Building the Perfect Browser

Baby, we’ve come a long way.  I remember working with Internet Explorer or Netscape, browsing the web when it was just a matter of “looking for stuff”.  Being connected to the internet today means so much more.

Recently, I shared my browser with another person who looked at the layout and said “What’s this stuff?” – pointing to the various icons that adorn the top of the browser.

As I started to explain, it really occured to me.  I couldn’t get along with a vanilla web browser in this day and age.  I’ve taken the browser and made it mine.

Depending upon the day, I might be working in Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox or Opera Next but there’s a common thread.  I’ve added extensions or add-ons to make the browser mine.  As I scroll through the extensions page, I may have 20 or 30 installed.  From this big list, I figure that there’s at least five goodies that get me through the day.

ScribeFire – I use this daily.  It’s my in browser blog editor.  It’s got all the features that I could possibly need when composing posts like this one.  Fully featured, and it does a great job with all that I need.

LastPass – Every service that I access on the web seems to have a customized spot that requires logging in to access.  Confession time – there was a time years ago when I used the same password on every service.  “cat”.  OK, just kidding.  Now, I let LastPass create a very secure password every time I create an accound and store it for me.  It’s so nice to have the software remember passwords for me and let me keep my grey matter for other things.

Shareaholic – I’ll admit to being a sharer and I like to tuck away things that I find to my own services.  Shareaholic lets me configure the services that I want to use and I’m just a right click away from assigning it appropriately whenever I visit a web page.  It also serves as a launchpad to a bunch of other services like Diigo, Pinterest, Instapaper,, …

Adblock Plus – Like most people, I like to think I can have a bit of control over what I see when I visit a website.  My use was really initiated by a slow internet connection.  It’s bad enough to have to wait forever for content to appear; but it’s even worse when you’re slowed down by advertising.

Ghostery – I don’t know if there’s any way of perfectly protecting your privacy when connected, but there’s a sense of satisfaction when Ghostery indicates it’s blocking all of 1746 trackers.

There are a number of extensions that are installed but these are visibly active on a regular basis.  I can’t imagine browsing without them.  In fact, if I ever do, I just feel so handicapped and exposed.

What extensions make your good browsing experience great?


The Browser I’ve Always Wanted To Use

On my computer, I’ve always kept the latest copy of Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Chromium, Safari, and Opera – depending upon the computer.  It’s not nearly as important now but years ago, it really was important to test your webpages on different browsers as they can render things differently.  There’s nothing I find more frustrating than visiting a site and it just doesn’t look right or you’ve done something that limits things.  Remember messages like “Sorry, this page ony runs on Internet Explorer”.

I always am intrigued by web studies showing where the current popular web browser is.  Only a fool would take a look at one set of stats and make complete decisions based on that.  Rather, they’re just a snapshot in time.  It’s always been interesting to see the fall and decline of Internet Explorer, the rise of Firefox and Chrome.  Always taking a small slice of the pie has been Opera.  And yet, it’s always intrigued me so I keep it installed.  Unlike other browsers where I load up on extensions, I keep Opera basically free of them.  That way, if I run into something that looks badly on one browser, I could flip to Opera and test it unfettered by third party authors.

There has always been a lot of things to like about Opera; it’s very quick to load, always seems to be rated highly in security testing, Scandinavian in design (who doesn’t like good things with Scandinavian heritage), and I’ve never had it crash on me.  Like Firefox, the latest version allows you to search from the address bar as well as having an area to specify a search engine.

I’ll typically have the default search enging set to use Google and the second one to use Yahoo!  It allows me to to do two searches without a great deal of effort.  Opera has also had some unique features like Turbo Mode and Speed Dial which you don’t find by default on other browsers.  All in all, it’s a solid performer and yet I’ve never made it my default browser.  It’s a question I really can’t answer except that, I guess, I like the additional functionality that extensions to Firefox and Chrome provide.

This week, there was exciting news from Opera.  They’ve released their next version – Opera Next.  Word had been trickly down that Opera was going to be re-written, abandoning its Presto web engine in favour of Blink.  So, you know me – I had to give it a shot.

With the switch in engines, it came as no surprise that Opera Next looked like Chromium or Chrome right out of the box.  I started to poke around to see what was what.

Right off the bat, there were a couple of things that had me scratching.  I’m a big user of pinned tabs.  At present, there doesn’t seem to be a way to pin a tab in Opera Next.  The other gotcha was the X to close a tab.  It’s on the other side of the tab.  As a long time Chrome user, old habits die hard!  Got to suck it up here.  That certainly can’t be a show stopper!

Opera Next is snappy and was a pleasure to work with.  Now, it comes time to deck it out.  Can I customize it?  I went to the Chrome store and many of the extension were expecting to install themselves into Chrome.  That’s fair enough; I don’t know why but I thought that they would just transport across the platforms.  But I did poke around and from the Opera Menu, there’s an option to install extensions.  Opera is developing its own store for extensions so a trip there was in order.  There’s some of my go-tos there.  I install Web of Trust, Evernote, Feedly, LastPass, Ghostery, and Ad Block Plus.  That’s about it – no blogging tool at present – I was hoping to see Scribefire.

While there, I notice that there’s an option to change themes.  I visited the Opera Next theme site and there are a few ways to dress up your browser desktop.  I looked at a couple – nothing green!

Desktop real estate is important to me.  In my browser, I’ll also downsize the font a couple of steps.  I’m not a fan of Full Screen Mode all the time so the less that the browser uses, the more room there is for me to read.

I stacked Chrome, Opera Next, and Firefox together and you can see that Chrome maximizes the screen real estate nicely.  Notice how it places the tabs on the same row as the exit, minimize, and maximize buttons.  That’s a really good way to avoid dead space.  I’d really like to see Opera Next and Firefox follow suit.

Regular browsing functionality was there.  I was surprised that Opera Mail was not included.  Perhaps it’s just because it’s early in development?  I guess time will tell.

There are two features unique to Opera Next that I spent a bunch of time playing with.  One is called “Stash” and the other “Discover”.  I’m excited about both.

Discover finds news stories for you just by selection.  I changed the setting to Canada and then back to Global.  It seems to have more interesting reads for me at the moment.  I’m just not interested in Toronto’s Mayor or a certain Senator.

That’s a really nice feature.  It reminds me of Rockmelt for Web.  It’s based on the premise that there should always be something new and interesting to read when you open your browser.

The second feature, Stash, I think is best described as temporary bookmarks.  A regular bookmark is permanent.  With Stash, if you’re browsing the web looking for stories, click the little heart icon to stash them away for later retrieval.

Don’t get caught up on the actual stories I’ve stashed above – I just stashed three pages for this post.  I can see myself using this quite a bit, particulary in conjunction with Discover.  As I scan news stories, I can Stash them and then later on take some time to read them fully.  I see a boost in productivity coming here.

I haven’t even talked about cottonTracks.  This could turn out to be a big change for me.

My first kick at Opera Next was very positive.  For the Chrome or Chromium user, there’s very little new learning to take on and yet, the potential for better productivity certainly is there.  I really did enjoy it; the limiting factor is the number of extensions that are currently available.  That will get better with time and Opera has promised regular updates over the next while.  I’m looking forward to seeing this product evolve.

Good Passwords

Check out the following page.

This will take you to the 25 most commonly used online passwords in 2012.  Are you using any of them?  Hmm?

@bgrasley and I still marvel that “monkey” is still on the list!  I do know some people who have used those in the past.  It’s always a piece of good advice to tell them to change it to something more difficult to guess.

Why is it important?  Well, your password is the only thing that keeps hackers from your accounts, and ultimately your privacy and your money.  Biometrics may be on the horizon but we’re not there yet.  A person who guesses your password is, in effect, you online and is able to do things that you can.  Knowing how to protect an account is an important skill that all students should acquire.  I’d start by taking a list of popular ones and realize the damage that can be done.  I just noticed recently a well known individual from MIT end up being hacked on Facebook.  In this case, the hacker posted some information about a weight loss program.  Not good.  Having that password allows you to do all sorts of things.  Consider the following…

Name of the hacked person is hidden to protect them and the actual URL which is probably the destination for some phish website has been over written with red to hide it.

Intel has a great utility website to give you an idea as to just how strong your password is.  It’s located at:

and it’s worth spending some time at.  Note the warning that your password doesn’t actually leave your computer but it’s a good idea not to use any real password anyway.  Maybe something close would give you a good enough idea of how good your password is.  So, how good is “monkey”?

Not good!  That advice is good for anything that’s found in a dictionary.

The nice thing to pass along to students is the information that Intel provides under the results.  It’s a really good summary of some of the ways to make your password difficult to guess.

The website is well worth the bookmark and a great idea to have students test potential passwords whenever new accounts are created.  Surely, you’re not about to use the same password on every site, are you?  are they?

So, how do you generate a good password?  Well, one way is to use this website.

(I’d add a character or two to the suggestions that it generates just to be sure…)

I generated one.

How good is it?

I think I’d be a great deal more comfortable with that security.  You just then need to find some way to remember it!  Contemporary browsers have the ability to remember passwords.  (Just make sure that you have a secondary control over the passwords in case someone sits down at your computer!)  Or, addons like LastPass do a terrific job.

Just don’t write your passwords down on paper!


10 worst-case BYOD scenarios (and how to prevent them)

One of my favourite reads when it comes to technology is TechRepublic.  Consistently, it provides great insights on topics that I’m interested in.  This morning was no different.  An article, with the title of this blog post, appeared today and takes on the topic of BYOD.  The focus of the article is the business world.  However, once again, I think that it’s important reading to education as well.  BYOD remains the elephant in the room for so many.

So, in the article, they take on 10 scenarios.  I’d like to take the opportunity to comment on them in the context of education.  In many ways, I think that education may be a bigger challenge since it has clients in administration, teaching, and of course, students.  All have similar and differing needs.

As I write this post, I’m also thinking once again that education, common sense, and just knowing what you’re doing and its implications can go a long way towards success.

Exposed Data
The concept of losing one’s device or having it stolen is a real possibility for all of us.  What can you do to protect the data on your device?  Certainly the ability to securely wipe the contents of the device as suggested in the original article is important.  After all, you might have student marks and records recorded there.  In the short term, make sure that you have a passcode protecting the device and require that it be entered each time you access the device.

Passwords in the Wild
How are your passwords protected?  It really is convenient to have your browser save and remember them.  But, if your device ever falls into the hands of someone else, your device doesn’t know who is at the keyboard.  Instead, consider a utility like LastPass to remember them for you and ensure that you have a master password set on the utility.  BTW, you’re not using the same password on every service, are you? And, BTW2, you’re not using a simple password are you?  During my reads today, I found that TweetSmarter had sent this image showing the most-used English language passwords.

Declining Productivity
I like the recommendation that all devices must attach to the local network.  There, you can filter and block the type of site that isn’t desirable.  Using one’s data plan to connect is a quick way around it.  Of course, the best approach is to ensure that everyone is engaged doing educational things while at the school. 

Compatibility Issues
The key to managing a plethora of devices, it seems to me, is to not even try.  The onus should be on the owner of the device to understand how things work.  I would look at a number of approaches for support – whether it’s a school conference, user groups, workshops, or ask a kid.  The powerful place for BYOD in education is the web which should serve as the great equalizer. Right from the outset, people need to understand that their portable device might have some limitations.  Make sure that if you’re going to plan BYOD activities, that you’re not expecting everyone to be able to access a web resource that requires Adobe Flash, for example.  Can universal HTML5 and CSS3 get here soon enough?

Bandwidth Overuse
I had to smile at the comment in the article that standard DLS won’t do.  If it won’t do for a business, it sure isn’t going to work at any reasonable sized school.  There are ways to measure your usage and your system should already be monitoring throughput as a matter of course.  A rule of thumb, I learned from a CIO friend is that you can’t have enough bandwidth.  Budget should be increasing annually in this area no matter what.  Last week, I did a workshop to a great bunch of educators in Thunder Bay.  The day was cut into quarters and I dealt with four topics: Developing a Digital Footprint, Twitter in Education, Social Reading, and Web That Works.  From the titles, you can guess that I was heavily depending upon the web.  Even with 40 people in a room in a convention centre and whoever else was in the building, we managed to bring the network to its knees.  Fortunately, I’ve run into the same scenario in the past and had so much of what I wanted to use cached so I was able to get through it.  Despite the assurances from the centre that they had great internet, they didn’t.  It might have been at one time but that pipe just needs to get bigger.

As an aside, I envied the folks in the middle table who set up their telephone as a local access point and didn’t have to rely on the conference centre network!

Device Management
You might be able to get away with just user authentication on this one.  You don’t want anyone sitting in the parking lot outside the school onto your network but a decent sized school district would have a huge management problem if you wanted to keep track of MAC addresses.

Wireless Bottlenecks
The message here is important.  Buy good equipment.  Spend the time to map out the coverage of the school and work on load balancing.  Purchasing and installing the bare minimum amount of equipment will only ensure that you’re pushing a problem to solve down the timeline a bit.  You’re going to want to do it right.

Autonomy Overuse
I see this as related to declining productivity.  The message has to be delivered and understood just what the goals are for accessing the wireless network. Use of the BYOD should address the goals.  It may be difficult but this needs to be established early before your classroom becomes an online arcade playhouse.

Virus Infections
It’s scarey to think that someone could bring a virus into your network and then turn it loose to infect others.  A universal understanding of the web as a dangerous place needs to be understood by all.  Perhaps a local computer vendor could hold an information session for parents about just how to ensure that their devices are safe.

Compatibility Complains
This was once a huge issue.  In the article, the author makes reference to documents in Microsoft Office format and offers LibreOffice and Kingsoft Office as alternatives.  Fortunately, in education, the use of Google Documents or Microsoft’s web offering minimizes these conversations these days.  We’ve come a long way and it’s been a rough ride at times but we’re starting to get it.

Thanks to TechRepublic for such a thought provoking article.  It’s full of great ideas that applies both to business and can to education.  From the business perspective, they seem focussed on the concept of universal desire for BYOD.  Education does have another challenge and that is equity of access.  Not all students are able to, either financially or because mom and/or dad won’t allow it, have their own device.  The inclusive classroom will find a way to accommodate whether it be the school’s equipment or diverse grouping, to gently handle this.

Sure, there are some challenges but they’re worthwhile taking on aggressively.  This infographic from Atomic Learning shares an insight to what could be.  Check it out.

While I’m sending you to links for additional reference, you need to also take a look at this Slideshare presentation from Microsoft Education UK.  They have some great thoughts about BYOD and I like the reference to BYOB (Bring Your Own Browser) as increasingly this is what BYOD means to most people.