In the spirit of the Google “barrel roll,” the company has another tricky search result today: Search the words “let it snow” and watch what happens.

Of course, your Google search results will contain videos of that old favorite song, but what’s that? Snowflakes falling in your browser? Frost on the Google bar? Could this be some mistake?

Watch your browser fill up with snow, and then skate around with your mouse, where your browser acts just like a frozen lake, showing the path your cursor has taken. Want to start over? Simply click the “defrost” button and again you’ll see a clear screen, adorned by that easy wind and downy flake filling it up anew.

SEE ALSO: Hey Yahoo, Do a Barrel Roll: How Google Wins With Whimsical Tricks

What a lovely Easter egg Google has given us this cold and snowy (in some places) December morning, just five days shy of the darkest evening of the year! Nice, Google.

UPDATE: Google’s also celebrating Hanukkah! Type the word “Hanukkah” on the Google search form and you’ll see a special surprise.

Want more? Well, you have miles to go before you sleep, because here are 10 more fun built-in Google tricks you can amuse yourself with right now. Check them out, and let us know in the comments if you have any other favorites:

Gravity

Enter “Google Gravity” in the search bar. Hit “I’m feeling lucky” (if you have Google Instant enabled, it’s on the right hand side of the suggested searches). Then watch your world fall down.

Click here to view this gallery.

More About: browser, easter egg, Google, Let it snow, trending

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The latest beta of Firefox 4 — beta 9 for those of you counting at home — is now available to download.

The latest beta version of the venerable web browser features faster start-up, improved bookmarking and history functions and smoother complex animations. The Firefox team released the first Firefox 4 Beta back in July. The final 4.0 release is expected as early as next month.

The release notes for Firefox 4 Beta 9 are pretty sparse, which may indicate that major bugs notwithstanding, the next version offered might be a release candidate.

A few tightened user interface tweaks aside, Firefox 4 looks largely the same as it has the last few releases.

One of the issues that has prevented me from using previous Firefox 4 Beta releases on my main computer has been the lack of support for certain plugins and add-ons. With each release, developers are updating their wares for better compatibility, but there are still a few standouts (like Firebug) that aren’t yet supported.

Those quibbles aside, the new Firefox is significantly faster than its predecessors. Over Christmas, I installed Firefox 4 Beta 8 on my MacBook Pro and was impressed at the improvements in speed and performance. What little time I have spent with Beta 9 on my iMac indicates that the speed increases have continued.

One note for Mac users — if you are running Mac OS X 10.6, it’s likely that Netflix will not work in this release. There is a conflict between the 32-bit Silverlight plugin and the 64-bit Firefox 4. Use Chrome or Safari instead if you don’t want to go back to Firefox 3.6.x.

Firefox 4 is an important release for Mozilla. The open source browser may have surpassed IE in usage share in Europe, but it’s facing increased competition on all fronts. Google’s Chrome browser is approaching 10% market share and Microsoft is coming on strong with IE 9.

Moreover, the modern mobile browsing space — which is largely dominated by WebKit — is gaining in importance. Getting out a solid version of Firefox for the desktop and the mobile is crucial for Mozilla.

If you want to do your part to help, you can download the latest Firefox 4 Beta and put it through the paces. The new Feedback button makes it easy to report any problems or crashes and you can take the new interface for a test drive if you haven’t already.

What are your thoughts on Firefox 4 Beta 9? Let us know in the comments.

More About: browser, Firefox, Firefox 4, mozilla

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About half a year after Google announced its WebM video codec at Google I/O, Chromium has made some interesting announcements on how the open-source browser project plans to support open-source video.

Chromium Project Manager Mike Jazayeri writes that his team is “changing Chrome’s HTML5 <video> support to make it consistent with the codecs already supported by the open Chromium project.” That means WebM (VP8) will be supported, as will the open-source codec Theora. H.264, on the other hand, will be phased out.

When Google rolled out WebM back in May 2010, we were excited by the possibilities for this open-source, royalty-free format for online video. The technology uses the VP8 codec that Google acquired in February 2009.

Google has been using the WebM format in its HTML5 YouTube experiment with mixed results.

Now, Jazayeri writes that only open-source video codecs will be supported. So far, these codecs include WebM and Theora, a traditionally inferior and still developing technology, as far as playback is concerned.

The H.264 standard has been around since 2003 and has gained a great deal of traction during that time. Still, it’s technically not an open technology. The entity that controls licensing for H.264 video says it will refrain from collecting royalties until the end of 2015. So while the technology is free for now, it’s still proprietary. And in the world of die-hard FOSS advocacy, that’s a huge no-no.

It’s also likely no coincidence that H.264 is strongly supported by Apple and has been for many years.

Jazayeri writes, “Though H.264 plays an important role in video, as our goal is to enable open innovation, support for the codec will be removed and our resources directed towards completely open codec technologies.”

While the FOSS love-fest is a thing of beauty, more than one commenter on the Chromium blog post pointed out the impracticality of Google’s lack of ideological and technical support for one of the most widely used video codecs on the web.

As one person wrote, “This is a move by Google where they care more about the open source ‘community’ than they do actual users of their browser. Let’s be real here: WebM has a LONG way to go before it will have any serious amount of traction, and Theora is a joke. Like it or now, H.264 is becoming the standard, and dropping support for it for no good reason is ridiculous.”

We’ll see how the web video “wars” play out and will continue to report on newsworthy updates in this area. In the meantime, we’d love to get your opinions in the comments. Is support for open technologies — even flawed ones — better than support for proprietary technologies, no matter how ubiquitous?

Image based on photo from Flickr user Damon Duncan.

More About: browser, Chromium, codec, Google, h.264, HTML5, theora, video

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429-ie-50pc-share

In August 2010, Google Chrome exceeded 10% market share. Another milestone was achieved in September: Internet Explorer’s total usage dropped below 50% for the first time in over a decade.

There have been cheers throughout the web design and development community and the story has spread throughout the technical and mainstream press. However, it’s worth examining the StatCounter statistics in detail…

BrowserAugustSeptemberchangerelative
IE 9.0 beta0.00%0.09%+0.09%n/a
IE 8.029.40%29.38%-0.02%-0.10%
IE 7.013.91%12.98%-0.93%-6.70%
IE 6.08.02%7.42%-0.60%-7.50%
Firefox 4.0 beta0.00%0.26%+0.26%n/a
Firefox 3.5+28.03%28.33%+0.30%+1.10%
Firefox 3.0+2.60%2.48%-0.12%-4.60%
Chrome10.76%11.52%+0.76%+7.10%
Safari4.06%4.22%+0.16%+3.90%
Opera1.88%2.03%+0.15%+8.00%
Others1.34%1.38%+0.04%+3.00%
IE (all)51.33%49.87%-1.46%-2.80%
Firefox (all)30.63%31.07%+0.44%+1.40%

The ‘change’ column shows the absolute increase or decrease in market share. The ‘relative’ column indicates relative movements, i.e. 7.5% of IE6 users switched browser in the past month.

We can’t make too many assumptions from this data, but there’s one statistic reporters appear to have missed: IE8 usage has barely changed. The 0.02% drop is more than outweighed by the 0.09% gained by the IE9 beta release.

The most significant contributory factor for IE losses is migration from versions 6 and 7. Although a proportion of those users will have moved to IE8/9, a greater percentage has switched to an alternative such as Firefox or Chrome. There are several reasons why this has occurred:

  • IE8 is a capable browser but there are plenty of better options for IE6/7 users.
  • Good web applications are browser-agnostic or work on a variety of platforms. Legacy business applications are being updated and there’s less dependency on IE.
  • Microsoft and all other major vendors are backing HTML5. The rendering differences between browsers is smaller than ever and it rarely matters which application you use.
  • The majority of businesses use Windows XP and may have no intention of upgrading — especially during continued economic uncertainty. Yet IE9 is only available on Windows Vista/7. Why would a business continue to use an application which the vendor has (effectively) abandoned? It’s far cheaper and easier to install an alternative browser than upgrade the OS.

While we should be thankful for the drop in IE6/7 usage, 1 in 5 visitors continue to use the ancient browsers. Predictions of IE’s demise are premature and IE8 remains the world’s most-used browser.

It’s better news for the other vendors. Firefox, Safari and Opera all gained but Chrome remains the biggest winner. Google’s browser increases by nearly 1% every month and shows no sign of peaking. However, it’s about to face a stronger challenge from Firefox 4 and IE9.

422-xmarks-end

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?

126-collective-noun

Web designers and developers usually have a selection of the most popular browsers installed on their PC. You don’t? Really? Why not install a few and give them a go.

Operating Systems allow you to set a default browser and we all have our favorites. Some love Firefox for its flexibility. Some swear by Chrome for its speed and clean interface. Others prefer Opera for its tools and features. Many Apple users love Safari’s OS integration. IE users like the browser because … erm, well, they have their reasons (and we have high hopes for IE9).

I started with Netscape 2, migrated to IE3, 4, 5, 5.5 and 6, then switched to Phoenix, Firebird and eventually Firefox. Although I had other browsers installed, I rarely used them for anything other web page testing.

However, in the past year or two I’ve noticed a change in my browser usage patterns. I now use whichever application is most practical — sometimes, it’s simply the icon closest to my cursor. There are a several reasons:

  1. The 5 main browsers are all good applications. You may prefer one over another, but none is perfect and even the worst is fine for general web surfing.
  2. Chrome and Safari may offer some amazing CSS3 effects but the gap between the browsers is smaller than it’s ever been. All of the top browsers offer decent rendering capabilities.
  3. It’s often practical to have two or more different browsers open, e.g. if you’re accessing work and private GMail accounts at the same time.

In most cases, though, I use whichever browser offers the best facilities for the task in hand. For fast browsing, I might use Chrome. On a netbook, I often use Opera for it’s speed, built-in email and turbo mode for slow connections. For storing bookmarks and web page development, it’s hard to beat Firefox. Finally, I still use IE for testing and a few specific corporate applications.

While I doubt many general Internet users flit between applications, it’s increasingly less likely for a power user to have monogamous relationship with a single browser. Then again, perhaps it’s just me — I’ve become a browser whore.

What do you think? Are you wedded to one browser or do you flirt with them all? Please vote on the SitePoint poll or leave your comments below…