March 19, 2019
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Firefox will soon mute all autoplaying videos

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There are many things worse than autoplaying video and audio on the web. The world is a messy place, after all. But it sure is distracting when you surf to a website and suddenly some video starts playing at full volume. Google’s Chrome browser and Microsoft Edge both offer tools to disable these annoyances and, starting with the launch of its next version in March, Mozilla’s Firefox browser will, too.

By default, Firefox will mute any audible audio and video when you arrive at a new site unless you actively initiate the audio through clicking the “play” button, for example. Mozilla has decided to allow muted autoplay, though, which is still annoying and eats up bandwidth, but it’s significantly less disruptive to your workflow than audible autoplays.

As Mozilla engineer Chris Pearce writes today, this new feature will go live with the launch of Firefox 66. He also stresses that users can always choose to opt out of this for specific sites. To do so, you only have to click on the new icon that will pop up in the Firefox URL bar whenever the browser blocks an autoplaying video or audio clip.

One exception here is sites where users allow the browser to access their camera and microphone. Those are typically sites for audio and video conferences using web technologies like WebRTC, so this exception makes sense.

If you are a Firefox user, this is surely a reason to rejoice. If you are a developer who uses autoplay videos on your sites, now is the time to repent and change your ways.

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Firefox’s newest Test Pilot experiments help you track prices and email links

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Test Pilot is Mozilla’s program for experimenting with some of its more outlandish ideas for Firefox and beyond. Some of those experiments make it into the browser itself, some become stand-alone extensions and others get unceremoniously canned. Today, the organization is announcing two new Test Pilot projects: Price Wise, which lets you track the price of items in online stores, and Email Tabs, a tool for making it easier to send links to people by email.

Price Wise is a pretty self-explanatory service. It works for Best By, eBay, Amazon, Walmart and Home Depot and lets you track price changes right in Firefox. That’s obviously not a novel idea. Plenty of other extensions do the same. Still, it’s nice to see a tool like this from a relatively neutral source. Mozilla tells me that all of the work happens on the user’s machine and that all of the development was done in-house, without relying on third-party tools. Mozilla also notes that it’s not monetizing this service through affiliate links.

One interesting side note here is that Mozilla is using machine-learning to power Price Wise. “We leverage machine learning outside the extension to make it happen,” a spokesperson told me. “You’ll be hearing more from us about machine learning as we evaluate more use cases to help Firefox users in their day to day without sacrificing privacy.”

While the idea behind Price Wise isn’t exactly new, Email Tabs is a more novel concept. The idea here is to make it easier for you to send links by email, which is apparently still the most popular way to share links, even today. Typically, that’s a process of copying and pasting links, which gets the job done, but isn’t exactly an elegant solution — or at least that’s what the engineers at Mozilla clearly thought. When you click the Email Tabs button, the extensions lets you choose which tabs you want to share and how much of the content from a link you want to be part of the email it creates for you. That could be just the link, but also a screenshot or the full text of the page you’re linking to.

Right now, this only works with Gmail, but you can also copy all the info to the clipboard and then paste it at will.

These two new experiments are now available for anybody who signs up to the Test Pilot program.

As Mozilla also announced today, two of its previous experiments are about to graduate. Send, which lets you encrypt and share large files up to 1GB will be updated and relaunched later this year. Color, which lets you customize the look of Firefox to your heart’s content, will become a stand-alone extension and Side View, which lets you view two browser windows side-by-side inside the same Firefox window, is joining Color as a stand-alone extension, too.

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Chrome adds new security features to stop mobile subscription scams

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Google today announced that Chrome will soon get a new feature that aims to stop mobile subscription scams. Those are the kind of sites that ask you for your phone number and that then, unbeknownst to you, sign you up for a mobile subscription that’s billed through your carrier. Starting with the launch of Chrome 71 in December, Google will pop up a prominent warning when a site doesn’t make it clear that users are signing up for a mobile subscription.

To make sure that developers who are legitimately using this flow to offer users subscription don’t get caught up in this new system, Google also published a set of best practices for mobile billing today. Generally, developers are expected to make their billing information visible and obvious to users, display the actual cost and have a simple and straightforward fee structure.

If that information is not available, Google will through up a prominent full-page warning, but users can always opt to proceed. Before throwing up the warning page, Google will notify webmasters in the Search Console when it detects a potential scam (there’s always a chance for false positives, after all).

This new feature will be available on both mobile and desktop, as well as in Android’s WebView.

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Chrome gets a new look for its 10th birthday

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It’s been ten years since Google first launched Chrome. At the time, Google’s browser was a revelation. Firefox had gotten slow, Internet Explorer was Internet Explorer and none of the smaller challengers, maybe with the exception of Opera, every got any significant traction. But here was Google, with a fast browser that was built for the modern web.

Now, ten years later, Google is the incumbent and Chrome is getting challenged both from a technical perspective, thanks to a resurgent Firefox, and by a wave of anti-Google sentiment. But Google isn’t letting that get in the way of celebrating Chrome’s anniversary. To mark the day, the company today officially launched its new look for Chrome and previewed what it has in stock for the future of its browser. And it’s not just a new look. Chrome’s Omnibox and other parts of the browser are getting updates, too.

If you’ve followed along, then the new look doesn’t come as a surprise. As usual, Google started testing this update in its various pre-release channels. If you haven’t, though, you will still instantly recognize Chrome as Chrome.

The new Chrome user interface, which is going live on all the platforms the browser supports, follows Google’s Material Design 2 guidelines. That means it’s looking a bit sleeker and modern now, with more rounded corners and subtle animations. You’ll also see new icons and a new color palette.

On the feature side, Chrome now offers an updated password manager that can automatically generate (and save) strong passwords for you, as well as improved autofill for those pesky forms that ask for you shipping addresses and credit card info.

What’s maybe more interesting that, though, is an update to the Omnibox (where you type in your URLs and search queries). The Omnibox can now search the tabs you have currently open and in the near future, it’ll return results from your Google Drive files, too.

Also new are the ability to change the background of your new tab page and create and manage shortcuts on it.

Looking ahead, Google VP of product management Rahul Roy-Chowdhury notes that the team is looking at how to best bring more AI-driven features to Chrome.

“With a smarter Chrome, you will be able to do more than just look at a webpage,” he writes. “Imagine searching on Chrome for a singer you just heard, and having Chrome show you not just their bio, but also their upcoming concert near you and where to purchase tickets. With AI, Chrome will also better understand what you’re trying to get done, and help you do so faster.”

That, of course, is exactly what Microsoft is also trying to do with its Edge browser and its integration with Cortana. I’m not a regular Edge user, but I’ve generally been surprised about the usefulness of that integration, which automatically brings up related information about restaurants, for example. It’ll be interesting to see what Google’s version of this feature will look like.

Roy-Chowdhury also notes that the team is working on building more augmented-reality features into the browser. So far, those features have always sounded better on paper than in practice and mostly felt like a gimmick. Google thinks it’s on to something, though, so we’ll just have to see what that’ll look like when it goes live.

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Firefox will soon start blocking trackers by default

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Mozilla today announced that its Firefox browser will soon by default automatically block all attempts at cross-site tracking.

There are three parts to this strategy. Starting with version 63, which is currently in testing in the browser’s nightly release channel, Firefox will block all slow-loading trackers (with ads being the biggest offender here). Those are trackers that take more than five seconds to load. Starting with Firefox 65, the browser will also strip all cookies and block all storage access from third-party trackers. In addition, Mozilla is also working on blocking cryptomining scripts and trackers that fingerprint users. As usual, the timeline could still change, depending on how these first tests work out.

“In the physical world, users wouldn’t expect hundreds of vendors to follow them from store to store, spying on the products they look at or purchase,” Mozilla’s Nick Nguyen writes today. “Users have the same expectations of privacy on the web, and yet in reality, they are tracked wherever they go. Most web browsers fail to help users get the level of privacy they expect and deserve.”

If you want to give these new features a try today, all you have to do is install the unstable Firefox Nightly release. There, in the privacy settings, you’ll find the new tracker blocking features under the “Content Blocking” header. Once you’ve turned that on, the browser will also walk you through how all of this works and highlight that some of the more aggressive settings may break a few sites.

In addition, Firefox’s private mode uses the same kind of tracking protection already, as does Firefox for iOS.

Safari users, too, will have likely yawned while reading this. Apple, after all, already announced similar privacy features for its browser last year. The approach here is different, with Apple betting on machine learning and Firefox using more traditional block lists, but the intent is the same.

As Mozilla notes, the idea here is to give users choice. Sites can still ask for a user’s data but they’ll have to ask for consent before they get it. “Blocking pop-up ads in the original Firefox release was the right move in 2004, because it didn’t just make Firefox users happier, it gave the advertising platforms of the time a reason to care about their users’ experience. In 2018, we hope that our efforts to empower our users will have the same effect,” writes Nguyen.

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