Coming Soon to Chrome: Faster 3D Graphics for Slower Computers


Chrome 17 just launched yesterday, but today, the development team announced the next beta of Chrome. This new beta includes improved support for hardware-accelerated 2D graphics using Canvas, as well as the promise of better 3D performance for users on older operating systems like Windows XP.

Better 3D for Slower Machines

To enable better 3D performance on older machines and graphics card that can't make user of modern technologies like WebGL, Google has licensed TransGaming's SwiftShader software rasterizer. This is basically a piece of software that emulates a graphics card to render 3D images. TransGaming advertises SwiftShader as being "100 times faster than traditional software renderers such as Microsoft's Direct3D® Reference Rasterizer." Google will automatically enable SwiftShader for beta users whose computers can't run content on their graphics cards.

Tweaking Chrome's 2D GPU Hardware Acceleration

By using hardware acceleration for 2D Canvas elements on a page, Google can bring some significant speed improvements to users with more capable machines as well. Chrome has long featured some forms of hardware acceleration, but mostly in experimental form. Whether they know it or not, most Chrome users at this point already use their graphics card to draw 2D Canvas elements, but in this latest beta, the Chrome team has tweaked the code to the point where it apparently felt it needed to announce this change as it could actually break things.

Here is a nice little demo that uses 2D Canvas if you want to see it in action.

If you are currently using the stable release channel and feel like you could use a bit more adventure in your life, you can join the Chrome beta channel here. As always, keep in mind that this is beta software and could crash at any time (though Chrome's beta releases are generally very stable).

12:33 pm

Mozilla Launches Firefox 11 Beta with Add-on Sync, SPDY Support and a 3D Page Inspector


Just a few days after the official launch of Firefox 10, Mozilla today also announced the latest Firefox beta for version 11 of the groups' popular browser. Most of the new features in this beta are geared toward developers, including a 3D debugging tool and a new style editor. For regular users, this beta features add-on sync, which lets you sync your installed add-ons between different machines, as well as an updated migration tool which now also features support for switching from Chrome. The Firefox 11 beta now also supports the SPDY protocol, which was designed as the successor to the ubiquitous HTTP and which can significantly speed up page load times.

SPDY, which was conceived by Google, uses a number of techniques to speed up the file transfer between a server and your browser (including by using fewer connections and downloading images in parallel, for example). Most of Google's sites already support SPDY (as does Google Chrome) and the number of sites and services that utilize this new protocol continues to grow quickly.

Note: as usual, please keep in mind that this is a beta version. It's pretty stable at this point, but don't be upset if it crashes.

3D Page Inspector

It's not often that we talk about tools for web developers that utilize 3D (WebGL, in this case), but Mozilla now lets you zoom around any website in a 3D tilt mode that makes it easier to discover elements that are hidden or off the page.

Page inspector 3d

Less visual, but nevertheless a welcome addition to Firefox's toolkit is the new Style Editor. With this tool, developers can now easily experiment with chances to a page's CSS stylesheet and see these reflected on the screen immediately. Google offers a similar feature for Chrome as well.


3:10 pm

MS Office 15: Public Beta is Coming this Summer, Will Include Updated Cloud Apps


Microsoft today announced that it has started a private “technical preview” of the latest version of its flagship Microsoft Office 15 productivity suite. Currently, this preview version is tested by a number of Microsoft customers under a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). Despite the NDA, though, chances are we will soon see screenshots and other information about Office 15, but for the time being, Microsoft itself is very quiet about the new version’s features. Come this summer, though, the company plans to launch a public beta that will likely be open to anybody who wants to give the new version a try.

According to Microsoft, “Office 15 is the most ambitious undertaking yet for the Office Division.” For the first time ever, says PJ Hough, the CVP of development in the MS Office Division, Microsoft will “simultaneously update our cloud services, servers, and mobile and PC clients for Office, Office 365, Exchange, SharePoint, Lync, Project, and Visio.” This means that the Office web apps, which are becoming an increasingly important part of Microsoft’s overall productivity suite, will likely be updated in concert with Office 15 and that, as the Next Web’s Alex Wilhelm notes, “Microsoft is working to roll cloud features into every copy of its newest suite.” Currently, only a subset of Office apps features some form of cloud integration.

9:43 am

Want to Join Our Private Beta? Pay Up


A small but growing group of startups now makes its beta testers pay to join their private betas.

“Paid beta” used to be a derogatory term for software that was shipped too early and with too many bugs. Now, however, companies like Mightybell and Cabana have decided to use small payments as a way to keep their beta programs small and focused.

If you are anything like me, you probably sign up for a few private betas per day, but would you pay to join a beta program?

Paid Betas

cabana_paidWhen social goal-setting service Mightybell launched, the team there decided to go with a very small fee for joining the beta: $1. Cabana, which wants to make building iOS apps a drag and drop affair, charges between $15 and $25, depending on whether you fill out a survey at the end of the check-out process.

Other projects, most notably the cult game Minecraft, are giving their early users access to their alphas and betas for slowly increasing prices as the project slowly comes to fruition. Indeed, in the gaming industry, beta access in return for pre-purchasing a game is relatively common. Those projects, however, then also give their early testers full access to the release version, while Mightybell and Cabana still plan to charge their users a subscription fee (or may end up releasing their services for free) once they have launched.

Why Cabama Charges for Beta Access

Here is Cabana’s reasoning behind charging a fee: [list]

  1. Business Validation– One of the most important things for a startup like ours to prove is that people are willing to open their wallets and pay for the services we provide.  This paid beta will help us validate that people are willing to pay at least a small fee for Cabana.
  2. Prioritize Early Users– We know some of people who have requested invitations are very excited to start playing with Cabana right away, while others just want to look around a bit.  As we continue to shape the Cabana experience we want to make sure we let the most active users in first.  This fee, while small, will help us prioritize active early users over more casual users.
  3. Better Support– We want to make sure we can properly scale to support any new users who join Cabana.  By limiting our flow of new users we can better ensure we’re not overwhelmed and can provide a great experience to all new users.
  4. Revenue – The beta fee is not going to, nor is it intended to, generate significant revenue, but as a young company all revenue is good revenue, and it will be a starting point to build upon. [/list]

No doubt, the Cabana team makes some good points here, Putting a monetary value on joining a beta will keep drive-by testers out, allow the company to support its early users and generate some revenue. Others, however, would argue that betas should be free so that as many users as possible will register and test the system.

It also makes sense for services that plan to charge for the final product to charge for the beta – that way, early users don’t expect a free ride all the way (Mightybell has made that argument).

Would You Pay?

Personally, I’m not a huge fan of paid betas. I’d rather test the service before I pay, but these paid betas don’t even offer a trail period. Even a token amount will keep many potential testers out (and won’t make you any money anyway) and change the expectations of these users (“Hey, I paid for this. Why doesn’t it work?”).

Image credit: Andrew Magill

5:21 pm

Browser Version Numbers Are Now Irrelevant – And That’s a Good Thing


Mozilla is getting ready to officially launch Firefox 6 tomorrow. That’s less than two months after the release of Firefox 5 and not even half a year since the launch of Firefox 4. Indeed, there is now some talk in the Firefox community to get rid of version numbersin the user interface altogether. That’s not a bad idea. Users really shouldn’t have to worry about which version of a given browser they are running and those version numbers have now become mostly irrelevant anyway.

Google Chrome is now at versions 13, 14 and 15, depending which channel you are using (stable, beta, dev). I’m currently running Chrome version 14.0.825.0 dev and the Nightly version of Firefox (8.0a1). To be honest, even though I follow this business pretty closely, I have no idea how those versions are different from Chrome 13 and FF 7.

Both Mozilla and Google are using a rapid release cycle schedule to push out new versions on a set schedule. Instead of waiting for every major feature to be ready, new features are pushed out whenever they are ready. Opera and Microsoft are still using a more traditional release schedules, but even Opera now features a developer channel (Opera Next) to push out betas quickly and I wouldn’t be surprised if even Microsoft would switch to a more agile release schedule after Internet Explorer 10 (though its strong presence in the enterprise may make this impossible).

You Shouldn’t Have to Care About Browser Versions

At this point, there is no good reason why an average user should have to worry about keeping a browser up to date and given the current version number inflation, these numbers have completely lost their meaning anyway.

While large enterprises may hate this, as they like to have exact control over what runs on their users’ desktops, users can only profit from the rapid advancement in browser technology. There really isn’t any good reason why your average mainstream user should have to worry about which browser version is  installed on a given machine. Both Chrome and Firefox already push out updates as needed – though Firefox still pops up a dialog when a new version is ready while Google just installs it in the background.

I can’t remember a new browser version really breaking anything on the Internet these days – though I gather the moment I type this, I will get some email about banking sites that still won’t run unless you use Internet Explorer 7. New version tend to add more stuff but rarely deprecate an old feature. Except for developers, users don’t have to really worry about that. If a website makes use of these new features, that’s a good thing – and it can only help developers if more users are able to make use of these advanced features.

One Exception: Major Interface Changes

From a user’s perspective, all those changes that happen behind the scene and keep them secure on the net or speed up the browser are mostly irrelevant anyway. The only time most mainstream users care about a major update is when the user interface changes. For the large segment of users who actually have to invest time into learning how to use a browser, that is indeed an issue developers have to think about and that would call for a pause in the automatic update procedure.


11:29 pm

Apple is Not Disabling Non-Developer Devices with iOS 5. Here’s What’s Really Happening


Rumor: Apple is disabling non-developers iDevices running iOS5 beta versions. Truth: iOS 5 beta 1 and 2 expired last night – disabling those devices until they are upgraded.

Last night at 6pm PT, my decidedly non-developer iPhone running the iOS 5 beta 1 suddenly reset and went back into the activation mode, but wouldn’t allow me to set it up again. Once plugged into iTunes, my computer told me that the operating system on my phone was outdated and needed to be updated. That’s what I did, then restored from backup and things went back to normal (after a few tense moments during which I thought my phone had indeed become a very expensive paperweight).

What Really Happened: The Early iOS 5 Betas Expired Last Night

Fast forward to today and suddenly lots of rumors are flying around (and getting re-reported without much extra thought) that Apple is supposedly cracking down on those folks who are running non-developer devices running the iOS 5 betas. That’s simply not the case. What’s simply happening here is that the early beta versions of iOS 5 expired last night. There is nothing more nefarious going on here than that.

As I reported early this year, though, no other beta version of iOS was ever as widely installed as this one, as rogue activation services now make it very easy for anybody to get a phone’s (or iPod touch’s) UDID activated by a developer who wants to make some extra money.

That’s exactly what happened here as well. Chances are that most of the devices that reset yesterday were owned by users who paid between $5 and $10 to one of these developers (Apple gives 100 activation slots to every registered developer). Those users – just like me – were also less likely to install any of the subsequent beta versions on their phones. After all, you can never be quite sure if Apple didn’t figure out what was going on and kill those developers’ accounts, leaving you with the hassle of downgrading your phone.

How to Reactivate a “Bricked” iOS 5 Beta Phone

Now, if you installed iOS 5 using the trick that quickly made the rounds just after the release of the first beta and completely bypassed the UDID activation service, you are likely out of luck. You will have to put your phone into DFU mode and downgrade to iOS 4 again. Otherwise, just download the iOS 5 beta 3 or 4, restore your phone with it and you’ll be good to go (assuming Apple didn’t deactivate the account of the friendly developer who sold you your activation – in that case, just downgrade to iOS 4 as well).

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10:02 pm

iOS 5 Beta: So Widely Available Already, Users Leave Negative iTunes Reviews When Apps Crash


The first developer-only beta version of iOS 5 has only been out for about a week, but it’s already clear that no other pre-release version of iOS has ever seen a wider release beyond the developer community than this one. It’s hard to pinpoint why this is the case, but there are clearly enough users who either paid $99 per year to become part of Apple’s developer program or who paid a rogue activation service a few dollars to get access to the beta that way. As iOS developer Malcom Barclay notes, this wide release has some interesting consequences for developers: some users are now leaving negative iTunes reviews for apps that don’t work on iOS 5 yet.

Ios 5 crashed please fix

Will Apple Crack Down on Fake Developer Accounts and Activation Resellers?

Few companies keep their betas under tighter wraps than Apple and the $99 developer fee has generally kept regular users from just installing a beta out of curiosity. Now, however, the rogue beta activation market continues to grow and even a $99 fee isn’t much of a deterrent anymore for those who really want to get the latest and greatest from Apple a few weeks early. Sadly, it seems some of these users don’t understand the meaning of the word ‘beta’ anymore.

It will be interesting to see if Apple will try to crack down on rogue installs when it’s ready to test the next major version of iOS. There’s little the company can do about those who want to pay $99, but we may see higher fees for developers who want to activate additional UDIDs (currently, every developer account comes with 100 additional activations for beta tests – a loophole that resellers then exploit).

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10:51 pm

Internet Explorer 9 RC: 2 Million Downloads in 6 Days


Even though some argue that Internet Explorer 9 is about two years late, there is clearly still a lot of interest in Microsoft’s newest browser. Since its launch on February 10, the release candidate of IE9 has been downloaded 2 million times. This number only includes user-initiated downloads, as Microsoft has not pushed automatic updates to current IE9 beta users.

It’s worth noting that the IE9 beta saw 2 million downloads within the first two days after it launched. The difference here, though, is that the first beta also marked the first time Microsoft showed the IE9 interface to the public. Many users likely just downloaded it just to see what the new interface looked like. The beta release was also heavily covered in mainstream media outlets.

One of the reasons to be interested in the IE9 release candidate is the fact that this the first version of IE9 to include Microsoft’s interpretation of a “do not track” feature. This allows Internet users to tell online advertisers and search engines that they want to opt out of behavioral tracking. Mozilla and Google have also launched their own versions of this feature in the last few weeks. For the time being, though, none of these systems are compatible with each other.

10:49 am

New Firefox Beta Makes Opting Out of Ad Tracking Easy (Once Advertisers Actually Support It)


The latest beta version of Firefox 4 introduces lots of bug fixes and other improvements, but most importantly, it introduces Mozilla’s new opt-out mechanism for ad tracking. What this feature does is add a message to the commands your browser send to the web server when it requests pages that lets the server know that users do not want to be tracked.

Mozilla hopes to turn its system into a web-wide standard for those users who would prefer not to be tracked by advertisers. As of now, this is only a test, however, and as far as we know, no advertisers have agreed to adhere to this system yet. Given this, Mozilla notes that “you won’t notice any difference in your browsing until sites and advertisers agree to respond to your preference.”

Advanced firefox don t track

To turn this feature on, head for the “Advanced” tab in your Firefox preferences and look for the “Tell web sites I do not want to be tracked” option. The feature is strictly opt-in and hence turned off by default.

Last month, Google made a similar move by launching a do-not-track plugin for Chrome. For now, Google has not made this a default feature, though. Thanks to Google’s strong position in the advertising world, however, its mechanism already allows you to opt out of being tracked by over 50 different online advertising companies.

2:01 pm