredible when the majority of Google’s output is given away for free. It’s a model much envied by the old shrink-wrap software producers.

Happy 12th Birthday Google. The first 12 years have been amazing — what will you achieve by 2022?

Orkut Hit by XSS Worm

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First Twitter was hacked. Then Facebook went down. Now it’s Orkut’s turn. Google’s social networking site has been attacked by the virulent “Bom Sabado” worm. Bom Sabado means “Good Saturday” in Portuguese, the native language of Brazil where the worm is thought to have originated. Orkut is the most popular social site in Brazil, India and several other countries.

The worm replicates itself across accounts and randomly sends “Bom Sabado” messages to friend’s scrapbooks — Orkut’s version of Facebook’s wall. Google support recently announced that the worm had been contained and they are in the process of cleaning infected accounts. However, the company recommends vigilance when accessing accounts — users should be especially wary about clicking suspicious links.

If you have been infected, you should log out, clear your browser’s cookies and cache and change your Google account password immediately at google.com/accounts.

The attacks raise an interesting question: are hackers and spammers turning their attention to social networks? XSS infections are easier to create and distribute than viruses or malware which can be detected by PC software. In addition, the exploits spread quickly and cross system boundaries — it doesn’t necessarily matter which OS or browser is being used.

The networks have proved themselves vulnerable. All companies state security is a top priority, but it’ll never be as important as usability or encouraging new sign-ups. Open APIs and third-party applications also provide another means of attack. Perhaps it’s just a matter of time before we see self-replicating worms which can distribute themselves throughout a network without any user interaction.

Then again, these attacks have provided the social networks with considerable mainstream attention. Bad news is better than no news whatsoever. Orkut is relatively unknown in the US and Europe, so perhaps the worm is a massive Google publicity stunt! But I’d never suggest such as thing. I’ll leave that to the cynical conspiracy theorists…

Facebook Resolves Worst Shutdown in Four Years

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Facebook suffered a catastrophic failure on Thursday 23 September which engineers stated was the worst since 2006. The company apologized to its 500 million users for the problem which caused almost 3 hours down-time during mid-day in the US and early evening in Europe.

Although Facebook has not yet revealed the full technical details, it’s understood to have been caused by an error handling bug which caused more damage than it fixed. Facebook had no option but to shut down the service at a time when an estimated 135 million users were attempting to log on. Most were faced with a “DNS failure” message and the news soon spread via Twitter and other services.

It’s been a bad week for the social networks. The Facebook outage was preceded by Twitter worms which exploited a cross-site scripting (XSS) vulnerability. However, the problems were not related and the networks are generally reliable.

But what were people to do without Facebook? The outage meant many users had to meet their real friends face-to-face. Let’s hope there wasn’t too much poking.

Google Reveals its Government Censorship Map

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Did you know that between January and June 2010, the US government made 4,287 requests for data disclosure from Google? During the same period, it asked for 678 items to be removed. Similarly, Brazil made 2,435 data requests and asked for 19,806 items to be removed.

The “Big Brother” statistics are available from Google’s Transparency Report. The figures have been collated from the search engine and other services such as YouTube. Google states:

Like other technology and communications companies, we regularly receive requests from government agencies around the world to remove content from our services. We also receive requests for information about the users of our services and products from government agencies like local and federal police. The map shows the number of requests that we received in six-month blocks with certain limitations.

Google admit the figures are not wholly accurate. Fewer than 10 requests are not shown and 2 requests for the same item could be counted twice. You can click any map marker for details such as how many requests Google complied with.

The figures include removal demands for alleged defamation, hate speech, and impersonation. However, the numbers do not include:

  • Illegal pornography — Google identifies and removes it when they become aware of the issue. This occurs regardless of government involvement.
  • Removal of copyrighted content — this tends to originate from the private sector and government demands are negligible.
  • Numbers for China — the Chinese government consider censorship requests to be state secrets in themselves.

You should note that demands are relatively higher in Brazil and India owing to the popularity of Orkut, Google’s own social networking site. Germany also bans Nazi memorabilia and some content while Korea requests removal of RRN social security numbers.

Criminal investigations account for many of the requests. These have increased annually as Google’s products, services and user base has grown.

There are few details about the other demands, but it’s clear Google isn’t afraid to report government censorship:

At a time when increasing numbers of governments are trying to regulate the free flow of information on the Internet, we hope this tool will shine some light on the scale and scope of government requests to censor information or obtain user data around the globe — and we welcome external debates about these issues that we grapple with internally on a daily basis.

The Transparency Report raises an interesting debate. On the plus side, the web is enabling a global democracy where governments are increasingly unable to hide information from the people they serve. On the flip side, is this a sign that Google has become too powerful? Can it threaten regulatory authorities, rise above the laws of the countries it operates in and enforce it’s own moral charter?

Twitter Attacked by Thousands of Tweet Worms

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Twitter has fixed a cross-site scripting (XSS) vulnerability which caused thousands of messages to spread throughout the system. Unbelievably, the security flaw was exposed by a simple JavaScript onmouseover function call. It was first exploited by zzap and judofyr following posts by RainbowTwtr earlier today:

Twitter worm

Passing your mouse over the message caused a JavaScript alert and, within hours, spammers were using the flaw to redirect to other websites, change backgrounds, and retweet messages. Fortunately, Twitter fixed the problem before spammers could attempt to steal cookies or load larger JavaScript payloads from external websites.

It should be noted that the bug affected Twitter.com and, potentially, third-party systems opened in a web browser. Security company F-Secure advised users to use applications such as TweetDeck until the problem was fixed. However, all users would have seen rogue tweets.

The system was affected for several hours and a search for onmouseover reveals the extent of the flaw. A few issues surprise me:

  1. Why didn’t Twitter take down the service immediately?
  2. Why wasn’t user input fully sanitized? We all make programming mistakes, but this was a fairly fundamental problem.
  3. Why wasn’t the flaw found sooner? (Perhaps it was introduced in a recent update?)

Please tweet me with your answers. On second thoughts…

It’s IE9 Beta Download Day

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I’m genuinely excited. I don’t remember feeling this way when Chrome 6, Firefox 3.6 or Opera 10.60 were released — and IE9 is just a beta. There are several reasons for my unusual optimism:

  1. We normally wait 2 years between IE updates.
  2. The IE development team has listened to our demands and IE9 is the first version to support HTML5, CSS3, SVG, canvas and several other technologies.
  3. Unlike other vendors, Microsoft has been particularly secretive about IE9′s new interface. A screenshot was leaked, but we’ll only know whether it’s real today.

The beta download should be available at beautyoftheweb.com (yes, seriously) from:

11:00US PDT
12:00US MDT
13:00US CDT
14:00US EDT
18:00UTC / GMT
19:00UK / Ireland
20:00Europe
21:00Eastern Europe
22:00Moscow
02:00 September 16Australia AWST
03:30 September 16Australia ACST
04:00 September 16Australia AEST

Before you rush off to download the browser, note:

  • IE9 is not available for Windows XP. I hope Microsoft rectify that, but I doubt they’ll ever support their aging OS … even if the vast majority of people continue to use XP.
  • Installing IE9 on Windows Vista or 7 will remove your existing installation of IE7 or IE8. Since those browsers will remain popular for many years to come, ensure you have them available on another PC or virtual machine for web development testing purposes. Alternatively, there will be another release of the IE9 platform preview — it’ll run alongside existing versions of IE but it’s far more limited.

The big question — is IE9 any good? Can it live up to our expectations? Head over to our in-depth review…

Google Instant Search: Is it an Improvement?

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For years, Google’s search engine remained the safe and familiar option for web users. You typed a term, hit return, and were presented with pages providing 100 billion blue links. It’s all changed during the past 12 months. We’ve had a redesign, a new auto-complete bar, background images, the fade-in effect, an updated image view and now “Instant Search.” What’s going on? Is it competition from Bing? Perhaps it’s all those Google Wave developers with too much time on their hands?

Google has decided that the standard search is too slow and there’s no need for to hit return after typing a term. Google Instant uses Ajaxy goodness to present search results as you type. According to the information page, it saves 2-5 seconds per query. If everyone uses it, it’ll save 3.5 billion seconds a day — or 11 hours every second.

I suggest you try it. It’s available to users in the US, UK, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Russia, but you can use it from elsewhere if you’re signed in to your Google account (I found I had to be logged in regardless). It works on Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and IE8 but appears to be disabled in Opera. They won’t be happy in Oslo. I’m sure Google will fix it, but there’s little excuse.

From a technical perspective, Google Instant is impressive. Multiple searches are performed as you type and, although the Ajax response is a highly-compressed string, traffic volumes will have increased significantly. Even the adverts change. Google’s data centers must be smoking, but the response remains fast throughout.

You can try alternative terms and quickly determine whether the results are relevant. However, it’s tempting to experiment so I’m not convinced it’ll result in an overall time saving.

Instant Search is integrated with the standard Google interface and it doesn’t always gel. For example, the moment you type a letter on the home page, the screen clears and the search box moves to the top — it’s a little disorientating. The auto-complete box options and the instant search don’t feel quite right together and the results can differ. I also suspect some people will be distracted by the continually changing results and adverts. Finally, Instant Search isn’t available in other areas, such as news.

I like it, but Google Instant requires further usability testing. That said, perhaps we’ll love it after a few weeks. It can be switched off in the settings if you detest it.

But is Instant Search an improvement? Do you like it? Will you continue to use it? Please cast your vote on the SitePoint poll and leave your comments below.