All posts by Evan Wondrasek

Evan Wondrasek is the founder and editor-in-chief of Techerator and is a software engineer in Minneapolis, MN. Evan holds degrees in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and is also the creator of MarkdownPad.

Echofon for Firefox dies after Twitter API changes – Here’s how to get it back

In case you’ve never heard of it, Echofon for Firefox was an add-on for Firefox that allowed users to interact with Twitter without going to the official Twitter website. Available as a small pop-up window in the browser’s status bar, Echofon was a convenient and minimalist way to compose tweets, replies, and browse Twitter.

The last version of Echofon for Firefox ever released, version 2.5.2.
The last version of Echofon for Firefox ever released, version 2.5.2.

As of October 2012, Echofon for Firefox was officially discontinued by its developers so they could focus on versions of Echofon for mobile platforms (iPad, Android, and iPhone) instead. This wasn’t the end of the world, though, because Echofon would continue working as long as Twitter API 1.0 was still active.

With this foreboding message, Echofon for Firefox stopped receiving updates.
With this foreboding message, Echofon for Firefox stopped receiving updates.

Since this article exists, I think you can guess what the problem is: As of June 12, 2013, Twitter API 1.0 has been officially shut down, which also killed Echofon for thousands of users.

Users were left with this simple message when they opened Firefox today:

Can’t login to Twitter. (410 Gone (account_verify_credentials))

I wouldn’t be writing this article if it was all bad news, so here’s how to keep Echofon for Firefox working after the Twitter API change.

Patched Echofon saves the day for Twitter API 1.1

When I opened Firefox today and noticed that Echofon wasn’t working anymore, I immediately assumed the worst. Doing a quick Twitter search for “echofon firefox” confirmed my suspicions that my beloved extension had officially died.

However, something useful popped up in my search: Apparently, someone had patched Echofon and updated it to use Twitter API 1.1, which replaced the dead API 1.0. Rather than blindly run this updated extension, I took some time to do a file-by-file comparison between the patched version and the official version to make sure nothing nefarious was happening behind-the-scenes.

What I found were fairly minor modifications, and none of them appear to be malicious. Based on my findings, I decided to try the patched version for myself.

(Please note that I am not a computer security expert, so do not take this as a “seal of approval” or anything. Using 3rd-party software of any type, especially patched software, comes with piles of inherent risk.)

The tragic part about Echofon’s demise is that it ultimately comes down to some very simple code modifications:

// const TWITTER_API_URL    = "api.twitter.com/1.0/"; // old and busted
const TWITTER_API_URL    = "api.twitter.com/1.1/"; // new hotness

Without further adieu, here’s how to switch over to the patched version of Echofon.

How to install the patch

  1. Download the patched version of Echofon. The latest version of the patch appears to be “6”.
  2. In Firefox, navigate to your Extensions page. You can find this by navigating to the big Firefox menu, then selecting Add-ons. In the Add-ons window, click Extensions in the sidebar. You can also use the convenient shortcut Ctrl+Shift+A to access this menu.2013-06-12_12h46_53
  3. After navigating to the Extensions tab in the Add-on window, locate a gear icon in the top right corner. Click it and select Install Add-on From File…2013-06-12_12h48_07
  4. Locate the file you downloaded in Step 1 and open it
  5. Restart Firefox

After following those steps, you should see that Echofon for Firefox is again alive and well.

Performing your own analysis

If you want to independently check out what’s been changed in the patched version of this extension, comparing them is actually quite easy. Firefox extensions are packed as a .xpi file, which is actually just a compressed .zip folder. Just rename the file to .zip and you can extract it to your local computer.

By extracting both the patched version and the official version, I was able to use a great tool called Beyond Compare to perform a full directory comparison and analyze the modifications that were made to the extension.

Comparing the contents of the patched extension to the official extension
Comparing the contents of the patched extension to the official extension

Is there any chance of an official updated version for API 1.1?

I’d say it is very unlikely.

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How to uninstall Adobe Acrobat Reader and open PDFs in your browser instead

adobe-reader-logoOver the last few months, I’ve been aggressively pursuing ways to remove my dependence on 3rd-party plugins. Every time I read about a massive security exploit in software like Java and various Adobe products I think to myself, “Why am I putting myself at risk by keeping this software installed?”

PDF documents aren’t going anywhere, nor should they. They provide a useful, lightweight method to share non-editable rich text documents, and the format has been around since 1993 meaning almost all of us have interacted with a PDF document at some point in our lives. The fact that PDFs are so ubiquitous means that most computers come with a PDF document viewer pre-installed, with Adobe Acrobat Reader being one of the most popular.

I certainly can’t criticize Adobe’s efforts to combat security issues because I’m frequently prompted to update my Adobe software via their automatic update system. These updates are often retroactive, though: by the time you receive an update, the security flaw has already done its damaged to hundreds and thousands of computers. The definition of a “0-day exploit” means that the attack used a previously unknown vulnerability, and these exploits can be extremely dangerous.

Unfortunately, we simply can’t rely on automatic updates to protect us from all security flaws for a number of reasons. Some users may not have automatic updates enabled, and many users deliberately disable automatic updates on popular applications despite the security risk it presents. Automatic updaters typically run on a schedule, so there could be a delay before your computer even checks for a security update. And let’s not forget the most basic of issues: Some users simply don’t know what to do when presented with an automatic update dialog.

So what’s the solution? In my opinion, the best way to avoid security flaws in Adobe Acrobat Reader is simply to uninstall it. I don’t want you to be PDF viewer-less though, so in this article I’ll show you a simple way to remove Adobe Acrobat Reader without giving up your ability to view PDFs.

Web browsers to the rescue

Web browsers like Chrome and Firefox have strong incentives for removing the dependency on 3rd-party plugins like Adobe Acrobat Reader. Plugins slow down browsers, open security vulnerabilities, and can cause a variety functional issues with the browsers themselves.

Recently, both Chrome and Firefox have released updates that allow you to view PDFs right from within your browser, without using a 3rd-party plugin. Firefox has offered this feature since version 19, and thanks to Javascript, the Mozilla team was able to render PDFs without relying on a plugin.

If you have the latest versions of Chrome or Firefox installed, you should automatically see their built-in PDF viewers when opening a PDF link in your browser. But what about PDFs you have on your local computer? No problem!

How to use modern versions of Chrome and Firefox as the default viewer for PDF documents

Using your browser as a PDF viewer is as simple as changing the default application used to open the .pdf filetype. In Windows, this can be done by following these steps:

Step 1: Locate a PDF document on your computer.

Step 2:Right-click the document and select Properties.

Step 3: Locate the Opens with: setting and click Change.

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Step 4: Select your web browser of choice. You may need to navigate to your browser’s executable if it isn’t displayed in the list.

Selecting the default PDF viewer in Windows 8
Selecting the default PDF viewer in Windows 8
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Selecting the default PDF viewer in Windows 7

That’s it! Now when you open a PDF document, your web browser will be used instead of Adobe Acrobat. You can now uninstall Acrobat from your computer – you won’t be needing it or its security vulnerabilities anymore.

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How to create Instagram-style photos without Instagram

Instagram is a sinking ship.

Don’t worry, I don’t mean that Instagram is going anywhere. After their $1 billion acquisition from Facebook (well, it ended up being more like $741 million after Facebook’s stock price tanked), they don’t have much to worry about anymore.

Now that Instagram is financially secure and under the protective wing of Facebook, new issues have arisen: the politics of social networks.

In case you missed it, Instagram’s CEO recently announced that they would no longer show Instagram pictures on Twitter. A few days after that announcement, Twitter publicly confirmed that Instagram had fully disabled photo integration with Twitter.

I’ve been a big fan of Instagram for two main reasons: 1) Although they can be easy to overuse, many of their filters do make photos more interesting, and 2) It’s easy for me to share pictures to both Facebook and Twitter through the Instagram app. Now that the second reason is falling apart, I started thinking about what I could do to keep my photos out of this upcoming it’s-our-content-not-yours social network war.

In this article, I’ll show you some apps you can use to make beautiful photos on your mobile phone without having to touch Instagram.

Snapseed

Available for: Android (free, reviewed in this guide), iOS ($4.99)

The Snapseed editor on Android

Snapseed is much more powerful than Instagram, offering a variety and depth of control that I’ve never seen in a mobile photo editing app. But, thanks to Snapseed’s crazy simple user interface, you’ll never feel bogged down with settings or controls.

Snapseed’s interface is based on simple gestures: after selecting one of the editing presets, you can swipe vertically to adjust individual settings like brightness, contrast, and filter strength, then swipe horizontally to increase or decrease the value. My favorite feature is that you can touch the image to switch between the original and your edited version to see how things are going.

Snapseed allows you to share your images through any capable app on your phone, including Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Snapseed offers several filters, photo frames, and a tilt-shift effect. Although it doesn’t have nearly as many preset filters as Instagram, the photo settings are all customizable so you can effectively make your own filters and save them as favorites for future use.

In case you’re wondering about the price difference between the Android and iOS versions of this app, I’d say it is likely due to the fact that Google recently acquired Nik Software, the company behind Snapseed. Hey, I’m not complaining.

Photo Examples from Snapseed

Left: Original
Right: Contrast Correction +100, Drama Filter +90, Straighten
Left: Original
Right: Contrast Correction + 54, Grunge Filter Style + 444

Pixlr-o-matic and Pixlr Express

First off, what’s the difference here? Both Pixlr-o-matic and Pixlr Express are from Autodesk, the same company that makes AutoCAD, Maya, and 3ds Max (how’s that for name dropping?). The main difference is that Pixlr-o-matic is like Instagram with preset photo filters and almost no editing, and Pixlr Express offers a more robust photo editing experience.

Pixlr-o-matic

Available for: Android (reviewed in this guide), iOS, Chrome, Facebook – all free

The Pixlr-o-matic editor on Android

By default, this app includes 25 premade filters and has dozens of extra downloadable filters available for free within the app. Pixlr-o-matic’s filters often do much more than most filters I’ve seen, including pop art collages à la Andy Warhol.

The default filters are interesting but I wasn’t blown away by any of them, and one major disadvantage is that photo effects like blurring are built into the filter and can’t be manually applied or removed.

Pixlr-o-matic offers many “overlays” which are transparent effect layers you can add over top of your picture. These overlays can be used to give your pictures vignettes or that “worn, damaged photograph” look.

If you’re looking for an Instagram alternative that offers a ton of premade filters, Pixlr-o-matic might be the app for you. Overall though, I was unimpressed with the app and its user interface seemed to be very clunky and poorly designed compared to Snapseed.

Photo Example from Pixlr-o-matic

Left: Original
Right: Grayson filter (adds the collage effect too), Perga frame

Pixlr Express

Available for: Android (reviewed in this guide), iOS, Web – all free

Pixlr Express editor in Android

Pixlr Express essentially has all of the features that Pixlr-o-matic offers (including the same filters, borders, and overlays as far as I can tell). The biggest difference is that Pixlr Express offers additional advanced photo editing features, and gives you much more control over the individual filters. Also – and more importantly to me – the Pixlr Express’s user interface is much better than Pixlr-o-matic.

I chose to uninstall Pixlr-o-matic and kept Pixlr Express, since Express has all of the basic Instagram-style filters and allows for editing brightness, contrast, red-eye removal, and adding blur. If you feel overwhelmed by a full set of photo editing tools, however, you may want to stick with the simpler Pixlr-o-matic.

Photo Example from Pixlr Express

Left: Original
Right: Focal blur (circular), +22 blurring, +48 color boost, +60 glow

Twitter

Available for: Android (reviewed in this guide), iOS – both free

Twitter’s new filters

Yep, that’s right, I said Twitter. In response to Instagram pulling the plug on Twitter support, Twitter decided to remind the Instagram guys how hard it is to recreate their product. Apparently, not very.

Twitter just released updated mobile apps for both iPhone and Android that offers filters that are extremely reminiscent of a photo sharing app that rhymes with Blinstagram. They even had time to make a cute little instructional video, so it’s safe to say they’ve had this update in the works for a little while.

The new version of Twitter includes 8 basic filters, including “Vignette”, “Black & white”, and “Vintage”. While they don’t offer much variety or as much dramatic effect as Instagram’s filters, Twitter’s simple swipe-based user interface makes it super easy to select a filter and move on.

Photo Example from Twitter

Left: Original
Right: Vintage filter
Fun fact: If this picture looks familiar, it’s because it is the same hill from the famous Windows XP Bliss wallpaper, which I took near Sonoma, California. It’s no longer a grassy field, and is now covered in grapevines for wine making.

Conclusion

So there you have it: four alternatives to Instagram that can help you make creative works of art out of your mobile photographs. Of course, the one thing these apps don’t offer (Twitter being the exception) is the accompanying social network, which is one of Instagram’s better features. But, if your goal is simply editing and sharing pictures, these apps should work just fine for you (and you can even re-share them on Instagram!).

On a related note, if you’d like to see some of the amazing things that can be done with photo apps like Instagram, check out How I Instagram from randsinrepose. That article was the inspiration for me to find better ways to perform simple edits on photos from my mobile phone, and showcases the amazing results that can be achieved when you put a smart person in control of a simple app.

Review: RHA MA-350 aluminum noise isolating in-ear earphones

I was recently offered a pair of RHA MA-350 in-ear headphones for review. I brought them with me on a business trip to China, so I had plenty of time on the long flight to try them out and see how they felt after extended wear.

Before I get started, I should mention a few things about myself: I enjoy listening to music, but I’m definitely not an audio expert. When I’m planning on purchasing headphones, my main concerns are comfort, general sound quality, and durability.

Product Details

Average Price: $39.95 USD (via Amazon)
Available Colors: Black with silver accents

Technical Details:

  • Drivers – 10mm mylar
  • Frequency range – 16-22,000Hz
  • Impedance – 16ohms
  • Rated/max power – 3010mW
  • Sensitivity – 103dB
  • Cable – 1.2m Fabric Braided
  • Connections – 3.5mm Gold Plated

Materials, construction, and durability

The first thing that grabbed my attention about these earphones was that they were made from solid aluminum. My previous name-brand $40 pair of in-ear headphones were made of plastic coated in a thin rubber sheath, so I was impressed right away with RHA’s use of a durable material.

Aside from being more durable than plastic (and having a satisfying “click!” when knocked together), the extra weight wasn’t really noticeable when listening to music. The aluminum construction increased my perceived value of the product, and when I showed the MA-350’s to others, it was the first thing they noticed.

These earphones also feature a braided fabric cord which helps reduce cord tangling. The downside is that the braided cord is thicker and a little less flexible than the normal plastic/rubbery stuff, but that did not affect my usage of the earphones. Again, I appreciated the use of higher quality material in these earphones.

The cord is a standard “Y” format, where both earpieces have equal lengths of cord which forks from the main connector. My previous pair of headphones featured a behind-the-ear style cord which I preferred, but mainly for the fact that the cords were easier to keep out of my way while working.

The only strange decision regarding the construction of these earphones was the way they differentiate between the right and left earphones. A tiny letter is extruded on the rubberized part of the earphones which is pretty hard to see without looking closely.

The MA-350 earphones included three sets of interchangeable earpieces: small, medium, and large.

Audio Quality

I’ve listened to music for many hours using the RHA MA-350 earphones, and I’ve found that the sound they produce is extremely clear, crisp, and accurate. I had previously grown accustomed to the bland, muffled sound of typical lower-end headphones, so the MA-350’s presented a stark contrast which, at first, sounded almost unnatural because of its clarity.

The MA-350’s excelled at producing clear treble tones, and offered tight-but-surprisingly-full bass for their size.

For most of my testing, I listened to music that presented a wide variety of audio conditions, such as Deadmau5, Regina Spektor, and the wonderfully eclectic Bastion soundtrack (side note: Bastion is a fantastic game). With these samples, the MA-350’s excelled at producing clear treble tones, and offered tight-but-surprisingly-full bass for their size.

One of the best features of these earphones is that they provide solid noise isolation. The earphones fit snugly in my ear using the default size earpiece, and I could keep my music at a much lower volume than with my previous pair of earphones because of the improved isolation. This might not be a big deal when sitting in a quiet office listening to music, but it’s a lifesaver when sitting on a long international flight.

Extended Wear

The MA-350’s came with a nice carrying pouch.

I wore these earphones in bursts of about 1-2 hours at a time during my flight, mainly listening to music and playing Bastion for iPad. Overall, they were very comfortable, although for long sessions I’d usually prefer to wear over-ear headphones (which RHA also makes).

The MA-350’s in-ear earpieces are very solid, and compared to my previous pair (which were nearly gelatinous), the RHA earphones caused a little more “ear fatigue” than I was used to.

Conclusion

Overall, I’ve been extremely impressed with the RHA MA-350 earphones. I carry them with me at all times in my laptop bag, and I keep them within reach whenever I’m working on my laptop. My expectations for in-ear headphones are typically lower because of the limitations of the form factor, but the MA-350’s definitely stand above earphones I’ve previously used for the same price.

In addition to the black earphones I sampled, you can also upgrade to the MA-450i series which include an inline volume control and microphone (and are also available in white). The MA-450i includes 7 different earpieces, offering much more customization than the MA-350’s.

You can buy RHA earphones directly from Amazon, and you can now purchase them from Apple either online or in their retail stores.

How to install Microsoft’s FxCop for Visual Studio 2010

I recently discovered Visual Studio Achievements, which as the name indicates, adds video game-style “achievements” to Microsoft’s premiere IDE while you code. Visual Studio Achievements was even created by Microsoft’s Channel9 team, so you know it’s the real deal.

Some of the unlockable achievements include positive awards like “Add 10 regions to a class. Your code is so readable, if I only didn’t have to keep collapsing and expanding!” and negative awards such as “Write a single line of code at least 300 characters long. Who needs carriage returns?”. With leaderboards and fun icons, Visual Studio Achievements adds a little fun to your programming experience.

Many of the achievements require a Microsoft tool called FxCop to be installed for them to be unlocked. FxCop is a utility that can analyze your source code and provides feedback on possible design, localization, performance and security improvements. Unfortunately, if you head to the FxCop download page, you’ll quickly learn than the FxCop “download” is actually a text file that tells you to install another file to actually get the application.

When you open the FxCop text file, you’ll be presented with the following information.

FxCop Installation Instructions
1. Download the Microsoft Windows SDK for Windows 7 and .NET Framework 4 version 7.1.
2. Run %ProgramFiles%\Microsoft SDKs\Windows\v7.1\Bin\FXCop\FxCopSetup.exe to install FxCop.

I know, I was surprised too. For this to work, I need to install the Windows SDK, then install another installer? Well you’re in luck – I took the time to figure out what files were needed so you can install FxCop as quickly as possible. Just follow my instructions below.

Note: This guide is only required if you are using Visual Studio 2010 Professional. If you have Visual Studio 2010 Premium or Ultimate installed, FxCop will already be included with your IDE.

How to install FxCop

Step 1. Download the Microsoft Windows SDK installer.

Step 2. Run the installer. Click “Next” until you get to the “Installation Options” screen.

Step 3. In the Installation Options screen, select only “Tools” under the .NET Development section. You’re free to install other features as well, but “Tools” is the only item that will include the FxCop installer.

windows_sdk_installer

Step 4. Click “Next” and continue following instructions until installation is complete.

Step 5. After the installer finishes, navigate to C:\Program Files\Microsoft SDKs\Windows\v7.1\Bin\FXCop.

Run the installer in that folder, FxCopSetup.exe.

After installing FxCop, you’re finished! You can now enjoy the full features of both FxCop and Visual Studio Achievements.

How to download a full backup copy of Wikipedia

I’ve spent plenty of time making jokes about what would happen if Wikipedia went offline in our modern, internet-dependent world – planes dropping out of the sky, no knowledge of any events before 2007, dogs walking their owners – but in all seriousness, any Wikipedia outage will affect millions of students, educators, scientists, and everyday people looking for answers to both simple and complex questions.

You’re not totally out of luck though; in this article, I’ll show you how to maintain access to Wikipedia’s information even after the site goes offline. Not only will this be useful during deliberate blackouts (like in the January 2012 protest of SOPA and PIPA), but it could come in handy in the future when presented with network difficulties, power outages, or even new internet legislation.

How to download a backup copy of Wikipedia

Before you get started, please note that the standard English backup of Wikipedia is about 7.5 gigabytes. Even on a fast connection, this database can take several hours to download depending on the amount of traffic on Wikipedia’s servers. It is safe to assume that Wikipedia’s servers will be hit with record amounts of traffic if a known blackout is approaching, so if you want to download a copy, start downloading as early as possible.

First off, don’t worry – it is both legal and free to download a backup of all content available on Wikipedia for personal use, mirroring, informal backups, offline use, or database queries. All text content in Wikipedia is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License and the GNU Free Documentation License. Images fall under different terms, but in this guide we’re just going to be downloading the text.

While the downloadable version of Wikipedia’s database is massive, there are a few limitations: Only current revisions of articles will be downloaded, and no discussion or user pages are included.

Step 1

Download the English language Wikipedia dump. You can download the latest version of this file directly from Wikipedia or via BitTorrent (unofficial).

You can also download the Simple English Wikipedia, which is much smaller than the full Wikipedia (about 75 megabytes).

Step 2

The Wikipedia database dump is not very useful on its own, so next you’ll need to download the free application WikiTaxi (Windows only) to view Wikipeda on your computer.

(Mac users can check out Wiki Offline for about $10, but in this guide I will only be covering WikiTaxi for Windows.)

WikiTaxi is a “portable” application so you don’t have to install anything. All you need to do is extract the downloaded .zip file and you’re finished.

Step 3

After extracting WikiTaxi and your Wikipedia database download has finished, open the WikiTaxi Importer (WikiTaxi_Importer.exe). Browse to the location of the Wikipedia database you downloaded in Step 1, and then select a location to save the new WikiTaxi-formatted database file. Click Import Now! when finished.

Step 4

Close the WikiTaxi Importer and open the main WikiTaxi application (WikiTaxi.exe). Click the Options button and select Open a *.taxi Database. Locate the database you created in Step 3 and select Open.

That’s it! You now have full, offline access to Wikipedia.

 

Hello, 2012

Happy New Year!

From all of us at Techerator, we wish you a happy new year full of the scent of freshly unwrapped gadgets, the gentle hum of CPU fans, and that little unlocking sound iPads make when you open their cover.

I would like to extend my sincere personal thanks to all who contributed their tremendous skills and services to Techerator this year:

Kate Bedrick, Andrew Kalinchuk, Brian Nelson, Bryant Sombke, Carl Natale, Craig Lloyd, Daniel Chambers, Dave Parrack, Derek Johnson, Dustin Patterson, Jacob Bean, Jake Joraanstad, Kevin Ivanca, Kevin Schulte, Scott Nesbit, Sophronis Mantoles, Tristan Pollock, and Vanessa Vasile. It has been my privilege to work with you and I am incredibly thankful for all we have accomplished this year.

Most of all, I’d like to thank all of our readers, subscribers, fans, followers, and supporters of Techerator. None of this would be possible without you.

Here’s to a great 2012!

Image courtesy: Rampant Gaffer

Galaxy Nexus: How to prevent newly-installed apps from creating shortcuts on your home screen

If you’re like me and have recently switched from an Android phone running Froyo (Android 2.2) or Gingerbread (Android 2.3) to the brand-new Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0) on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, you may have been surprised to find that apps installed from the Android Market automatically have shortcuts placed on the home screen. I’m sure this feature is convenient for most people, but I prefer to include only essential apps on my home screen and relegate the rest to my app drawer.

Thinking the automatic shortcut placement was controlled by the Galaxy Nexus/Ice Cream Sandwich home screen, I searched in vain to find a way to disable the feature. As it turns out, it’s actually a setting in the Android Market and is quite easy to disable.

How to disable automatic home screen app shortcuts

Step 1. Open the Android Market.

Step 2. Press the new Menu button in the top right. (Yes, it’s three vertical dots and is no longer included in the standard Android buttons bar – I’ll be covering topic in the near future I’m sure.) Select Settings.

Screenshot_2011-12-16-14-58-04[1]

Step 3. Uncheck Auto-add shortcuts.

Screenshot_2011-12-16-14-58-19[1]

That’s it! Your home screen will now be untouched by new applications.

Have any tips about Ice Cream Sandwich or Galaxy Nexus? Share it with us in the comments below.

A fond farewell to vertical tabs in Google Chrome

Tabbed browsing is nothing new, but I’ve always felt that something wasn’t quite right with how tabs were displayed. After an enthusiastic web browsing session, I’d often end up with a horizontal disaster of disorganized tabs. With computer displays getting wider and not taller, why were browsers cramming tabs into my precious vertical space?

Horizontal Tabs in Google Chrome

When I discovered an add-on for Firefox called Tree Style Tab in 2009, and I was so excited that I wrote an article about it that same day to spread the good news: Finally, tabs done right! Moving tabs to the side of the browser window made them easier to manage (and Tree Style Tab automatically organizes them into hierarchical groups), plus it made better use of my 1,920 horizontal pixels.

Like many people, Google Chrome had caught my eye as a blazing fast way to browse the internet. It took some time, but the development team behind Chrome eventually added a basic version of vertical tabs to their Beta channel. Vertical tabs weren’t “officially” a feature – in fact, I’m sure many of you didn’t know they even existed in Chrome – but the guide I wrote to enabling vertical tabs in Google Chrome is one of the all-time most popular articles on Techerator. By combining Chrome’s rudimentary vertical tabs with the New Tabs At End extension, I was able to enjoy Chrome almost as much as Firefox.

The Infinite Version giveth and the Infinite Version taketh away

Google Chrome has released 15 major versions since it was first released in 2008. To keep up with that extraordinary rate of deployment, the Chrome team built an industry-changing automatic updater into the browser to make sure users always had the newest version without even thinking about it.

One of my favorite articles about Chrome’s update system is Jeff Atwood’s “The Infinite Version,” where he states:

Chrome is so fluid that it has transcended software versioning altogether.

Like Pavlov’s dogs, I’ve been conditioned to associate software updates with new features and better performance. But there’s a reverse side to that coin: features can be taken away, too. With the release of Chrome Beta 16, vertical tabs have been officially removed from the browser. The Beta channel is a direct preview of what’s coming in future stable versions, so within a few weeks vertical tabs will no longer exist in Chrome.

The removal of vertical tabs came as a surprise when my browser automatically updated, but it wasn’t entirely unexpected. As with most Google “experiments”, there’s always a clear disclaimer that features can break or disappear at any time. That being said, vertical tabs had been around in Chrome long enough that it was a shock when they magically disappeared, especially since the auto-updater doesn’t notify you when things have changed.

Chrome is based on the open-source Chromium project, and one of the benefits of open-source projects is that they’re fairly transparent. Dozens of bug reports were filed after vertical tabs were removed, to which a Chromium developer tersely replied:

Sidetabs were an experiment that didn’t pan out. They’re in a half-working state and should be removed, says Glen.

We’ll try to come up with other approaches for this use case.

This caused a flurry of other bug reports to be filed (warning, this one has quite a bit of NSFW language). It’s clear that users aren’t happy about the change, especially since there currently is no clear plan to add a better version of vertical tabs back to the browser.

Now what?

Unfortunately, unless the developers on the Chrome and Chromium teams relent, you probably won’t be seeing the return of vertical tabs in the near future. You do have a few options, though.

  1. Let the Chromium team know how you feel. Add a post to the missing vertical tabs bug report and Star the issue so they know you’re interested.
  2. Use Firefox with Tree Style Tab. Firefox has taken some hits because of Chrome’s tremendous performance and minimalistic UI, but the Mozilla team has made leaps and bounds with their browser and it’s definitely worth using. Firefox version 8 was just released, too.
  3. Check out some of the vertical tab extensions for Chrome. These extensions have some major limitations because they can’t really modify Chrome’s user interface, but if you’re a die-hard Chrome user, it’s your only option.

As for me, I’ve switched back to good ol’ Firefox. My affair with Chrome was wonderful while it lasted (we’ll always have version 15…), but I’m going to stick with the browser that gives me vertical tabs.

Facebook’s Timeline: Life flashing before your eyes has never been so awesome

Facebook’s new Timeline profiles start rolling out to the public today. Many users were able to preview the new profiles early through Facebook’s Developer program, so I’ve already had a week to play around with Timeline. You’ve probably heard a lot of buzz about its “great design” or “privacy nightmare”, so what’s all the fuss about?

Facebook's new Timeline profile

One of the benefits of being both a software engineer and a tech blogger is that I hear unique, contrasting opinions from members of both groups. Software developers tend to abhor innovations in social networks (and it’s no wonder, they understand how data can be misused more than anyone). Many bloggers, on the other hand, swarm around new web innovations, especially when big companies like Facebook release a newsworthy feature.

I’m going to say something that most members of the first group probably wouldn’t agree with: I really like Timeline. Borderline love. While I’m not eager to throw personal information to the wind, I’m excited about Timeline and think it’s a great move by Facebook.

Here’s why:

We’ve never seen this before

The release of Timeline is a rare moment when a company in the social networking sphere does something truly unique. Google+ brought the thunder by introducing great privacy-based sharing tools, and Facebook responded by releasing one of the best-designed web features I’ve seen in a long time. When you look at Timeline for the first time, you won’t need any explanation. Timeline is something you already know how to use, and intuitive design is no accident.

Instant nostalgia

When I first got access to Timeline, I scrolled through 2011 and thought, “Yep, cool, that’s basically what happened this year”. No surprises. Then I started scrolling through 2010, 2009, 2008, and back to 2005 and was completely blown away. Timeline showed me pictures and wall posts that I had long forgotten about, and I easily lost a few hours looking at pictures and reminiscing about the things I did those years.

Digging through old posts on Timeline even made me start up conversations with friends I hadn’t talked to in years. A friend of mine put it very well on Twitter:

@ Was looking back on Timeline and reading some of our old conversations. I like what I saw. #WeWereWayCoolerThan
@bglaszcz
Benjamin Glaszcz

Another thing I’ve noticed is increased interaction on my posts and pictures from years ago. Since Timeline highlights important events from each year, you’ll notice that important posts will continue to get attention long after they were breaking news. Sure, it might not be a big deal when you post a picture of the ice cream you ate last night, but when your friends and family scroll back to the year your kids were born or when you bought a house, it will continue to be an important (and enjoyable) memory.

Privacy hasn’t changed, you’re just aware of it now

A lot of people seem to be up-in-arms about Timeline because it suddenly displays posts you didn’t know existed anymore. I hope this isn’t news to anyone here: everything you do online is stored somewhere, and it’s in your best interests to assume that information will be there forever. Just because a post was pushed off your Wall back in 2006 doesn’t mean it went away permanently. The good news? All posts and pictures are still subject to the same privacy rules you applied in the first place.

Besides, features like Timeline can be a good thing if used correctly. You’re entirely in control of what gets displayed to your viewers, so make yourself look great! Add a Star to posts about an achievement you earned (stars “pin” the story in a prominent way on your Timeline), and remove posts that don’t reflect how you truly feel. Important events like graduation, weddings, and posts with a high amount of Likes (read “Good Things”) will be the focal point of your profile, and useless chaff like boring wall posts simply disappear.

Conclusion

With Timeline rolling out to a larger audience, I’m eager to hear what the general public thinks of the update. We’re all familiar with the ridiculous pseudo-revolts Facebook users have whenever a new feature is released, but I’ve got a feeling this one will be received better than most.