Wednesday, February 5, 2003

Apple Enters the Fray

Internet Explorer and Netscape have been at it for a while – they've never entirely been on the same page when it comes to rendering web pages. Indeed, comparing the same web page on both browsers on both Mac and PC can often be like looking at four completely different pages. And this says nothing of the additional issues brought out by UNIX and Mac specific browsers like Opera and Chimera.

But finally order was returning to the universe. The new generation of Netscape browsers (6.0 and higher) and the current IE browsers had achieved a happy synchronicity. If designed right, web pages could look (relatively) the same on both platforms with both browsers. All was right with the world.

And then came Safari.

Safari is a Mac OSX browser designed to take advantage of the awesome power latent in Apple's most advanced operating system, Jaguar. In the month following Safari release at the January Macworld Conference, the necessity for Safari had been much debated by Mac pundits, Apple marketers, and Joe Shmoes alike. But we have a bigger question: What is this going to do for web design?

We already have to design for two major browsers on two major platforms while considering a handful of tertiary browsers. Is Safari's entry into the market enough to keep us up at night? Certainly, Safari does see things a little differently. In Apple tradition, it renders fonts small but anti-aliased (smooth, onscreen). The browser honors HTML standards and even has a built-in bug-reporting system in the beta release so that users can report everything from application crashes to web pages that appear incorrectly.

But two issues are really at the core of the question: Does it differ significantly from IE and Netscape in how it renders pages and how many people will use it?

The answer first: No. Only in font rendering does Safari differ at all from it's two larger competitors. Safari treats CSS's in it's own way – especially in regard to its treatment of styles associated with form fields – but gets close to the treatment provided by the other two for basic text styles.

The answer second: No. Despite being a solid and extremly usable browser, Safari is likely to remain a small player. That is not to say that it isn't a great browser. Safari features spell checking in form fields, a built-in Google search, the ability to snap back to search results pages, a "smart" pop-up blocker, great cookie control options, advanced bookmark management and importation from IE, address book integration into the bookmarks, a global page history, a download manager, and speed. Safari is much faster at page loading and launching than IE, Netscape, and Chimera. But it is Mac specific and Macs are, unfortunately, the minority. Even if every Mac user switched over to Safari the browser wouldn't enjoy more than 5-10% of the market.

Rare will be the design developed or designer developing exclusively for Safari. It is a great browser (though I know some Chimera advocates who would argue against it at every point). The Apple design team has created the best looking and best running browser on the Mac. When it comes out for PC (if it comes out for PC) a larger conversation will be in order about the future of Internet browser. Until then, I'll keep Safari and IE open on my desktop. fb

Two (More) Reasons to Hate Verisign

At Fight.Boredom...we hate Verisign.

It's a barely rational hatred. It's a visceral thing. It swells in our bile ducts and screeches between our gritted teeth. We are full of hate for that company. Every email we get from them elicits curses...every call to their tech support prompts feigns toward alcoholism.

And what is the source of this hatred? Verisign's incompetence? Their persistence? Their insulting marketing? No.

It's the fact that we really have no choice but to work with them.

Which brings me to this issue's case in point: two reasons we hate Verisign (and we have full confidence that this could become an ever-expanding topic for discussion among similar internet communications firms and clients).

Reason 1: Verisign Domain Name Renewal Reminders

Take a look at this renewal reminder sent to Cloudjammer Studio by Verisign. In early January, we received this reminder alerting us to renew our domain name January 29, in fact. We shouldn't be time to renew yet, should it?

Well it isn't. Look at the small print. The domain expires in December 2003. A year from now. I get annoyed when Newsweek sends me renewal notices two months before my expiration...but a year! That is simply dishonest.

To Verisign's credit, they don't simply take your money and restart the subscription clock. They credit the payment to the period after the genuine expiration date. They just want their money now.

Verisign owns Network Solutions, the premiere site for domain name registration. Network Solutions is very agreeable site – it's easy to use, easy to find a domain name and buy it. It's even easy to manage your domain name and, of course renew it. Indeed, the Verisign/Network Solutions domain name renewal process is very simple and easy to use. It's just that their renewal marketing is so...insulting.

And irony of ironies? When I recently renewed a site on Network Solutions the Verisign security certificate failed.

Reason 2: Verisign Secure Certificates

If you aren't already familiar with Verisign's bevy of services, I challenge you to visit their website and figure it out. If you are familiar with Verisign, I challenge you to explain Verisign's services to the uninitiated. I exaggerate (a little) to make a point: Verisign and it's products are hopelessly cryptic. We have come to believe that this is the nature of their success.

Exemplary is Verisign's security certificate, arguably the most trusted security certification online (which still isn't saying that much). E-commerce and sensitive information sites often certify themselves to protect data in transit. You can tell when you hit a page or site thus secured: a key icon often appears somewhere on your browser frame, the web address is prefixed https instead of http, or an alert tells you when you are leaving such an area. Data submitted in such a protected area is safer and better guarded then data at-large. So what's the problem?

The problem is setting up one of these certificates. Here's the rough and dirty:

You approach your hosting provider or Verisign to buy a certificate. You have to prove your own legitimacy using an awkward approval system – Dunn and Bradstreet or something similar – and then generate a CSR (a certificate request) specific to your server format (Unix, Linux, NT, etc.). You then acquire your certificate, usually a file, but sometimes not, and, using the previously generated CSR, install it on your site. If any mistake is made along the way, you need to start over.

And pay again.

And don't lose the CSR, certificate, or the mysterious public/private key. You'll have to start over and pay again.

And don't use any variation of your company of site name. You'll have to start over and pay again.

And don't get an idiot in your hosting companies SSL (Secure Server) department to install it wrong. You'll have to start over and pay again.

And that is the source of the hatred in this case. If you do anything wrong you'll have to start over and pay again. And neither the hosting companies's or Verisign's technical support seem to really know what is going on. They each have their own way of doing things and they each want you to buy through their company...if you purchase through the wrong company? You'll have to start over and pay again.

Half a dozen times in the last year we have spent days on the phone with hosts and Verisign trying to work this out. There is no consistent approach that we have been able to discern. There is no consistency of advice. Mistakes have been made. We have complained. Certificates have been lost (or never sent). And in the end? You guessed it. We had to start over and pay again.

So what's the point of this rant? It's really a call for change. But Verisign is a big company that has been inept in these regards for a long time. Unfortunately, I doubt any change should be expected.

Maybe we should take the advice of one of Cloudjammer's clients. Exasperated with Verisign, they told us we should develop a painless (or at the least, a less painful) alternative to Verisign certification. In the mean time, we'll pray for relief...perhaps from the Sherman Anti-trust act or a decent competitor.

Hating Verisign is like hating the phone company. What other choice do you have? fb

Visual Communication of Grief

Stahler's 9/14/01 editorial cartoon on the World Trade Center attackBennett's 10/8/01 editorial cartoon on the American mood after 9/11Luckovich's 2/2/03 editorial cartoon on the Columbia disasterThe last year and a half have really sucked. We've felt collective horror and sorrow over the 9/11 attacks, the failing economy, corporate confidence scandals, the looming war with Iraq... It's so bad that my first thought on learning of the Columbia disaster wasn't "how terrible" but instead, "It could've been worse."

We see images of the booming 90's, the exultations of the bicentennial and VJ day, and can't even remember a time of such tremendous national confidence and exhilaration. We seem fixated of late – damned, if you will – to experience no national emotions other than shock, loss, and grief.

Editorial cartoonists have the unenviable task of turning popular events, news, and opinions into visual media in a way unmet in photojournalism. The creations of illustrative media, emotional or otherwise, in good times or bad, is a daunting task with as many crass responses as laudable ones.

The first editorial cartoon I remember is Doug Marlette's weeping bald eagle for the Charlotte Observer, a reaction to the destruction of the space shuttle Challenger (which I watched blow up after takeoff during my classroom birthday party, January 28, 1986). The image is fixed in my mind even now, as rich in pen and ink detail as video of the blasted debris and veering SRBs are from news coverage.

In the days following 9/11, I watched the editorial response with great interest. Most gripping of all the touching illustrated commentaries was Jeff Stahler's cartoon published on September 14, 2001 in The Cincinnati Post. It powerfully combines the devastation and personal loss of the 9/11 attack communicated powerfully by an image of a cell phone lying amidst the rubble of the World Trade Center.

But events of national disaster are not the only crises in which such an editorial response can be both powerful and insightful. Clay Bennett's editorial cartoon published October 8, 2001 in The Christian Science Monitor illustrates the American loss of innocence and peace of mind after the attack. In a period when we all waited for a second devastating act of terrorism, it well illustrated our anxiety and bittersweet nostalgia.

But no contemporary discussion of the editorial cartoon medium would be complete without reference to that most recent tragedy, the loss of the space shuttle Columbia, or our region's most celebrated editorialist, Mike Luckovich. His weeping Statue of Liberty was inescapable after 9/11 and his response to the Columbia's loss was equally touching – shooting stars crossing the blue canton of the US flag, a sole star of David in their midst, touchingly remembered the loss of the shuttle crew and expressed our weeping national wound.

What is the value of these expressions, or even the editorial cartoon as an effective communicative media? Certainly, for less emotive subjects the medium is well suited to caricature and humor. In a more serious and heartfelt vein, the medium can symbolically illustrate complex situations through simple depiction.

They provide perspective – sometimes terrible, occasionally vulgar, often touching. fb