A potted history of communication networks from the pony express and the telegraph to ethernet and wi-fi.
Monday, January 17th, 2022
Friday, March 12th, 2021
Developers, particularly in Silicon Valley firms, are definitionally wealthy and enfranchised by world-historical standards. Like upper classes of yore, comfort (“DX”) comes with courtiers happy to declare how important comfort must surely be. It’s bunk, or at least most of it is.
As frontenders, our task is to make services that work well for all, not just the wealthy. If improvements in our tools or our comfort actually deliver improvements in that direction, so much the better. But we must never forget that measurable improvement for users is the yardstick.
Wednesday, February 3rd, 2021
Two-factor authentication is generally considered A Good Thing™️ when you’re logging in to some online service.
The word “factor” here basically means “kind” so you’re doing two kinds of authentication. Typical factors are:
- Something you know (like a password),
- Something you have (like a phone or a USB key),
- Something you are (biometric Black Mirror shit).
Asking for a password and an email address isn’t two-factor authentication. They’re two pieces of identification, but they’re the same kind (something you know). Same goes for supplying your fingerprint and your face: two pieces of information, but of the same kind (something you are).
None of these kinds of authentication are foolproof. All of them can change. All of them can be spoofed. But when you combine factors, it gets a lot harder for an attacker to breach both kinds of authentication.
The most common kind of authentication on the web is password-based (something you know). When a second factor is added, it’s often connected to your phone (something you have).
Every security bod I’ve talked to recommends using an authenticator app for this if that option is available. Otherwise there’s SMS—short message service, or text message to most folks—but SMS has a weakness. Because it’s tied to a phone number, technically you’re only proving that you have access to a SIM (subscriber identity module), not a specific phone. In the US in particular, it’s all too easy for an attacker to use social engineering to get a number transferred to a different SIM card.
Still, authenticating with SMS is an option as a second factor of authentication. When you first sign up to a service, as well as providing the first-factor details (a password and a username or email address), you also verify your phone number. Then when you subsequently attempt to log in, you input your password and on the next screen you’re told to input a string that’s been sent by text message to your phone number (I say “string” but it’s usually a string of numbers).
There’s an inevitable friction for the user here. But then, there’s a fundamental tension between security and user experience.
In the world of security, vigilance is the watchword. Users need to be aware of their surroundings. Is this web page being served from the right domain? Is this email coming from the right address? Friction is an ally.
But in the world of user experience, the opposite is true. “Don’t make me think” is the rallying cry. Friction is an enemy.
With SMS authentication, the user has to manually copy the numbers from the text message (received in a messaging app) into a form on a website (in a different app—a web browser). But if the messaging app and the browser are on the same device, it’s possible to improve the user experience without sacrificing security.
If you’re building a form that accepts a passcode sent via SMS, you can use the
autocomplete attribute with a value of “one-time-code”. For a six-digit passcode, your
input element might look something like this:
<input type="text" maxlength="6" inputmode="numeric" autocomplete="one-time-code">
With one small addition to one HTML element, you’ve saved users some tedious drudgery.
There’s one more thing you can do to improve security, but it’s not something you add to the HTML. It’s something you add to the text message itself.
Let’s say your website is example.com and the text message you send reads:
Your one-time passcode is 123456.
Add this to the end of the text message:
So the full message reads:
Your one-time passcode is 123456. @example.com #123456
The first line is for humans. The second line is for machines. Using the @ symbol, you’re telling the device to only pre-fill the passcode for URLs on the domain example.com. Using the # symbol, you’re telling the device the value of the passcode. Combine this with
autocomplete="one-time-code" in your form and the user shouldn’t have to lift a finger.
I’m fascinated by these kind of emergent conventions in text messages. Remember that the @ symbol and # symbol in Twitter messages weren’t ideas from Twitter—they were conventions that users started and the service then adopted.
You can add a URL for
/.well-known/change-password which redirects to the form a user would use to update their password. Browsers and password managers can then use this information if they need to prompt a user to update their password after a breach. I’ve added this to The Session.
Oh, and on that page where users can update their password, the
autocomplete attribute is your friend again:
<input type="password" autocomplete="new-password">
If you want them to enter their current password first, use this:
<input type="password" autocomplete="current-password">
All of the things I’ve mentioned—the
autocomplete attribute, origin-bound one-time codes in text messages, and a well-known URL for changing passwords—have good browser support. But even if they were only supported in one browser, they’d still be worth adding. These additions do absolutely no harm to browsers that don’t yet support them. That’s progressive enhancement.
Friday, May 1st, 2020
Some great practical examples of progressive enhancement on one website:
- using grid layout in CSS,
- using the
pictureelement to provide
webpimages in HTML.
All of those enhancements work great in modern browsers, but the underlying functionality is still available to a browser like Opera Mini on a feature phone.
Monday, February 3rd, 2020
I can’t decide if this is industrial sabotage or political protest. Either way, I like it.
99 second hand smartphones are transported in a handcart to generate virtual traffic jam in Google Maps.Through this activity, it is possible to turn a green street red which has an impact in the physical world by navigating cars on another route to avoid being stuck in traffic
Wednesday, September 18th, 2019
When your only tool seems like a smartphone, everything looks like an app.
Amber writes on Ev’s blog about products that deliberately choose to be dependent on smartphone connectivity:
We read service outage stories like these seemingly every week, and have become numb to the fundamental reality: The idea of placing the safety of yourself, your child, or another loved one in the hands of an app dependent on a server you cannot touch, control, or know the status of, is utterly unacceptable.
Saturday, September 7th, 2019
An interesting proposal to allow websites to detect certain SMS messages. The UX implications are fascinating.
Sunday, June 16th, 2019
Although this piece is ostensibly about why we should be using web workers more, there’s a much, much bigger point about the growing power gap between the devices we developers use and the typical device used by the rest of the planet.
While we are getting faster flagship phones every cycle, the vast majority of people can’t afford these. The more affordable phones are stuck in the past and have highly fluctuating performance metrics. These low-end phones will mostly likely be used by the massive number of people coming online in the next couple of years. The gap between the fastest and the slowest phone is getting wider, and the median is going down.
Thursday, August 2nd, 2018
Chris has written about switching code editors. I’m a real stick-in-the-mud when it comes to switching editors. Partly that’s because I’m generally pretty happy with whatever I’m using (right now it’s Atom) but it’s also because I just don’t get that excited about software like this. I probably should care more; I spend plenty of time inside a code editor. And I should really take the time to get to grips with features like keyboard shortcuts—I’m sure I’m working very inefficiently. But, like I said, I find it hard to care enough, and on the whole, I’m content.
I was struck by this observation from Chris:
When moving, I have to take time to make sure it works pretty much like the old one.
That reminded me of a recent switch I made, not with code editors, but with browsers.
I’ve been using Chrome for years. One day it started crashing a lot. So I decided to make the switch to Firefox. Looking back, I’m glad to have had this prompt—I think it’s good to shake things up every now and then, so I don’t get too complacent (says the hypocrite who can’t be bothered to try a new code editor).
Just as Chris noticed with code editors, it was really important that I could move bookmarks (and bookmarklets!) over to my new browser. On the whole, it went pretty smoothly. I had to seek out a few browser extensions but that was pretty much it. And because I use a password manager, logging into all my usual services wasn’t a hassle.
Of all the pieces of software on my computer, the web browser is the one where I definitely spend the most time: reading, linking, publishing. At this point, I’m very used to life with Firefox as my main browser. It’s speedy and stable, and the dev tools are very similar to Chrome’s.
Maybe I’ll switch to Safari at some point. Like I said, I think it’s good to shake things up and get out of my comfort zone.
Now, if I really wanted to get out of my comfort zone, I’d switch operating systems like Dave did with his move to Windows. And I should really try using a different phone OS. Again, this is something that Dave tried with his switch to Android (although that turned out to be unacceptably creepy), and Paul did it ages ago using a Windows phone for a week.
There’s probably a balance to be struck here. I think it’s good to change code editors, browsers, even operating systems and phones every now and then, but I don’t want to feel like I’m constantly in learning mode. There’s something to be said for using tools that are comfortable and familiar, even if they’re outdated.
Friday, March 24th, 2017
Steps you can take to secure your phone and computer. This is especially useful in countries where ubiquitous surveillance is not only legal, but mandated by law (such as China, Australia, and the UK).
Monday, March 20th, 2017
The second part of Bruce’s excellent series begins by focusing on the usage of proxy browsers around the world:
But how!? Well, Bruce has the answer:
I call this amazing new technique “progressive enhancement.”
You heard it here first, folks!
Thursday, November 13th, 2014
I mentioned this a little while back, but it’s worth remembering just how many people are using Opera Mini …and how many more are about to join them.
Bring it on!
Monday, August 25th, 2014
Opera Mini is about to be installed as the default browser on a few more million phones.
Sunday, January 12th, 2014
Craig recently had a piece published in the New Yorker called Goodbye, Cameras. It’s good …but this follow-on piece on his own site is truly wonderful.
Read. Absorb. Ponder.
Being close to the network does not mean being on Facebook, thought it can mean that, too. It does not mean pushing low-res images to Instagram, although there’s nothing wrong with that. What the network represents, in my mind, is a sort of ledger of humanity. The great shared mind. An image’s distance to it is the difference between contributing or not contributing to that shared ledger.
Saturday, June 23rd, 2012
Kyle’s Matryoshka phones are as cool as they are cute.
Monday, March 26th, 2012
The hitherto unnoticed connection between the names of Android phones and the names of condoms.
Sunday, March 4th, 2012
What do I know?
On our way back from New Zealand, Jessica and I stopped off in Sydney for a day. That same evening, the “What Do You Know?” event was going on—a series of five minute lightning talks from Sydney’s finest web geeks.
Maxine asked me if I could do a turn so I put together a quick spiel called Five Things I Learned from the Internet. Those five things are:
- How to wrap headphone cables in a tangle-free way.
- How to fold a T-shirt in seconds.
- How to tie shoelaces correctly (thanks, Adam).
- How to eat a cupcake (thanks, Tara).
- How to peel a banana (thanks, Kyle) with a bonus lesson on the bananus.
At least one of those things will blow your mind. Pwshoo!
Tuesday, January 30th, 2007
I need to get some noise-cancelling headphones for the flight to Vancouver. Those Sennheisers are looking good for the price.