SiliconFilter

For Qualcomm, Making Mobile Browsing Better Starts at the Chip Level

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When it comes to browser performance, we tend to talk a lot about what browser developers like Microsoft, Google and Mozilla can do to render web pages faster and make complex web apps like Gmail run smoother. Especially in the mobile world, though, there is a level of optimization that's happening at the level of the actual chips that are responsible for making your phone or tablet tick. That optimization is happening both in the design of the chips, as well as how the operating system talks to them. Yesterday, at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, I had a chance to sit down with Sy Choudhury, who leads Qualcomm’s Web Technologies initiative. For the most part, our chat focused on what chip makers can do to improve the mobile browsing experience, as well as the increasing importance of HTML5 in the mobile world (HTML5, at its core, is a set of technologies that allow developers to create highly-interactive web applications that look and feel just like regular desktop software).

Qualcomm, which is mostly known for producing the processors and chipsets that run a larger percentage of the world's mobile phone, is working together closely with both the Android and Chrome teams at Google to make your browsing experience on your mobile phone or tablet better. The company, of course, is also working together with other vendors, including Microsoft, but most of the optimization work is currently being done on the Android platform.

The difference between an optimized version of Android and the reference version from Google can often be quite dramatic. In Qualcomm's tests, for example, web pages render 20-30% faster in the optimized version and JavaScript programs are executed 70% faster. Qualcomm also optimized its processors to decode pictures faster, which leads to about a 25% improvement in rendering speed for JPEG images.

As Choudhury told me, this optimization happens at virtually all of the levels of the experience, most of which most users never think about. This ranges from how the browser talks to the network, to how it uses your phone's graphics hardware to make sure video plays without stuttering and all the way up to how your browser interprets JavaScript, the language most complex web pages today are written in.

Qualcomm browser web speed html5

Qualcomm is showing a number of impressive demos at the Mobile World Congress this week to demonstrate this work, including an Instagram-like photo-sharing application that lives in the browser. In another demo, the company is showing the difference between an HTML5-based game that has access to the graphics card and one that doesn't. Unsurprisingly, the one that doesn't use the tablet's graphics hardware directly features mediocre performance while the other runs just as smooth as a native app.

With Great Power Comes Worse Power Consumption

All this power, though, always comes with a trade-off – and more often than not, that trade-off is power consumption. For companies like Qualcomm and its partners, finding the right balance between those two poles isn't always easy. According to Choudhury, though, small tweaks can often make a big difference. Qualcomm, for example, changed how often the network chip shuts down when it is not in use and just a small change like this can lead to power savings of close to 7% under some circumstances.

Who Needs Apps When The Browser Can Do All Of This?

Qualcomm, of course, is also a member of the Core Mobile Web Platform Group Facebook announced at the Mobile World Congress earlier this week. In Choudhury's view, now that websites can access your phone's camera, display videos and render even games without the need for Flash and do so smoothly and without the user ever really having to think about what technology an app uses, there is almost no need for native apps anymore.

Qualcomm’s Web Technologies initiative
 


7:30 am


The Future According to Eric Schmidt

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Google’s chairman Eric Schmidt took the stage at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this afternoon to talk about the role of technology in the “world we live in today” and how it will shape the societies of the future. Schmidt, for example, noted that the number of people who use smartphones is still very small, but “think how amazing the web is today with just 2 billion people” and what will happen when another 5 billion get online.

The Future According to Eric Schmidt

In Schmidt’s vision, societies will be split into three strata in the future and will be divided by how they use technology and how much access to it they have.

The privileged few, the hyper-connected, are likely to face a future that will only be limited by what technology can do. They will have access to unlimited processing power and high-speed networks in most major cities.

In Schmidt’s vision, this group will soon be represented by robots at multiple events at the same time while sitting in your office. For them, technologies that once looked like science fiction, will soon be available. Driverless cars, for example, will soon reduce accidents. At the same time, though, technology will actually become much easier to use and ideally just disappear.

Besides these high-connected folks, though, another group, which will also be well-connected but less so than the first group, will form the new global middle class in Schmidt’s future. This group, though, will use cheaper technologies for its work – though its members will focus less on building new services and products – and maybe use simpler technologies for telepresence, but still use technology effectively to do their jobs. This group, in Schmidt’s view, will also be made up of more sophisticated consumers and those who will be smart about using the Internet to organize politically.

A third group, though, will have no or only limited access to the Internet. This “aspiring majority,” as Schmidt calls them, will likely have some form of access to technology, but it will look different from what we expect today. Maybe, though, they will use mesh networks to create local networks that isn’t even connected to the wider Internet. For Schmidt, it seems, mesh networks represent the easiest and cheapest way to get these underprivileged users at least partly online.

What this will make possible, too, is for these users to share their experiences with the rest of the world, whether that’s a political uprising or a famine.

There will, however, in Schmidt’s view, still be elites and this digital divide will likely exist for quite a while. Technology, however will enable “the weak to get stronger and those with nothing will have something.”

Technologists will have to act now, though, to ensure that everybody will be able to participate in this future where everybody will be connected.

Ice Cream Sandwich and Chrome for Android

Very little about today’s keynote was focused on specific technologies, with the exception of Chrome for Android and the latest version of Android.

Talking about Ice Cream Sandwich, the most recent version of Android, Schmidt noted that he thought Google finally got the user interface right ‘for a global audience’ and stressed that most reviewers agreed with him. Implicit in this, of course, is an acknowledgement that earlier versions of Android weren’t quite as polished.

Schmidt was joined on stage by Hugo Barra of the Android development team at Google. Barra provided a demo of Chrome for Android, the mobile version of Chrome the company announced a few weeks ago. Schmidt used this opportunity to take a brief jab at other mobile operating system by calling Android “a real mobile operating system.” Barra demoed a number of the browser’s top features, including pre-loading, link preview, syncing between mobile and desktop, as well as the fact that Chrome doesn’t limit how many tabs you can have open at the same time.

 



10:14 am


Dartium: Google’s New Dart Programming Language Comes to Chromium

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It's only been a few months since Google announced its new Dart programming language. While the language is still going through some major revisions, though, Chromium, the open-source project behind Google's Chrome browser, is now starting to integrate Dart into its platform with the release of "Dartium" version of the browser for Mac and Linux.  It will likely take a while before Dart finds its way into mainstream Chrome releases, but the team also today announced that the long-term plan is to include the Dart virtual machine in Chrome.

While Google also offers the ability to compile Dart programs to JavaScript, which is supported in every modern browser, a native virtual machine makes executing applications written in Dart faster.

Google designed Dart to be a flexible programming language for the web that would be fast, easy to learn for programmers and work across all major modern browsers. There has been quite some interest for Dart in the developer community, though the language is obviously still too immature to be used in a production environment. Other browser developers, who are worried about fragmentation and adding support for yet another language to their software, haven't shown a lot of interest in adding support for Dart.

 

 



9:55 am


Google Wants to Make Chrome’s Spell Checker Smarter

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Google makes extensive use of auto-correction in its search engine and often automatically displays results for the auto-corrected words when its algorithm is reasonably sure that it understands what your really meant to write. In Chrome, however, the built-in spell checker is not very smart and often displays non-sensical suggestions (or provides no suggestions at all). The latest developer version of Chrome, however, can now make use of Google's server-based spell checker, which greatly improves Chrome's default spelling suggestions.

Given that Google has to send data from your browser to its servers, this is an opt-in service.

If you are using the developer channel of Chrome, you will now see the option to "ask Google for suggestions" when you right-click on a misspelled word. Once this feature is turned on, Chrome will automatically go out and retrieve suggestions from Google's servers. This means that you sometimes have to wait a second before the right word appears.

In our tests, though, the suggestions coming from Google's online spelling service were generally better than those from Chrome's built-in spell checker. In many cases, for example, Chrome now actually showed suggestions for words that stumped the built-in spell checker.

Sending All Your Misspelled Words to Google

Depending on how worried you are about your privacy, this may obviously not be a feature for you. All your misspelled words, after all, will be send to Google's servers. Google's privacy page for Chrome doesn't currently explain how Google handles this data (likely because it's only in the developer version right now).

To install the developer version of Chrome, head over here and look for the right version for your operating system.



4:35 pm


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

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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


Adobe Puts Flash for Firefox in a Sandbox

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Love it or hate it, but Adobe's Flash plugin is likely one of the world's most widely distributed pieces of software. Given its popularity, it doesn't come as a surprise that Flash is also popular with hackers, who do their best to exploit flaws in it. Chrome and Internet Explorer 7+ users can already rest assured that hackers can't use Flash to compromise their browser, as the plugin runs in a sandboxed mode on Google's and Microsoft's browsers. Soon, Firefox users will get access to the same technology, as Adobe today announced the first public beta of its new Flash Player sandbox for Firefox.

With this new version of the Flash Player, Adobe is following the same playbook it used for making the Adobe Reader safer by implementing a sandbox and protected mode. Since the launch of Adobe Reader X, the company notes, there hasn't been a single successful exploit against it in the wild. According to Peleus Uhley, a senior security researcher within the Secure Software Engineering team at Adobe, Flash's "sandboxed process is restricted with the same job limits and privilege restrictions as the Adobe Reader Protected Mode implementation."

It's worth noting that it has taken Adobe and Mozilla quite a while to bring this sandboxed version of Flash to market. Internet Explorer 7, after all, has had the privilege of running Flash in Vista's and Windows 7's Protected Mode since 2006.

For now, the beta only works for Firefox 4 and later and on Windows Vista and Windows 7. You can download the beta here.



2:59 pm


German Government: Use Chrome if You Want to Stay Safe Online

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Google's Chrome browser had its worst month on record in January, thanks to being demoted in Google's own search results for breaking Google's own online marketing rules. Today, the Chrome team has something to celebrate, though: Germany's Federal Office for Information Security (the Bundesamt für Sicherheit in der Informationstechnik, or BSI) just announced that it is recommending Chrome as the safest browser on the market right now, especially thanks to its sandboxing and auto-update features.

The BSI is making this recommendation ahead of Europe's "Safer Internet Day" on February 7th.

Other Recommendations:

In addition to Chrome, which is the only browser the agency recommends, the BSI also recommends a number of other security products, including Microsoft's own anti-virus software Microsoft Security Essentials, Avira Free Antivirus and avast! Free Antivirus. The BSI also recommends the use of OpenDNS Family Shield to keeps kids safe online and TrueCrypt for encrypting your data.

The agency also recommends Gmail, as it offers encrypted access to your email, even in the free version.



8:26 am


Chrome Gets Prettier With Redesigned App Store and New Tab Page

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Google today updated the stable version of Chrome and introduced its redesigned New Tab page to those mainstream users who are not using the more cutting-edge release channels Google offers for its browser. In addition, Google also launched a redesigned app store for Chrome, which now features large images instead of the small icons that previously dominated the homepage.

New New Tab Page

The new New Tab page doesn’t come as a surprise to those who have been using Google’s Beta, Dev or Canary builds over the last few weeks. Whenever you open a new tab now, Google will show you thumbnails of your most often visited sites. You can also navigate to your apps from there as well. It’s worth noting that the early release channels of Chrome also feature a bookmark tab on the New Tab pages (though it isn’t functional right now). The New Tab page also allows you to reopen tabs you recently closed.

Redesigned Chrome Web Store

As for the Chrome Web Store, the changes are quite dramatic. The earlier version was a jumble of icons, ratings and different categories (you can still see it if you visit the site with Internet Explorer, Opera or Firefox). This new version is basically one large wall of images. As you scroll over the images, the thumnails flip over and a description of the app appears.

Discoverability in app stores has long been a major problem for developers and it remains to be seen if this new version of the Chrome Web Store will make things easier for developers. At first glance, it would seem the new layout will reward those apps that have flashy logos and screenshots, as the homepages for the various categories look like they are curated by Google.

Chrome Web Store

Chrome Web Store new feedly



5:19 pm


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

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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


Mustachio: The One Chrome Extension You Need to Install Today

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It’s Friday, a traditionally slow day for tech news, so here is something fun to do while you are waiting for the next Apple rumor to appear (and be promptly debunked): install the Mustachio Chrome extension. Once installed, this plugin will use face recognition software to overlay a mustache onto any face it detects. What more do you need to make your Friday afternoon go by faster?

mel-Gibson_mustache

Mel Gibson - Mustatchiofied

It looks like the mustachio servers are getting slammed right now, so it sometimes takes a bit for the mustaches to show up, but that’s a small price to pay for a fully mustachiofied website. The face recognition software, by the way, is powered by Face.com and the extension was developed by U.K. media technology company Forward. If you are interested in seeing the source code, you can find it here on Github.



9:03 pm


Amazon Launches HTML5-Based Kindle Cloud Reader to Sidestep Apple’s Rules

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Amazon launched Cloud Reader today, a browser-based eReading application that allows it to work around Apple’s rules for in-app purchases and subscriptions.

Apple has set strict rules for how vendors can use its platform to enable in-app sales and subscriptions. To work around these rules, Amazon and many other e-book vendors recently removed links to their websites from their native iOS apps, allowing them to skirt some of Apple’s rules and avoid paying extra fees to Apple. This, however, also degrades the user experience significantly. Thanks to Apple’s rules, though, we are now also seeing even more development efforts around HTML5-based web apps for offline reading of books, newspapers and magazines. As these apps run in the browsers, they don’t have to follow Apple’s rules and don’t have to go through the App Store approval process.

The Financial Times, for example, decided not to give Apple 30% of the money it makes from in-app subscriptions and launched an HTML5 app instead. Today, Amazon joined the fray by launching Cloud Reader, a web-based e-book reader that can also be used offline thanks to HTML5’s built-in caching mechanism. Cloud Reader works in Safari and Chrome, but not in Firefox. It looks especially good on the iPad, but doesn’t work on the iPhone (yet).

cloud_reader_large

HTML5 vs. Native Apps

Cloud Reader is, without doubt, one of the finest examples of how a well-designed HTML5 app can easily compete with a native app. The fact that the focus here is on text, of course, helps, as an e-reader doesn’t need fancy animations to work well. The app does, however, feature some nice animations here and there and, most importantly, offers deep integration with Amazon’s Kindle store, something that is still missing from the company’s native apps.

Among the few things that don’t work in the web app are swipe gestures (to skip pages, you can only click on the edge of the screen), but otherwise, every feature you would expect from a Kindle app is here. Once you add a bookmark to the app to your iPad homescreen, you wouldn’t even know that you’re not using a native app if it wasn’t for the slower response time when you skip pages.

Right Now, Mostly Developed for iPad – Coming to Other Devices Soon

In the long run, Amazon will likely bring Cloud Reader to other platforms as well. Right now, it seems specifically targeted at iPad users, but the beauty of a web app is that it could allow developers to bring the same service to virtually every web-capable device.

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3:28 pm



Google Instant Pages: How it Works and How You Can Use it Today

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Google announced a number of new features to its search products earlier this morning, but the one announcement that really stood out was the launch of Google Instant Pages. With Instant Pages, Google will prerender pages it is highly confident you will click on when you see a search results page. Typically, this will be the first result on the page. This, according to the company’s data, will save users between 2 and 5 seconds per query as pages will render “within the blink of an eye.”

How it Works

With Instant Pages, Google doesn’t just preload the HTML of a page as some other browsers and plugins do, but Google’s servers will actually pre-execute some of the JavaScript on the page and fetch data from third-party sites as well. Instant Pages will only prerender one page per search results page.

Here is how Google describes this feature:

What is prerendering? Sometimes a site may be able to predict with reasonable accuracy which link the user is most likely to click on next–for example, the ‘next page’ link in a multi-page news article. In those cases, it would be faster and better for the user if the browser could get a head start loading the next page so that when the user clicks the page is already well on its way to being loaded. That’s the fundamental idea behind prerendering. The browser fetches all of the sub-resources and does all of the work necessary to display the page. In many cases, the site simply seems to load instantly when the user clicks.

Google is also making this technology available for other sites and has launched a guide to prerendering in Chrome for developers. Publishers will be able to choose which pages on their own sites they want to prerender (not from the search results, but when users are already on their pages). It’s important that developers only enable this for a limited number of pages, though, and Google warns that doing this for the wrong links could result in “increased bandwidth usage, slower loading of other links, and slightly stale content.”

How to Get It Today

Google Instant will be available in the developer version of Chrome today and will be coming to the beta version later this week. If you are using the stable version, you will have to wait a few weeks before you get to use this new feature.

The developer and beta versions of Chrome are available for download here, but remember that these versions can sometimes be unstable.

Once you have a version of Chrome with Instant Pages installed, you can give it a try here.



6:11 pm


Next: Opera Browser Gets a Dev Channel, Too

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Blame Chrome. Ever since Google started releasing self-updating developer versions of its browser, other browser developers have been following suit. Mozilla now uses the same concept for releasing early (and potentially unstable) versions of Firefox. Starting today, Opera will use the same concept to give early adopters a sneak peek at upcoming versions of its browser, too. Dubbed Opera Next, users can install this self-updating version in parallel to the stable version of Opera to check out new features before they become widely available (the Next and stable versions will remain two completely separate installs).

Unlike Chrome and Firefox, though, Opera will not develop multiple versions at the same time, instead, the Next channel will keep users updated from early snapshots to alpha, beta, release candidates and stable versions as Opera releases these. Once a stable version is released, the process will start over with the snapshots of the next version.

Also New: Live Speed Dial

The latest preview version of Opera also features the company’s new “Live Speed Dial extensions.” Just like in Chrome (though it’s worth noting that Opera pioneered this), whenever you open an empty tab, a number of icons appear in the browser that represent the sites you visit most often. Now, developers and publishers who want to make use of this new feature can also show small live previews of a site or other interactive experiences.

By default, the speed dial only shows the top left corner of a site (where the site’s logo can typically be found), but once it’s set up correctly, publishers can use Opera’s new Speed Dial extension to easily create small interactive widgets. Opera is currently featuring a few of these on its extension page here.



9:51 am


Mozilla's Asa Dotzler: "Chrome Team is Bowing to Pressure from Google's Advertising Business"

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Among the major browser vendors, Google’s Chrome is currently the only one that has not signed on to use the Do Not Track feature that Mozilla has been lobbying for. While Microsoft, Apple, Firefox and Opera have either already implemented this feature or will do so soon, Google is still holding out. According to Mozilla’s director of community development Asa Dotzler, the “Chrome team is bowing to pressure from Google’s advertising business and that’s a real shame.” Indeed, Dotzler says in his blog post, this situation is similar to what happened when Netscape released version 7.0 of its browser.

For Netscape 7.0, which according to Dotzler “was basically Mozilla 1.0 with a Netscape theme and a couple of proprietary Netscape features,” Netscape decided to remove the pop-up blocker that Mozilla 1.0 had just developed. The Netscape team had to bow to the pressure of AOL/Netscape as those sites depended on advertising money (including pop-up ads) to fund their work. The next version of Netscape did include the pop-up blocker, but excluded all Netscape/AOL/Time-Warner sites from this by default.

Pressure from Advertisers – Or Something Else?

It’s hard to say if it’s really pressure from Google’s advertising side that is keeping Chrome from supporting the Do Not Track feature. In its current form, browsers that support this feature just sent a header to the server that tells the publisher and advertiser that this particular user is opting out from being tracked. In its current form, this feature is – at best – a public demonstration that you would like to opt out, but advertisers don’t have to honor it. Indeed, you can’t even know if advertisers have seen it and intent to respect your choice. As such, pleading support to a feature that currently has no real effect is pretty easy at this point.

This could change in the long run, though. Given that various government agencies have started to look into online tracking and its privacy implications, online advertisers have every interest in supporting this feature if they want to continue to self-regulate without interference from Washington. In the comments on his post, Dotzler rightly notes that it’ll be impossible to get 100% of advertisers to agree to using this feature. Once you get a majority of them on board, though, you can “shame the remaining 20% by telling the user when they visit those sites that those sites aren’t honoring their wishes”

So what do you think? Is the Chrome team under pressure from the rest of Google to ignore this Do Not Track feature? Or is Google just waiting to see what happens and will implement this later?



10:37 am