557 – Making URLs more friendly

clip_image001The URL – Uniform Resource Locator, to give its full name – is familiar to everyone as a way of accessing their favourite sources of online titillation, propaganda and knowledge. Most people pronounce the term “yoo arr ell” though some stick to calling it Earl. Few “regular” users have any idea what magic occurs behind the scenes when you enter an address in the browser.

Early browsers might have been pedantic about the user entering the protocol into the address box, since the application wouldn’t know if you wanted to use ftp, gopher or this new-fangled http thing to try to open the page. So you had to spell out the whole address – with the right number of slashes and colons, sometimes even having to get upper and lower case parts of it exactly correct – or just get denied.

Of course, it’s easier to enter URLs these days – a good proportion of end users just type the thing they’re looking for (eg “bbc news”) into the address bar, and it will search on their favourite engine to display a list of results upon which they then click. Others will know that if you enter a term in the address bar and press CTRL+ENTER, the browser will add the www and the .com to either side of it, and on Chrome, the clip_image002address bar even hides the display of the https://www bit.

Still, pasting a URL into a document or email can sometimes look messy, especially if it’s a link to a file on a Sharepoint or Teams site. Public websites sometimes will have an address which tells the story – like https://www.upi.com/Top_News/Voices/2020/11/19/SpaceXs-Starlink-satellites-are-ruining-stargazing-for-everyone/9351605790233/ – but a new feature in Edge browser aims to make things a whole lot more friendly.

In the latest versions of Edge, instead of pasting the raw address (with all of its slashes, symbols and numbers), when you add a URL into an Office document, the link will use the title of the page as the “text to display” instead of the URL itself. As a result, the UPI story above would look like “SpaceX’s Starlink satellites are ruining stargazing for everyone – UPI.com”.

When pasting a link to a shared document, instead of it showing up like https://microsoft.sharepoint.com/:b:/t/Store%20Planning%20Team/EX3o-R5PRT5Kk-Ndmh5GKFgBx0OfjIWI9d4CGT4nZGi0Dw90980 or similar, Office apps will try to fetch the source document’s details and render its name as the displayed text, hiding the URL under it:

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If you’re sending the link in an email, it will even check if all the recipients have permission to open it, and offer to help you fix that by changing the permissions or by attaching the document instead of a link to it. This might even realise the dream that one day, people will stop emailing documents to each other and instead will use proper collaboration tools. We can but hope.

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clip_image006If you’d rather keep the raw URL, paste it into your document using the Paste Options / Text only choice. If you don’t like the new feature, you can switch it off in the Edge settings – navigate to the Share, copy and paste settings, or just enter edge://settings/shareCopyPaste into the browser address bar to jump straight there.

This useful feature was a preview in the Edge beta, but is now part of Edge 87 that released last week.

One potential side effect, though, is if the website you’re looking at doesn’t properly manage its page title (as displayed in the browser tab), it could paste as the wrong thing: some sites might set the title when you search for something, but then not set it properly when you click through into the results. You can always right-click the link and Edit Hyperlink to fix the issue if that occurs, and hope that enough people complain to the site owner so they fix it.

541 – shrtn ur url

clip_image002We’ve all been in the position when sharing a web link with someone reveals a URL that is several lines long and full of hexadecimal IDs and so on. There are a few ways to make the long URL more acceptable – a simple one being to hot-link the URL under a piece of text.

In most email programs, in Word, and even in the new Yammer experience and some other web forum software, selecting some text and pressing CTRL-K lets you insert a URL under that text – so rather than saying “Flight Simulator – https://www.xbox.com/en-US/games/microsoft-flight-simulator”, you could just write Flight Simulator”.

When it comes to sharing URLs with other people, though, you might still need the native URL clip_image004rather than copying the text that has been hyperlinked, so in many apps and websites you could right-click a hyperlink and grab the URL (or in Office apps, again, put your cursor on the text and press CTRL-K to get the edit UI which would also let you put it on the clipboard).

clip_image006It’s both easier to share and also to remember shorter URLs with simple names, but URLs for linking directly to a web forum discussion or Yammer post (in the new Yammer, click on the 3-dot icon to the side of a post to get the link directly) tend to be cumbersome and with lots of references within.

The first URL Shortening service was launched in 2002, tinyurl.com (and doesn’t the website look like a 2002 site?). The basic idea was that instead of having a 200-character URL, you could generate something that would have the form of the tinyurl domain and a random series of characters, such as https://tinyurl.com/yxtj4gft.

When the user clicks the link, their browser goes to the TinyURL website and is then provided the full link to follow, and redirects to that. The primary benefit was to make it easier to share the URL, even if it’s not so memorable, however the developers later added the ability to provide a custom redirect name and, as long as nobody else has nabbed it first, you can use it – eg https://tinyurl.com/yammerofficespace.

TinyURL has been overtaken by others, notably bit.ly, which Twitter switched to from having previously used TinyURL, and before later launching its own t.co. There are many others too, some connected with existing services – like the onedrive.com shortener (eg https://1drv.ms/u/s!AgMogCiKiWDFraIfifRzFKdjw4F1uQ?e=Yepjwh) which isn’t really very short, and which causes Bit.ly to get its Alans in a twist, as it seems it doesn’t like to shorten another shortener’s link.

There are some downsides to using this kind of service, potentially. What happens if the provider goes bust, or decides to start charging users where it was once free? Sites like Photobucket which started free but began charging users a “ransom” get internet warriors hot under the collar, but so far, sites like TinyURL and it’s progeny are mostly still free to use, with the operators selling aggregate data about the referrals being followed to fund their operations costs.

Some shorteners decide to close down – like goo.gl – meaning there’s a risk that previously-shared short URLs won’t work in future (though in the case of Google’s shortener, they are keeping old links alive, just not allowing any new ones to be created). Similarly, if a shortener has a technical problem or security breach, it could affect the way it works – TinyURL reportedly having problems just this week.

clip_image008Finally, a web shortener that is unlikely to disappear overnight is operated by Microsoft, called aka.ms. Anyone from Microsoft can create an aka.ms shortlink – subject to some rules – as long as they share responsibility with someone else. Like the other public shortener services, can generate a random series of characters or can provide the “target” part of the link if they like.

All aka.ms links are by definition publicly accessible, but many are used to get access to sites that are for internal use, even though they exist beyond the firewall – Sharepoint sites, for example, or the intranet homepage, aka.ms/msw. Anyone could resolve the destination URL – even en masse as one enterprise developer has done, using Azure functions – but you still need to provide appropriate credentials to access the destination site.

519 – Browser battles revisited

clip_image002The “Browser Wars” happened in the late 1990s, and marked a time of intense, er, “competition” between different web browsers. Since then, Google’s Chrome has rather cleaned up and established a seemingly unassailable lead in browser market share.

Still, Edge’s recent release using the Chromium rendering engine – designed to make it comparable with Chrome from a compatibility point of view, yet allowing Microsoft developers to remove Google-services-specific stuff (and replace them, sometimes, with Microsoft-services-specific stuff, many of which will be checked in to the Chromium open-source project.

The Edge browser built on Chromium was released in January, and updates are flowing through to add more functionality – which, exactly, depending on whether you’re running the normal release or you’re on one of several preview or developer (“canary”) versions. Some features are things that were ideally intended to make it to the public release – like synchronizing extensions installed across multiple PCs.

The Edge update won’t be forced out to existing non-Chromium-Edge users (hello, out there!) – or at least there will be a way of stopping it from being pushed out, if you’re an enterprise IT controller who’d rather not have to manage change and things like that.

One of the benefits of Edge being on Chromium is that the extensions which third parties build for the browser should be compatible – and since Google has 2/3rd of the total market, there are more of them than for other browsers.

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There’s an Edge “addons” page which shows a curated list of extensions known to work well with the new Edge, but if you want, you can install anything that’s listed on the Google site.

If you enable the ability to install Chrome extensions into Edge, then refresh/browse to the Chrome store again, you’ll be met with scary warnings, however…

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Google has started alerting of a security issue – namely, if the extension is somehow added to the Chrome store and subsequently found to be of dubious intent and posing a security risk, then Google can remotely knobble it on installed machines. They are now warning that if you happen to use a Chromium but-not-Chrome browser – like Edge – then they won’t do this. It seems the extension security scare banner isn’t the only one to try to make Edge users install and switch to Chrome.

Tsk, Tsk.

Also, the Edge browsers published for Android and iOS are receiving updates to make them work more seamlessly with desktop Edge. (See more for Android & iOS)

# 513 – Ship ahoy!

clip_image002tl;dr – there’s a new browser out. Go and install it.

Back in the day, Microsoft nerds (yes, there were some, both in and outside of the company) used to take pride in continually referring to products by their code names long after they’d been released, and by using the most Microspeak.

There used to be a browsable Microspeak Glossary on the Microsoft intranet, and various versions of it online, but they now seem to have withered.

The odd phrase still crops up in contemporary usage, and one which shows its age is RTM.

Historically, at a point in a software product’s lifecycle, the team just needs to ship the thing – some would think it’s the completion of the development, but most developers know nothing is ever finished and therefore nothing would ever ship. Instead, it’s some date that’s been decided, and they work backwards from that date to ship whatever they have at that point. In traditional boxed-software sales, that would mean sending the final code off to be turned into floppy discs, CDs, whatever – in other words, release it to manufacturing. RTM in the CD-era often referred to the “gold code”, as it was burned to a (gold-coloured) recordable CD before being sent to the manufacturing process. So RTM also means the final build of code as well as the process to release it.

Since nobody really buys software on physical media anymore, RTM is something of an anachronism. “RTW” was used for a while, meaning “Release to Web” but it’s a clunky phrase, and has disappeared from use – much like Cisco’s attempt to for a while to talk not about “IoT,” but “Internet of Everything” or “IoE”.

Nowadays, products at the end of their development cycle “go GA” – Generally Available. Much easier.

clip_image004This week sees the GA/RTW/etc of the new Edge browser, built on the Chromium rendering engine for maximum compatibility and performance, but extended in a host of ways to arguably make it a better browser than the others out there. It’s available for Windows 7 – even though that’s just gone out of support – and it’s also on Win8x and Mac too. Though technically a different code base, the Edge mobile versions have recently been rebranded and the UI tweaked.

If you currently use Edge – or shudder, still use Internet Explorer – then installing the new Edge will migrate your settings, history, passwords etc, but not any extensions you might have. Fear not, though, for the Chromium engine means you can install extensions from both the Microsoft Store and also the Chrome Store too.

For more on the new Edge, see the tips that are shown as part of the install process, read some opinion pieces on whether world+dog seems to think this is a good thing; here, here, here … and here… and, oh, you get the idea.