Packrats and Browser Wars

In this series, Alex discusses browsers vs. operating systems and the Mysterious Case of The Unheeded Update, and why video streaming is harder than it should be. It all relates to his efforts in a major tuneup of us MacBook Pro, but lessons apply to all systems.

Neotoma_cinereaI’m a packrat. There, I said it. I like having my stuff on my computer, reachable even when the Internet’s down. That’s been the premise of the PC revolution going back 30 years. Others, notably ChromeBooks and Salesforce, work fully only when the Internet’s working.

That’s an important distinction. In 1994, when Netscape Navigator was the most popular web browser, Marc Andreessen declared the browser would replace the OS. Clearly aimed at Microsoft, who proved them wrong with Windows 95, it still was a marker for the future.

Now, Chromebooks and web-based tools like Google Apps routinely put everything (or nearly everything) on the Web. Faster, smaller, much cheaper computers, twenty years of development, plus routine access to broadband, have made “everything on the web” (Or cloud) routine.

But “everything on the web” is quite different from collaborative tools adding to, not replacing, the user’s my-stuff-on-my-device experience. Consider Apple’s Continuity and Handoff: Continuity supports answering a call on whatever device is to hand: Your iPhone rings, answer on your MacBook. This is a great use of Bluetooth Low Energy (Your phone has to be within BT range of the other device), and seems to Just Work.

Handoff does the same for Apple Mail, Messages, Safari, Reminders, Contacts, Maps, Keynote, Pages, Numbers, and Calendar. (There’s a developer API for their own apps, too.) Start a text chat on your phone, it gets heated (This happens). You want your full-size keyboard to type lengthier arguments? So long as both are logged into the same iCloud account, simply pause mid-rant, swap to the other device, and pick right up.

Apple aren’t the only ones doing this. Facebook is moving from devices-in-isolation to transparent synchronization: Of your timeline, new notifications, etc., across multiple platforms, and darned quickly, as anyone watching both phone and computer pop up a message notification within half a second can attest. Presumably these features will extend to WhatsApp as well.

(Related: Facebook recently added encrypted notifications, using OpenPGP; while you might not care whether news that you were poked was spied upon, this is an encouraging step for privacy, especially after they moved to SSL-default access for their webpage.)

Or, consider Google Chrome, which shares browser search history between your devices—I am constantly surprised when I begin searches for “Antique steamrollers” on the PC and it’s an immediate choice when I type “A” on my Samsung Sprint Note 3. In fact, this works so transparently that, when it doesn’t, I know I have no or very limited cell signal. This is the sort of unobtrusive enhancement I quickly learn to rely upon.

Dropbox, Box.com, and a dozen other utilities replicate your files to the cloud; I’m not so Luddite that I dislike automatic, transparent copies to a secure location, but that’s still different from No Connection = No Work, a la the cloud-only collaborative solutions.

In my opinion, these additive tools are so transparent, they don’t replace your existing methods, nor detract from the “My stuff on my computer” model. Arguably, requiring an iCloud account is vendor lock-in, but that’s a subject for a different essay about online storage (Upcoming). My devices magically sharing my search history is a Good Thing, as long as security isn’t on my mind.

Rather, were sharing results: I’ve been using FireFox, with Yahoo as my default search, instead of Google Chrome, and therein lies a tale.

Browser Wars

The last few steps to fixing the problems with mysterious slowdowns involved chasing down browser bugs, or at least browser-versus-plugin bugs. As usual, the culprit seems to be Flash. Windows users, don’t tune out: Most of this applies for you, too.

I used Chrome as my default browser by elimination: Safari (Apple’s own browser) had strange page-display glitches, the cursor would freeze in other apps while Safari was open, and CPU utilization would suddenly go over 100%; Firefox didn’t like playing videos much, and saves within Microsoft Word 2011 could take 30 seconds. Chrome seemed the least-worst of the three. (On the Mac, CPU is measured on cores, not your entire system’s performance, so 130% CPU use isn’t as crazy as it seems.)

Then came the long series of fixes previously told; the underlying system problems went away, leaving issues only when I had a browser open. While performance has been blessedly better, it hasn’t been perfect. As before, the issues were sudden CPU spikes, accompanied by 747-on-takeoff level fan activity; cursor freezes; very slow saves within Word or Excel. To finish the investigation, I tried all three browsers again.

Of the three, Chrome now seems to cause the most slowdown. Chrome may also be why AppleSpell.service and AppleSpell grow’d like Topsy; since I stopped using Chrome as my main browser, I’ve all of four copies running in the two weeks since my last reboot, instead of the 30 to 40 I used to find. (None of them seemed to use much CPU or RAM, but it was the principle of the thing.) So, the AppleSpell issue seems to link to a particular browser, Chrome.

Safari? Loading it still brings the machine to a crawl for three to eight minutes, depending on the number of tabs to re-open: Neither unobtrusive nor friendly to routine use.

Time to try Firefox again. Kudos to the Mozilla Firefox developers; modern Firefox is much improved. No apparent marking errors, webpages malformed, dropped tags, or screen tearing. Load and re-load times are much faster, even with two dozen tabs open. I haven’t tried Firefox Hello (their Instant Message/video chat client), or Pocket (share and save webpages for viewing elsewhere), but the general browser performance has been great. Still, it wouldn’t be Chaos Manor without something inexplicable cropping up.

I was running version 38.0.5 of Firefox; per Firefox | About Firefox, this was “up to date”. I did get an odd error messages about how “Something is trying to trick Firefox into accepting an insecure update. Please contact your network provider and seek help.” Alas, I’m my own network provider—no one to call, and nothing odd in the router log. None of the online help, including the Mozilla support site, had anything useful to say. I found no evidence I actually was facing a man-in-the-middle, pagejack, suborned webpage or any other obvious attack. Avast anti-virus remained mum on any maladies. When the message popped up again, I investigated further.

A trip to the Firefox download site indicated Version 39 was ready for download, despite Version 38.0.5 insisting it was the absolute latest. One upgrade later, I appear to have better compatibility with Flash (More in a minute), faster load times, and greater browser compatibility. The mysterious “insecure update” message did re-appear, so something’s still not right. Further research finds nothing about Firefox being spoofed by Mozilla over updates, or any other cause. I’ll keep an eye out for answers, though.

Next Time

In the next installment, I’ll talk about browser compatibility (In general, improving), the current and future plumbing of web-delivered video, and how to check your own system out in a little more depth.

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