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Joshua Kopstein

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Demand for encryption apps has increased dramatically ever since the exposure of massive internet surveillance programs run by US and UK intelligence agencies. Now Facebook is reportedly moving to implement a strong, decades-old encryption technique that's been largely avoided by the online services that need it most.

Forward secrecy (sometimes called "perfect forward secrecy") is a way of encrypting internet traffic — the connection between a website and your browser — so that it's harder for a third party to intercept the pages being viewed, even if the server's key becomes compromised. It's been lauded by cryptography experts since its creation in the early 1990's, yet most "secure" online services like banks and webmail still...

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Today, a large collection of Web hosting and service companies announced that they will support Railgun, a compression protocol for dynamic Web content. The list includes the content delivery network and Web security provider CloudFlare, cloud providers Amazon Web Services and Rackspace, and thirty of the world’s biggest Web hosting companies.

Railgun is said to make it possible to double the performance of websites served up through Cloudflare’s global network of data centers. The technology was largely developed in the open-source Go programming language launched by Google; it could significantly change the economics of hosting high-volume websites on Amazon Web Services and other cloud platforms because of the bandwidth savings it provides. It has already cut the bandwidth used by 4Chan and Imgur by half. “We've seen a ~50% reduction in backend transfer for our HTML pages (transfer between our servers and CloudFlare's),” said 4Chan’s Chris Poole in an e-mail exchange with Ars. “And pages definitely load a fair bit snappier when Railgun is enabled, since the roundtrip time for CloudFlare to fetch the page is dramatically reduced. We serve over half a billion pages per month (and billions of API hits), so that all adds up fairly quickly.”

Rapid cache updates

Like most CDNs, CloudFlare uses caching of static content at its data centers to help overcome the speed of light. But prepositioning content on a forward server typically hasn’t helped performance much for dynamic webpages and Web traffic such as AJAX requests and mobile app API calls, which have relatively little in the way of what’s considered static content. That has created a problem for Internet services because of the rise in traffic for mobile devices and dynamic websites.

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Aurich Lawson

My family has been on the Internet since 1998 or so, but I didn't really think much about Internet security at first. Oh sure, I made sure our eMachines desktop (and its 433Mhz Celeron CPU) was always running the latest Internet Explorer version and I tried not to use the same password for everything. But I didn't give much thought to where my Web traffic was going or what path it took from our computer to the Web server and back. I was dimly aware that e-mail, as one of my teachers put it, was in those days "about as private as sticking your head out the window and yelling." And I didn't do much with that knowledge.

That sort of attitude was dangerous then, and the increasing sophistication of readily available hacking tools makes it even more dangerous now.  Luckily, the state of Internet security has also gotten better—in this article, the first in a five-part series covering online security, we're going to talk a bit about keeping yourself (and your business) safe on the Web. Even if you know what lurks in the dark corners of the Internet, chances are you someone you know doesn't. So consider this guide and its follow-ups as a handy crash course for those unschooled in the nuances of online security. Security aficionados should check out later entries in the series for more advanced information

We'll begin today with some basic information about encryption on the Internet and how to use it to safeguard your personal information as you use the Web, before moving on to malware, mobile app security, and other topics in future entries. 

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How can we make sense of it all?
A few weeks ago, I had dinner with Saumil and Sailesh, co-founders of LocBox.* Instagram had just been acquired by Facebook and there was speculation (later confirmed) about a big up round financing of Path. The recent large financing of Pinterest was still in the air, and the ongoing parlor game of when Facebook would go public and at what price was still being played. A couple of months prior, Zynga had acquired OMGPOP.

Sailesh wondered aloud, “How much time do we have for any of these?” “How many of them can coexist?” and “Do we really need them?” My answers were, respectively: “A lot.” “Many of them.” and “No, but we want them.” That dinner discussion prompted some observations that I am outlining here, and I invite you to share your own observations in the comments below.

In a nutshell, the Internet has evolved from being a need-driven utility medium with only a handful of winners to a discovery-driven entertainment medium with room for multiple winners. The necessary and sufficient conditions for this evolution are now in place — broadband, real names and tablets are the three horsemen of this New New Web. As consumers, entrepreneurs and investors, we should get used to the fact that the online economy is increasingly blurring with the offline economy, and in the limit, that distinction will disappear. As a result, just as in the real world, the Web of entertainment will be much bigger than the Web of utility.

A Theory of Human Motivation
One framework for understanding the consumer Internet is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which Abraham Maslow put forward as a way of explaining human behavior at large. The core premise is that once our basic needs of food, shelter, safety and belonging are satisfied, we tend to focus on things that are related to creativity, entertainment, education and self-improvement. A key aspect of this framework is that it’s sequential: Unless the basic needs are met, one cannot focus on other things. As an example, a study in 2011 showed that humans who are hungry will spend more on food and less on non-food items compared to those who are not hungry. Using this framework, we can see how consumer adoption of the Web has evolved over the last 20 years, and why all of the ingredients are only now in place for consumers to use the Web for what Maslow called “self-actualization” — a pursuit of one’s full potential, driven by desire, not by necessity.

1992-2012: Web of Need
Between the AOL IPO in 1992 and the Facebook IPO last month, the Internet has largely been in the business of satisfying basic consumer needs. In 1995, the year Netscape went public and made the internet accessible to the masses, I was a young product manager for a consumer Internet company called Global Village Communication. We were a newly minted public company and our hottest product was a “high speed” fax/modem with a speed of 33.6 kbps. Back then, using the Internet as a consumer or making a living off it as a business was rather difficult, and sometimes simply frustrating. In the subsequent years the basic needs of access, browser, email, search and identity were solved by companies such as AOL, Comcast, Netscape, Yahoo, Google, LinkedIn and Facebook.

2012-?: Web of Want
Today, the billion users on Facebook have reached the apex of Maslow’s hierarchy on the web. All of our basic needs have been satisfied. Now we are in pursuit of self-actualization. It is no surprise that on the Web, we are now open to playing games (Zynga, Angry Birds), watching video (YouTube, Hulu), listening to music (Pandora, Spotify), expressing our creativity (Instagram, Twitter, Draw Something), window shopping (Pinterest, Gojee*) and pursuing education (Khan Academy, Empowered*).

The Web Is Becoming Like TV
How do we make sense out of a Web where multiple providers coexist, serving groups of people who share a similar desire? Turns out we already have a very good model for understanding how this can work: Television. Specifically, cable television. The Web is becoming like TV, with hundreds of networks or “channels” that are programmed to serve content to an audience with similar desires and demographics. Pinterest, ShoeDazzle, Joyous and Alt12* programmed for young, affluent women; Machinima, Kixeye and Kabam programmed for mostly male gamers; Gojee* for food enthusiasts; Triposo* for travellers; GAINFitness* for fitness fans and so on.

In this new new Web, an important ingredient to success is a clear understanding of the identity of your users to ensure that you are programming to that user’s interests. The good news is that unlike TV, the Web has a feedback loop. Everything can be measured and as a result the path from concept to success can be more capital efficient by measuring what type of programming is working every step of the way — it’s unlikely that the new new Web will ever produce a Waterworld.

Why Now? Broadband, Real Names & Tablets
As my partner Doug Pepper recently wrote, a key question when evaluating a new opportunity is to ask “Why Now?” Certainly, companies like AOL, Yahoo and Myspace have tried before to program the Web to cater to interests of specific audiences. What’s different now? Three things: Broadband, real names and tablets.

The impact of broadband is obvious; we don’t need or want anything on a slow Web. With broadband penetration at 26 percent in industrialized countries and 3G penetration at about 15 percent of the world’s population, we are just reaching critical mass of nearly 1B users on the fast Web.

Real names are more interesting. In 1993, the New Yorker ran the now famous cartoon; “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” This succinctly captured the state of the anonymous Web at the time. Reid Hoffman and Mark Zuckerberg changed that forever. Do we find Q&A on Quora to be more credible than Yahoo! Answers, celebrity profiles on Twitter more engaging than Myspace and pins on Pinterest more relevant than recommendations on early AOL chatrooms? I certainly do, and that is largely because Quora, Twitter and Pinterest take advantage of real names. Real names are blurring the distinction between online and offline behavior.

Finally, the tablet, the last necessary and sufficient piece that fuels the “Web of want.” The PC is perfect for the “Web of need” — when we need something, we can search for it, since we know what we are looking for. Searching is a “lean-forward” experience, typing into our PC, either at work or at the home office. The Web over the last decade has been optimized for this lean-forward search experience — everything from SEO to Web site design to keyword shortcuts in popular browsers makes that efficient. However, smartphones and tablets allow us to move to a “lean-back” experience, flipping through screens using our fingers, often in our living rooms and bedrooms, on the train or at the coffee shop. Tablets make discovery easy and fun, just like flipping channels on TV at leisure. These discoveries prompt us to want things we didn’t think we needed.

Early Signs
This thesis is easy to postulate, but is there any evidence that users are looking to the Web as anything more than a productivity platform? As has been reported, mobile devices now make up 20 percent of all U.S. Web traffic, and this usage peaks in the evening hours, presumably when people are away from their office. Analysis from Flurry* shows that cumulative time spent on mobile apps is closing in on TV. We certainly don’t seem to be using the Web only when we need something.

Economy of Need Versus Want
The economy of Want is different from the economy of Need. We humans tend to spend a lot more time and money on things we want compared to things we need. For example, Americans spend more than five hours a day on leisure and sports (including TV), compared to about three hours spent on eating, drinking and managing household activities. Another difference is that when it comes to satisfying our needs, we tend to settle on one provider and give that one all of our business. Think about how many companies provide us with electricity, water, milk, broadband access, search, email and identity. The Need economy is a winner-take-all market, with one or two companies dominating each need. However, when it comes to providing for our wants, we are open to being served by multiple providers. Think about how many different providers are behind the TV channels we watch, restaurants we visit, destinations we travel to and movies we watch. The Want economy can support multiple winners, each with a sizeable business. Instagram, Path, Pinterest, ShoeDazzle, BeachMint, Angry Birds, CityVille, Kixeye, Kabam, Machinima and Maker Studios can all coexist.

Investing in the Web of Want
The chart below shows that over a long term (including a global recession) an index of luxury stocks (companies such as LVMH, Burberry, BMW, Porsche, Nordstrom) outperforms an index of utility stocks (companies such as Con Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric that offer services we all need). The same applies to an index of media stocks (companies such as CBS, Comcast, News Corp., Time Warner, Viacom) which outperforms both the utilities and the broader stock market. Of course, higher returns come with higher volatility — Nordstrom’s beta is 1.6 and CBS’ beta is 2.2, compared to 0.29 for PG&E. It is this volatility that has cast investing in the Want business as a career-ending move in Silicon Valley for the past 20-plus years. As the Web evolves from serving our needs to satisfying our wants and, in turn, becomes a much larger economy, sitting on the sidelines of the Web of Want may not be an option.

Let’s Not Kill Hollywood
With a billion users looking for self-actualization and with the widespread adoption of broadband, real names and tablets, the Web is poised to become the medium for creativity, education, entertainment, fashion and the pursuit of happiness. As the offline world shows, large, profitable companies can be built that cater to these desires. Entrepreneurs and investors looking to succeed in the new new Web can learn quite a few lessons from our friends in the luxury and entertainment businesses, which have been managing profitable “want” businesses for decades. The fusion of computer science, design, data, low friction and the massive scale of the Internet can result in something that is better than what either Silicon Valley or Hollywood can do alone. It is no wonder that the team that came to this conclusion before anyone else is now managing the most valuable company in the world.

Epilogue
When we go see a movie or splurge on a resort vacation, we don’t stop using electricity, brushing our teeth or checking our email. The Web of Want is not a replacement for the Web of Need, it is an addition. Many of the Internet companies that satisfied our needs in the last 20 or more years of the Web are here to stay. In fact, they will become more entrenched and stable, with low beta, just like the utilities in the offline world. Microsoft has a beta of exactly 1.0 — it is no more volatile than the overall stock market. And for those longing for the days of “real computer science” on the Web, do not despair. Just keep an eye on Rocket Science and Google X Labs — there is plenty of hard-core engineering ahead.

Disclosures: * indicates an InterWest portfolio company. Google Finance was used for all of the stock charts and beta references.

Keval Desai is a Partner at InterWest, where he focuses on investments in early-stage companies that cater to the needs and wants of consumers. He started his career in Silicon Valley in 1991 as a software engineer. He has been a mentor and investor in AngelPad since inception. You can follow him @kevaldesai.

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The venture capital firm funded by Google is building up its data sciences team to increase the capabilities inside its companies and to look for new investments in the area. The firm is extending a thesis that was developed inside Google about finding patterns in big collections of data, which it hopes will work in other industries.

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There are hundreds of devices out there right now that can access the full web, as Steve Jobs once put it. They come with different capabilities and constraints, things like input style or screen size, resolution, and form. With all these devices set to overtake traditional desktop computers for web traffic next year, we need tools to help us build responsively. Jonathan Smiley shows how to dive into responsive design using Foundation, a light front-end framework that helps you rapidly build prototypes and production sites.

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Today's the day Google's broad new privacy policy goes into effect. European regulators are claiming it violates data protection laws, but it's here and it may be here to stay.

There are some not-completely-foolproof ways to hide from Google, but first let's talk about what's changed. Prior to today, Google had more than 70 privacy policies for its various products. But with the company trying to create a seamless experience across search, Gmail, Google+, Google Docs, Picasa, and much more, Google is consolidating the majority of its policies down into just one document covering most of its products. This will make it easier for Google to track users for the purpose of serving up personalized ads.

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Depending on who you follow and what you read, you may have noticed the concept of “responsive text” being discussed in design circles recently. It’s not what you might imagine — resizing and altering the typography to make it easier to read on a range of devices — but rather delivering varying amounts of content to devices based on screen size.

One example of this is an experiment by designer Frankie Roberto. Another is the navigation menu on the website for Sifter App. Roberto and Sifter are using media queries to actually hide and display text based on screen size (i.e. not rewriting or delivering different content based on context — as one would do with mobile-focused copy, for example).

Having looked at how this technique works, I wouldn’t endorse it yet, because its practical value is not clear. Also, describing this as “responsive” could legitimize what is possibly a less than optimal coding technique. Below are screenshots of how it works on the Sifter website:

Website for Sifter App
Altering the tabbed content in the navigation menu at Sifter. Large view.

How Is This Accomplished?

In this example (and in Roberto’s demo), you’ll notice a couple of things. The screenshots show two versions of the Sifter website at different screen sizes to demonstrate what is happening at two breakpoints.

When you view the website on a large device, the second-last menu tab will show the full label of “Pricing & Plans.” On smaller devices (anything up to the size of a tablet), the label changes to just “Pricing.” This particular example might not be a big deal, but my main concern is that this is being regarded as “responsive text.” It’s not. It’s simply hiding bloated content, and if the content is not important enough to show on smaller screens, then it’s probably not vital at any size.

Does the change in wording mean that information on Sifter’s plans is offered only to users on large devices, or is the “Plans” part redundant? We can assume not, because the tab at all screen sizes links to the …/plans page. This is potentially confusing for users on small devices: they clicked on “Pricing” but are sent to a page that outlines the plans first.

To show and hide the “Plans &” part of the tab, Sifter’s designer has wrapped the element in a span. For a single menu item, this isn’t the end of the world, but good luck going down the path that Frankie Roberto demonstrates with his paragraphs. I can’t imagine what a nightmare it would be to maintain multiple versions of actual page content and then tie them into breakpoints! (Not to mention our earlier question about whether text that is hidden at certain sizes is redundant in the first place.)

Hopefully, we all know to avoid hiding content with display: none !important;. Responsive design is many things; its many little tricks and techniques constitute a wonderful approach to making websites flexible. But hiding elements on a screen in this way should not be one of them.

It’s Just a Demo, Though, Right?

Frankie Roberto’s demo is just that: a demo. He’s clear about that, and he offers a suggestion for a use case. I applaud the effort — everyone should experiment with the Web. The Sifter website is a live website, though — not a demo or proof of concept — and what it has done is being described as “responsive text.”

I’m a huge fan of the concept of “one Web.” If you find you have to hide parts of your content on smaller devices, then you might need to refocus your efforts and write less bloated copy or reconsider your wording of page elements.

One of the joys of working “mobile-first” is having to maintain a sharp and critical eye in order to cut bloat (a capacity we should always exercise, of course). Responsive text seems to be the polar opposite of this approach. You are practically admitting from the outset that too much text is on the page. You are making the dangerous assumption that someone on a small device wouldn’t want to read the hidden text.

Maintenance Problems Will Come Hard And Fast

Frankie Roberto achieves a clever effect in his demo. On a large screen, you see all of the copy. And as the screen shrinks, so does the amount of content (and vice versa, of course).

Responsive text demo on a large screen
Roberto’s full content, on a desktop screen.

Responsive text demo on a small screen
On a smaller screen, the content is reduced.

Achieving this in the demo is easy. A CSS class is applied to the excess paragraphs to hide them.

Some Potential Problems to Consider

  • The copy will have to be highly structured in order for it to be readable when parts of it are hidden on small devices. For example, if a content block has 10 lines, then it should still flow when lines 2, 5, 9 and 10 are hidden on a tablet and lines 2, 4, 5, 9 and 10 are hidden on a phone.
  • The writer would need some mechanism in the CMS for flagging the breakpoints in the content. The method for updating content would end up being rather technical as a result.

If the message you are communicating on a small screen is sound, then there is nothing you could really “enhance” it with. Anything you add would simply be bloat.

Are There Any Potential Uses For Responsive Text?

I don’t think there are. But I realize this is just my opinion, and I encourage readers and the wider Web community to evaluate it for themselves and disprove me with solid examples.

When discussing this on Twitter the other day, I got interesting responses from a number of fellow designers. Many agreed that whatever you display on a small screen should be your content everywhere, because that is the distillation of your message.

Roberto (@frankieroberto) suggests a potential use case for adaptive news content; for example, showing a summary, a mid-length version or the full article depending on the device. This does sound like a useful way to digest news, but in such a fast-moving environment, I can’t imagine copyeditors would thank you for assigning them to write content that adapts so extensively and still makes sense in these different contexts. But it’s something to think about.

Stephanie Rieger points out that producing bloat-free content on a big website can be incredibly time-consuming:

@welcomebrand @froots101 Discussions with stakeholders reveal last round of copywriting took 6 mths End result, hide text on ‘lesser’ screen

No argument there. I’m working on rebuilding a large website, too, and am encountering the same issues. But I’m not sure that hiding content based purely on screen size is wise. If it’s not relevant or worth displaying, don’t simply hide it: delete or unpublish it.

In Conclusion

My interpretation of the Sifter website and what its designer is trying to achieve may be wrong (this is an opinion piece, remember!). Feel free to tell me as much in the comments below. But from my quick look at the design, code and copy, I won’t be embracing responsive text anytime soon, despite it being an interesting experiment and endorsed by some very clever folks.

I struggle to think of a use case that withstands the basic scrutiny that I apply to content for my clients, which is that if all of the content is not good enough to show on all devices, then the amount of content is not optimal. I recognize that this is a harsh stance, so do check out the code and experiments covered here so that you can make up your own mind.

Remember, just because something is “responsive,” it might not be best for your project.

(al)

© James Young for Smashing Magazine, 2012.

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