On approximately January 31st of this month, versionÂ 56 of the Chrome web browser will be released. There is a significant change in the way it displays websites that are not using HTTPS, also known as SSL. This change may confuse your site visitors or surprise you if you are not expecting it.
Starting with the release of Chrome 56 this month, any website that is not running HTTPS will have a message appear in the location bar that says âNot Secureâ on pages that collect passwords or credit cards. It will look like this:
This is the first part of a staged rollout that encourages websites to get rid of plain old HTTP.
In an upcoming release Google Chrome will label all non-HTTPS pages in incognito mode as âNot secureâ because users using this mode have an increased expectation of privacy.
The final step in the staged rollout will be that Chrome will label all plain HTTP pages as âNot secureâ. It will look like this:
The impact on WordPress site owners
So, once again, starting on approximately January 31st of this month, any page on your website that is non-HTTPS and has a password form or credit card field will be labeled as âNot secureâ in the location bar by Google Chrome. This includes your WordPress login page.
This may confuse your site visitors who sign in to your website because they may interpret the message to indicate that your website has been compromised. They could also interpret the message to mean that your site has some underlying security issue other than being non-HTTPS.
The current timeline for the release of Chrome 56 is unclear. The official statement from Google indicates it will be released some time in âJanuaryâ. However, based on the Chromium development calendar it looks like Chrome 56 may be released on January 31st. Youâll notice that calendar says âEstimated stable datesâ and is subject to change.
Assuming Chrome 56 will be released on January 31st, that gives you two weeks starting today to get your site running on 100% SSL to avoid the new âNot secureâÂ message appearing on your login pages.
What to do if your site is notÂ HTTPS
WeÂ recommend you start by looking at the support documentation that your hosting provider offers to find out how to set up SSL on their system. You will find that someÂ hosting providers offer free SSL and others have a very easy installation method. If you ignore this and decide to configure things manually you may be making life more difficult for yourself.
Google has a technical description of how to implement SSLÂ on your website. You will also find many guides describing how to set up SSL for WordPress with a simple Google search. But definitely start by visiting your hosting provider support documentation or doing a google search for your hosting provider name and âSSL installationâ without quotes.
If you have already set up SSL on your site, congratulations! Â You are all set and ready for the new change in Chrome 56 coming later this month.
Please share this with the broader WordPress community to promote the use of SSL across all websites and to help other WordPress site ownersÂ stay secure.
Mark Maunder â Wordfence Founder/CEO.
Yesterday, news emerged that Google was using a machine-learning artificial intelligence system called âRankBrainâ to help sort through its search results. Wondering how that works and fits in with Googleâs overall ranking system? Hereâs what we know about RankBrain.
The information covered belowÂ comes from three sources. First, the Bloomberg story that broke the news about RankBrain yesterday (see also our write-up of it). Second, additional information that Google has now provided directly to Search Engine Land. Third, our own knowledge and best assumptions in places where Google isnât providing answers. Weâll make clear where any of these sources are used, whenÂ deemed necessary apart from general background information.
What Is RankBrain?
RankBrain is Googleâs name for a machine-learning artificial intelligence system thatâs used to help process its search results, as was reported by Bloomberg and also confirmed to us by Google.
What Is Machine Learning?
Machine learning is where a computer teaches itself how to do something, rather than being taught by humans or following detailed programming.
What Is Artificial Intelligence?
True artificial intelligence, or AI for short, is where a computer would be as smart as a human being, at least in the sense of acquiring knowledge both from being taught and from building on what it knows and making new connections.
True AI exists only in science fiction novels, of course. In practice, AI is used to refer to computer systems that are designed to learn and make connections.
Howâs AI different from machine learning? In terms of RankBrain, it seems to us theyâre fairlyÂ synonymous. You may hear them both used interchangeably or with machine learning used to describe the type of artificial intelligence approach being employed.
So RankBrain Is The New Way Google Ranks Search Results?
No. RankBrain is part of Googleâs overall search âalgorithm,â a computer program thatâs used to sort through the billions of pages that it knows about and find the ones deemed most relevant for particular queries.
Whatâs The Name Of Googleâs Search Algorithm?
Itâs called Hummingbird, as we reported in the past.Â For years, the overall algorithm didnât have a formal name. But in the middle of 2013, Google overhauled that algorithm and gave it a name, Hummingbird.
So RankBrain Is Part Of Googleâs Hummingbird Search Algorithm?
Thatâs our understanding. Hummingbird is the overall search algorithm, just like a car has an overall engine in it. The engine itself may be made up of various parts, such as an oil filter, a fuel pump, a radiator and so on. In the same way, Hummingbird encompasses various parts, with RankBrain being one of the newest.
In particular, we know RankBrain is part of the overall Hummingbird algorithm because the Bloomberg article makes clear that RankBrain doesnât handle all searches, as only the overall algorithm would.
Hummingbird also contains other parts with names familiar to those in the SEO space, such asÂ Panda,Â PenguinÂ and Payday designed to fight spam, Pigeon designed to improve local results,Top Heavy designed to demote ad-heavy pages, Mobile FriendlyÂ designed to reward mobile-friendly pages and Pirate designed to fight copyright infringement.
I Thought The Google Algorithm Was Called âPageRankâ
PageRank is part of the overall Hummingbird algorithm that covers a specific way of giving pages credit based on the links from other pages pointing at them.
PageRank is special because itâs the first name that Google ever gave to one of the parts of its ranking algorithm, way back at the time the search engine began in 1998.
What About These âSignalsâ That Google Uses For Ranking?
Signals are things Google uses to help determine how to rank web pages.Â For example, it will read the words on aÂ web page, so words are a signal. If some words are in bold, that might be another signal thatâs noted. The calculations used as part of PageRank give a page a PageRank score thatâs used as a signal. If a page is noted as being mobile-friendly, thatâs another signal thatâs registered.
All these signals get processed by various parts within the Hummingbird algorithm to ultimately figure out which pages that Google shows in response to various searches.
How Many Signals Are There?
Google has fairly consistently spoken of having more than 200 major ranking signals that are evaluated that, in turn, might have up to 10,000 variations or sub-signals. It more typically just says âhundredsâ of factors, as it did in yesterdayâs Bloomberg article.
If you want a more visual guide to ranking signals, see our Periodic Table Of SEO Success Factors:
Itâs a pretty good guide, we think, to general things that search engines like Google use to help rank web pages.
And RankBrain Is The Third-Most Important Signal?
Thatâs right. From out of nowhere, this new system has become what Google says is the third most-important factorÂ for ranking web pages. From the Bloomberg article:
RankBrain is one of the âhundredsâ of signals that go into an algorithm that determines what results appear on a Google search page and where they are ranked, Corrado said. In the few months it has been deployed, RankBrain has become the third-most important signal contributing to the result of a search query, he said.
What Are The First & Second-Most Important Signals?
Google wonât tell us what the first and second most important signals are. We asked. Twice.
Itâs annoying and arguably a bit misleading that Google wonât explain the top two. The Bloomberg article was no accident. Google wants some PR about what it considers to be its machine-learning breakthrough.
But to really assess that breakthrough, itâs helpful to know what are the other most important factors that Google uses now, as well as was was knocked behind by RankBrain. Thatâs why Google should explain these.
By the way, my personal guess is that links remain the most important signal, the way that Google counts up those links in the form of votes. Itâs also a terribly aging system, as Iâve covered in myÂ Links: The Broken âBallot Boxâ Used By Google & BingÂ article from the past.
As for the second-most important signal, Iâd guess that would be âwords,â where words would encompass everything from the words on the page to how Googleâs interpreting the words people enter into the search box outside of RankBrain analysis.
What Exactly Does RankBrain Do?
From emailing with Google, RankBrain is mainly used as a way to interpret the searches that people submitÂ to find pages that might not haveÂ the exact wordsÂ that were searched for.
DidnâtÂ Google Already Have WaysÂ To Find Pages Beyond The Exact Query Entered?
Yes, Google has found pages beyond the exact terms someone enters for a very long time. For example, years and years ago, if youâd entered something like âshoe,â Google might not have found pages that said âshoes,â because those are technically two different words. But âstemmingâ allowed Google to get smarter, to understand that shoes is a variation of shoe, just like ârunningâ is a variation of ârun.â
Google also got synonym smarts, so that if you searched for âsneakers,â it might understand that you also meant ârunning shoes.â It even gained some conceptual smarts, to understand that there are pages about âAppleâ the technology company versus âappleâ the fruit.
What About The Knowledge Graph?
The Knowledge Graph launched in 2012 was a way that Google grew even smarter about connections between words. More important, that it learned how to search for âthings not strings,â as Google has described it.
Strings means searching just for strings of letters, such as pages that match the spelling of âObama.â Things means that instead, Google understands when someone searches for âObama,â they probably mean US President Barack Obama, an actual person with connections to other people, places and things.
The Knowledge Graph is a database of facts about things in the world and the relationships between them. Itâs why you can do a search like âwhen was the wife of obama bornâ and get an answer about Michele Obama as below, without ever using her name:
Howâs RankBrain Helping Refine Queries?
The methodsÂ Google already uses to refine queries generally all flow back to some human being somewhere doing work, either having created stemming lists, synonym lists or making database connections between things. Sure, thereâs some automation involved. But largely,Â it depends on human work.
The problem is that Google processes 3 billion searches per day. In 2007, Google said that 20-25% of those queries hadÂ never been seen before. In 2013, it brought that number down to 15%, which was used again in yesterdayâs Bloomberg article and which Google reconfirmed to us. But 15% of 3 billion is still a huge number of queries never entered by any human searcher â 450 million per day.
Among those can be complex, multi-word queries, also called âlong-tailâ queries. RankBrain is designed to help better interpret those queries and effectively translate them behind-the-scenes in a way to find the best pages for the searcher.
As Google told us, it can see patterns between seemingly unconnected complex searches to understand how theyâre actually similar to each other.Â This learning in turn allows it to better understand future complex searches and whether theyâre related to particular topics.Â Most important, from what Google told us, it can then associate these groups of searches with results that it thinks searchers will like the most.
Google didnât provide examples of groups of searches nor give details on how RankBrain guesses at what are the best pages. But the latter isÂ probably because if it can translate an ambiguous search into something moreÂ specific, it can then bring back better answers.
How About An Example?
While Google didnât give groups of searches, the Bloomberg article did have a single example of a search where RankBrain is supposedly helping. Here it is:
Whatâs the title of the consumer at the highest level of a food chain
To a layperson like myself, âconsumerâ sounds like a reference to someone who buys something. However, itâs also a scientific term for something that consumes food. There are also levels of consumers in a food chain. That consumer at the highest level? The title â the name â is âpredator.â
Entering that query into Google provides good answers even though the query itself sounds pretty odd:
Now consider how similar the results are for a search like âtop level of the food chain,â as shown below:
Imagine that RankBrain is connecting that original long and complicated queryÂ to this much shorter one, which is probably more commonly done. It understands that they are very similar. As a result, Google can leverage all it knows about getting answers for the more common query to help improve what it provides for the uncommon one.
Let me stress that I donât know that RankBrain is connecting these two searches. I only know that Google gave the first example. This is simply an illustration of how RankBrain my be used to connect an uncommon search to a common one as a way of improving things.
Can Bing Do This Too With RankNet?
Back in 2005, Microsoft starting using its own machine-learning system called RankNetÂ as part of what became its Bing search engine of today. In fact, the chief researcher and creator of RankNet was recently honored. But over the years, Microsoft has barely talked about RankNet.
You can bet that will likely change. Itâs also interesting thatÂ when I put the search above into Bing, given as an example of how great Googleâs RankBrain is, Bing gave me good results, including one listing that Google also returned:
One query doesnât mean that Bingâs RankNet is as good as Googleâs RankBrain or vice versa. Unfortunately, itâs really difficult to come up with a list to do this type of comparison.
Any More Examples?
Google did give us one fresh example: âHow many tablespoons in a cup?â Google said that RankBrain favored different results in Australia versus the United States for that query because the measurements in each country are different, despite the similar names.
I tried to test this by searching at Google.com versus Google Australia. I didnât see much difference, myself. Even without RankBrain, the results would often be different in this way just because of the âold fashionedâ means of favoring pages from known Australian sites for those searchers using Google Australia.
Does RankBrain Really Help?
Despite my two examples above being less than compelling as testimony to the greatness of RankBrain, I really do believe that it probably is making a big impact as Google is claiming. The company is fairly conservative with what goes into its ranking algorithm. It does small tests all the time. But it only launches big changes when it has a great degree of confidence.
Integrating RankBrain, to the degree that itâs supposedly the third most important signal, is a huge change. Itâs not one that I think Google would do unless it really believed it was helping.
When Did RankBrain Start?
Google told us that there was a gradual rollout of RankBrain in early 2015 and that itâs been fully live and global for a few months now.
What Many Queries Are Impacted?
Google told Bloomberg that a âvery large fractionâ of queries are being processed by RankBrain. We asked for a more specific figure but were given the same large fraction statement.
Is RankBrain Always Learning?
All learning that RankBrain does is offline, Google told us. Itâs given batches of historical searches and learns to make predictions from these.
Those predictions are tested and if proven good, then the latest version of RankBrain goes live. Then the learn-offline-and-test cycle is repeated.
Does RankBrain Do More Than Query Refinement?
Typically, how a query is refined â be it through stemming, synonyms or now RankBrain â has not been considered a ranking factor or signal.
Signals are typically factorsÂ that are tied to content, such as the words on a page, the links pointing at a page, whether a page is on a secure server and so on. They can also be tied to a user, such asÂ where a searcher is located at or their search and browsing history.
So when Google talks about RankBrain as the third-mostÂ important signal, does it really mean as a ranking signal? Yes. Google reconfirmed to us that there is a component where RankBrain is directly contributing somehow to whether a page ranks.
How exactly? Is there some type of âRankBrain scoreâ that might assess quality? Perhaps, but it seems much more likely that RankBrain is somehow helping Google better classify pages based on the content they contain. RankBrain might be able to better summarize what a page is about than Googleâs existing systems have done.
Or not. Google isnât saying anything other than thereâs a ranking component involved.
How Do I Learn More About RankBrain?
Google told us people who want to learn about word âvectorsâ â the way words and phrases can be mathematically connected â should check out this blog post, which talks about how the system (which wasnât named RankBrain in the post) learned the concept of capital cities of countries just by scanning news articles:
Thereâs a longer research paper this is based off of here. You can even play with your own machine learning project using Googleâs word2vec tool. In addition, Google has an entire area with its AI and machine learning papers, as does Microsoft.
Source: Search Engine Land
Google, Microsoft, Mozilla And Others Team Up To Launch WebAssembly, A New Binary Format For The Web
The idea is thatÂ WebAssembly will provide developers with a single compilation target for the web that will, eventually, become a web standard thatâs implemented in all browsers.
Mozillaâs asm.js has long aimed to bring near-native speeds to the web. GoogleâsÂ Native ClientÂ project for running native code in the browser had similar aims, but got relatively little traction. It looks like WebAssemly may be able to bring the best of these projects to the browser now.
As a first step, the WebAssembly team aims to offer about the same functionality as asm.js (and developers will be able to use the same Emscripten tool for WebAssembly as they use for compiling asm.js code today).
Itâs not often that we see all the major browser vendors work together on a project like this, so this is definitely something worth watching in the months and years ahead.
The massive iCloud hack that exposedÂ photos of female actressesÂ stored in their personal Apple accounts, has left manyâincluding myselfâscrambling to change their passwords.
Some speculated that the hack was due to a vulnerability in Appleâs Find My iPhone feature, with which hackers used a âbrute forceâ attack to guess the passwords on celebritiesâ accounts,Â The Next Web reported.
Apple has since denied those reports, instead claiming it was aÂ âvery targeted attackâÂ on usernames, passwords, and security questionsâthe keys to nearly any online account.
If celebrities can be attacked, so can you. So what can you do?
Understand The Cloud
Strong passwords are just one way Internet users can protect themselves from having their data stolen by malicious attackers. And photos arenât the only things we have to worry about. Everyone tut-tutting actresses for taking risquĂ© photos should think twice about where their personal data is stored. Oh, thatâs rightâit’s in the cloud, too.
The thing about âthe cloud,â is that no one really understands it. It’s a deliberately vague term for computer servers you access over the Internet.
Remember the scene fromÂ ZoolanderÂ when Owen Wilson’s character suddenly has an epiphany that âthe files areÂ inÂ the computerââand then tears open the machine looking for them? When it comes to the cloud, our understanding hasn’t improved much.
Even CNN doesnât know how to explain the cloud to viewers. It ran a story with the lower third âLeaked Nude Pics May Be From The Cloud.â
Cloud servers are like any computer: You can put files on them, and access them later. Since they’re on the cloud, you don’t have to have access to a physical device, or worry about how much space your laptop’s hard drive has, since cloud servers typically have far more space than our own personal machines do.
The tradeoff for this convenience is security. If you can access your files using a username and password, so can anyone else who gets ahold of your credentials. And you have to rely on those companies to implement smart versions of the latest security protocols.
Cloud storage service likes Dropbox, Box and Google Drive make it simple to save and share files. iCloud, Appleâs cloud storage, automatically backs up your information like photos and documents, in case your phone or laptop needs to be replaced.
We have a fundamental expectation of privacy and security when using these services, especially when a company is automatically backing up the information to its servers. But that expectation can fail us.
Find The Right Cloud Storage
Itâs hard to completely secure your cloud storage without jumping through a lot of hoops, which we’ll get to shortly. But the first step is figuring out where you want your documents to be stored.
Donât sign up for new cloud services without researching it. That includes reading the privacy policies of any company you agree to give your data to. Do they have encryption built in? Do they give your data to governments when requested? Do they control their own servers, or do they rent out servers from other companies? (Dropbox and Apple, for example, both use Amazon’s servers for a portion of their online services.)
If security is your top priority, you might consider services likeÂ SpiderOak, which automatically encrypts all your data and prevents even the company from knowing what youâre uploading. But that means giving up the ease of sharing files with friends through Dropbox or collaborating with colleagues using Google Drive.
For most of us, convenience usually wins out. You should at least know that you’re making that tradeoff, however.
Use Secure Passwords
According to Apple, the hackers targeted usernames, passwords and security questions, which are the first lines of defense for users.
Simply changing an âSâ to a â$â does not make your password secureâespecially if you recycle that password from site to site. Hackers attack less secure services and harvest usernames and passwordsâand then try them on other services.
Adding unique characters along with letters and numbers is smart, but so is using passwords that are hard, if not impossible, to guess. The best passwords are a collection of random letters, numbers and punctuation, without any words you’d find in the dictionary. And each online account should have a different, complex password.
Does that sound impossible to keep track of? It pretty much is, unless you get some computerized assistance. Password managers likeÂ 1PasswordÂ andLastPassÂ provide a way to save and manage passwords, and you can carry and access your data on multiple devices.
Enable Two-Step Verification
If someone is trying to illegally access your personal information from the cloud by using your password, you might not realize itâunless you have two-step verification enabled.
With two-step verification, itâs necessary for you to input two different pieces of data in order to access your personal information. Typically, that’s your password and a different code sent as a text or generated by an app on your mobile device. The code will change each time you log in.
Two-step verification can be frustrating and time-consuming, which is why many consumers elect to ignore it. But it saves you from having to clean up the potential mess a hacker could make with your credit card information or naked pictures stolen from the cloud.
Encrypt Your Files
If youâre not using a service that automatically encrypts your files, like SpiderOak orÂ Mega, you may want to encrypt them yourself.
Google, Dropbox and Microsoft donât offer file encryption as a built-in feature. While they may encrypt your transmissions between data centers, once you’re logged in, the files are available in unencrypted form. Most consumers donât request it, because it can be difficult to use, and encryption can be complicated for companies to enable,Â according to Wired.
Imagine Google Drive with no search capabilities, or Dropbox with no preview. None of those features would work with encrypted files, because theyâd be unreadable by Google and Dropboxâs server software. And if Google doesnât have the encryption keys it canât help you out if you lose a password.
BoxcrytorÂ andÂ ViivoÂ both offer DIY cloud encryption, which means you can encrypt all your files before uploading them to the cloud. These companies wonât have access to your secret keys to decrypt files, which means your data is safe from prying eyes that donât have access to your unique key.
Ultimately, we’ll need better forms of protection. Apple’s TouchID fingerprint sensor is an interesting example of authentication using biometrics, or physical aspects of our bodies. PayPal’s Braintree aims to detect fraud by looking at information about how we’re using our mobile phones at the time we make a transaction. Companies are using sophisticated behavioral modeling to detect hackers on their networks: Perhaps one day, we’ll be protected by similar technology that can tell through the way we tap on our phone’s keyboards or the time of day we access our devices that we are who we say we are.
Until then, we’re left changing our passwords, enabling two-factor verification, and hoping for the best.
Update, 8/1/14:Â According toÂ the recently passed CASL, purchased lists are illegal in Canada. While theyâre still technically legal in the US, theyâre at odds withÂ MailChimpâs acceptable use policy. Which means if you use them, we will shut down your account.
As a permission-based email service provider,Â MailChimpÂ doesnât allowÂ our users to sendÂ to purchased, rented, scraped, or stolen lists of email addresses. Why? Well, much likeÂ Lloyd Dobler, we donât want toÂ process anything sold or bought. Itâs annoying to the humans on the other end of those purchased lists who havenât asked to be part of your marketing.
But hereâs another reason to stay away from purchased lists: Theyâre as good as dead. When you send to one, itâs crickets out there.
Letâs go toÂ the historical training data fromÂ Omnivore,Â MailChimpâsÂ anti-abuse system.
IfÂ we look at campaign performance versus the percentage of a mailing list thatâs purchased or scraped,Â we find that positive engagement falls off a cliff as purchased correlation increases. Since most folks have to open an email to unsubscribe,Â unsubscribesÂ die off too. The only thing thatÂ doesÂ go up? Complaints.
Stick that in yourÂ boomboxÂ and blast it. (No offense, Peter Gabriel.)
Founded by Dropbox and MIT alums, a new startup calledÂ InboxÂ is launching out of stealth today, hoping to power the next generation of email applications. Similar to the newly launchedÂ Gmail API,Â Inbox offers a more modern way to build apps that access end usersâ inboxes. But instead of being limited to Gmail, it also works with Yahoo, Microsoft Exchange and others, the company says.
In addition, jabsÂ the companyâs website, âInboxÂ is an email company. Google is an advertising company. This product is our focus, and will not be âdiscontinuedâ unexpectedly.âBurn!
GoogleÂ made waves with theÂ announcementÂ of a new âGmail APIâ at its Google I/O developerÂ conference earlier this month, whichÂ offers developers who build email applicationsÂ newÂ tools toÂ access messages, threads, labels and other parts of the Gmail inbox withoutÂ requiring full inbox access. The idea is to reduce the reliance on older protocols, like IMAP,Â when apps donât have to work as an email client, but are rather focusing on a specificÂ feature set â like snoozing messages, or only sending emails on behalf of an end user, for example.
Similarly, the idea with Inbox is to offer an upgrade of sorts from the âarchaic protocols and formatsâ that developers would otherwise have to learn today in order to work with email. However, it supports a wider range of developers, from those who only need a simple feature to those who want to build full-fledged email clients for end users.
The company was co-founded by MIT alums Michael Grinich, previously an engineer atÂ Dropbox and designer Nest, and Christine Spang, an early Linux kernel engineer at Ksplice (acquired by Oracle). The core team at Inbox also includes several other MIT alums, plusÂ those with experience from Google and Firebase, as well as two graduates from the Parallel and Distributed Operating Systems group at MIT CSAIL, which spun out Meraki (acquired by Cisco).
âI actually wrote my thesis at MIT on email tools, and discovered how difficult it was to add features to email apps,â explains Grinich of how Inbox came to be. âOne big issue was the underlying plumbing â IMAP, MIME, character encodings, etc. â which is what Inbox fixes for developers.â
But the larger goal with Inbox is not just to offer a suite of developer tools, butÂ to create a new email standard. That means, Grinich says, the company has toÂ provide the fundamental infrastructure as an open source package.
âThe sync engine is available for free on GitHub, and we welcome discussion and pull requests,â he says. Currently the open source sync engine works with Gmail and Yahoo mail, with plans to expand soon to all IMAP providers. Meanwhile, enterprise users on Microsoft Exchange can request access to the Inbox Developer program, which supports ActiveSync, and is now in private beta.
Today, developers can download the Inbox engine, sync an account, andÂ begin buildingÂ on top of the platform in a local development environment.Â In the future, however, the company will release a hosted version of Inbox that will allow developers to create applications without needing to also scale their own infrastructures.
San Francisco-based Inbox is backed byÂ Fuel Capital, SV Angel,Â CrunchFund (disclosure: TechCrunchâs founder also founded CrunchFund), Data Collective, Betaworks, and others, but funding details are not disclosed.
One of Google’s primary goals is to spread its Android operating system to any device that you may touch, and that’s going to be a major theme this week atÂ Google’s I/O 2014 developer conference.Â Android Wear smartwatch development will be front and center. Android TVâa rumored entertainment service from Googleâmay make an appearance. Android is the prime delivery mechanism for Google’s advanced search product,Â Google Now.
Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer once infamously chanted “developers, developers, developers!” at a Microsoft event. (A developer event, naturally.) Google’s head of platforms Sundar Pichai might as well come on stage at I/O 2014 and chant, “Android, Android, ANDROID!”
If Android is central to Google’s overall mission, Android Intentsâa developer feature that lets Android apps interact with one anotherâis core to what makes Android unique. As mobile devices have proliferated,Â the basic infrastructure of how we access information on the Webânamely, websites connected by linksâis being supplanted by apps that frequently just don’t talk to one another well, if at all.
That change hasn’t been to Google’s liking, both because it cuts against its long-held mission of indexing the world’s information and because it undermines its core search-advertising business model.Â So it has quietly built out an infrastructure based on Intents that in some ways replicates the functionality of hyperlinks in the world of apps.
In fact, Google embedded Intents in Android at its inception.Â They’re easily overlooked, but if you want to get a sense of how our access to the world’s online information will evolve over the next few years, Intents are a pretty good place to start.
What Are Android Intents?
Android IntentsÂ are a developer-level technology let apps “shake hands” with one another to help a user complete an actionâopening a map, say, or sharing a photo. Unlike similar capabilities in Apple’s iOS and Windows Phone, Intents allow developers to easily create features that connect multiple apps together without having to build each integration separately. (They also make it possible for Android users to choose alternatives to various default apps such as the browser, the mapping application, or the interface theme.)
Example of Android Intents with Link Bubble browser
Intents is used by over 90 percent of Android apps in the Google Play app store. They allow developers to share data between apps without having to hard-code that behavior into the apps themselves. Intents live deep within Android and serve as a kind of plumbing system that shuttles all manner of media and other data into and out of apps in a consistent and universal way.
Have you ever clicked on a link or a video in an app in Android and had a screen pop up asking you which app you would like to use to complete that actions? For instance, if I clicked on a video in an email, a box pops up and asks, âComplete this action using âŠâ and then lists a series of apps such as YouTube or Chrome.
Thatâs what users experience from Intents. It’s less cumbersome than it might sound, as you can choose a default option and then never see the dialog box again unless you clear the default in settings. The important thing is that the system provides the choice in the first place.
For developers, Intents means that they donât need to get the cooperation of everyÂ otherÂ app maker in order to make a featureÂ work across apps. The Intents system includes a long list of actions it can complete; developers simply register a new app with the appropriate capabilities in the Intents system. If an action doesnât exist in the Intents directory, it’s possible to define it and build it into Intents so any other app developer can use it.
For the last several years, Android Intents was pretty much a unique developer feature. None of the other major mobile operating systems had anything quite like it.
Apple’s own home-grown apps could communicate with each other, but third-party apps were largely left out in the cold. Apple’s control over iOS gave consumers few options beyond Apple’s default apps. Microsoft’s Windows Phone also doesn’t have many developer hooks for cross-app communication and functionality, letting apps live in their own hubs and tiles on the home screen.
Android has never been the easiest operating system to develop onâoddly, the consensus among developers I have asked is that Windows Phone is the easiest on which to code. But Android-first developers and designers have embraced and evangelized features such as Intents asÂ important and unique aspects of the operating system. The fact that nine out of ten apps in the Google Play store have adopted Intents is a good indication of just how deeply ingrained they are in the Android app development experience.
Apple has belatedly recognized the value of letting apps communicate among themselves. One of the biggest new features in its forthcoming iOS 8 operating system is whatÂ Apple calls “extensibility.”Â This is a feature that allows apps to share data and communicate with each other despite being isolated in “sandboxes” for security.
One consequence of extensibility is that iOS apps will, for the first time, be able to receive and handle data that would normally be the province of a designated default appâsuch as, say, the iOS keyboard.Â If the popularity of Android Intents is any indication, extensibility is likely to be a big hit among iOS developers.
Cross-Linking For Android Apps
On the Web, the link is king. Site addresses in the form of uniform resource locators (URLs) have long been the standard for how users navigate the Web, clicking through from one page to another.
Smartphones and tablets are beginning to change that basic paradigm. On mobile devices, the app is kingâand that means URL-based links often just won’t work for many purposes. Google built Android Intents to offer an app-based alternative that offers something like the universal access to information we normally associate with the Web.
Android Intents may not even register in the mind of the average smartphone user.Â They are just bopping between apps, reading a Tweet and sharing a picture and reading an article and watching a video and sending an email. But the app-to-app sharing is taking place nonetheless.
One good example of Intents user interaction is seen in an app calledÂ Link Bubble, built by independent developer Chris Lacy out of Australia. Link Bubble is essentially a mobile browser, reimagined for the modern smartphone users.
Link Bubble essentially “grabs” links that users click in various apps. Instead of then opening a browser and forcing the user to wait while a page loads, it loads pages in the background, showing the link as a bubbleâsomething like a Facebook Messenger chat headâright there on top of the app user interface.
Users can tab on a bubble to expand it immediately, or share the link by flicking it across the screen (to the right for Facebook, to the left for the read-it-later app Pocket, for instance).
Link Bubble will also automatically open apps from links you click on in other apps. For instance, if you click an Instagram photo on Twitter, normally youâd be redirected to the Instagram website before going into the Instagram app itself. With Link Bubble, youâd click from Twitter and be taken straight to the Instagram Android app.
The ReadWrite team will be at Google I/O this week, bringing you all the news and analysis that you will need from Google’s biggest week of the year.
Dropbox now has 275 million users, most of them consumers who use the service to store their personal files and images. But itâs precisely its popularity at home that could help Dropbox at work, as the company pushes out its latest Dropbox for Business update on Wednesday.
All Work And All Play
Last November, Dropbox announced some long-awaitedÂ updates to Dropbox for Business. The most crucial one was a tweak to Dropbox’s familiar, simple interface: In place of the single desktop file folder labeled âDropbox,â business users would find two folders, one labeled âPersonalâ and one named after their employer.
Those updates are now live. Dropbox users whose workplace has paid for the service can share pictures, videos, documents and other files, switching between work and personal files without having to juggle two accounts. At the same time, their employers can manage their work files without touching their personal files.
In the past, Dropbox customers had toÂ switch accounts, use kludges like Chrome’sÂ incognito browsing mode, or just mix together personal and business files. While it seems obvious that people might want to share all kinds of files with Dropbox, accommodating this scenario was actually quite a technical problem for the company. It required a full-scale rebuild, according to Ilya Fushman, head of Dropbox for Business.
That rebuild frees up Dropbox to build new features, while keeping most of the simplicity Dropbox is known for. In the place of one folder for all your files, there are now two.
Its rollout comes at a critical time. While Dropbox retails storage services to consumers and businesses, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft are slashing prices for wholesale storage. In the short term, this seems like it should be good for Dropbox, dropping the price it must payÂ AmazonÂ and other service providers for storage and bandwidth. In the long run, though, it seems inevitable that those savings will get passed on to consumers, challenging Dropbox’s pricing.
Box, a Dropbox competitor who recently filed to go public, isÂ emphasizing its collaboration features and industry-specific appsÂ built on its platform. Meanwhile, Google and Microsoft have their own Dropbox competitors, Google Drive and OneDrive, which they are weaving closely into their own suites of online apps.
Dropbox’s account-linking strategy takes full advantage of its biggest assetâits 275 million users, whose ubiquity is a big reason why it’s worked its way into businesses in the first place. People use the tool theyâre familiar with in the workplace, and when they need to share with contractors, partners, or other outsiders, the odds are good that they, too, have a Dropbox account.
All those consumer accountsâmost of them freeâstill have value for Dropbox. They are word-of-mouth marketing for the brand and built-in leads for its salesforce. Thatâs why Dropbox is a prime example of how a consumer-friendly tool can work its way into businesses.
Still, some workplaces ban Dropbox, fear that files will leak out through it. Can Dropbox find its way into these locked-down environments with complex security requirements?
It already has in some cases. Here are some of the features Dropbox has rolled out, in the hope of getting a slice of the IT budgets currently going to giants like IBM and Microsoft:
- Remote wipe:Â Systems administrators can automatically wipe a business account if they think the account may be compromisedâjust the business files, leaving personal files untouched.
- Downloadable audit logs:Â Customers can have more visibility into who is sharing which documents. Those logs can then be put into an analytics system like Splunk for deeper probing.
- Account transfer:Â Turnover is a fact of business. Account transferâa feature already seen in Google Driveâmoves files from an ex-employee to a current employee.
Even with these new features, Dropbox faces an uphill battle in courting businesses against Box and Microsoft, which have more feet on the street calling on large businesses.
Microsoft is the real power when it comes to documents, thanks to its Office suite, where so many work documents begin. Office is increasingly tied into OneDrive, the companyâs file-sharing and -storage service.
It seems unlikely that Dropbox will hire a large army of salespeople to respond. It still hasÂ more jobs listed for engineers than for salespeopleâand its sales openings include titles likeÂ âsales engineerâÂ and “solutions architect.âÂ While others sell, sell, sell their products, the updates to Dropbox for Business represents a bet that the company can engineer its way to customersâÂ heartsâat home, and at the office.
Really terrible Photoshop, for which he apologizes, by Owen Thomas for ReadWrite