How Facebook Uses Your Data to Target Ads, Even If You Are Offline

If you feel like Facebook has more ads than usual, you aren’t imagining it: Facebook’s been inundating us with more and more ads lately, and using your information—both online and offline—to do it. Here’s how it works, and how you can opt out.

For most people, Facebook’s advertising system is insider-baseball that doesn’t really affect how we use the service. But as the targeted ads—the advertisements that take the data you provide to offer ads specific to you—get more accurate and start pulling in information from other sources (including the stuff you do offline), it’s more important than ever to understand their system. To figure out how this all works, I spoke with Elisabeth Diana, manager of corporate communication at Facebook. Let’s kick it off with the basics of how the targeted ads work online before moving on to some of the changes we’ll see with the recent inclusion of offline shopping data.

 

How Facebook Uses Your Profile to Target Ads

 

How Facebook Uses Your Data to Target Ads, Even OfflineWe’ve talked before about how Facebook uses you to annoy your friends by turning your likes into subtle ads. This method of sponsored posts is deceptively simple.

 

The most obvious example of a targeted ad uses something you like—say Target—and then shows an ad on the right side or in the newsfeed that simply says, “[Name] likes Target.” What you and your friends like helps determine what everyone on your friends list sees for ads. Any ad you click on then increases the likelihood of another similar ad.

 

It’s not just what you and your friends are doing that generates ads though; it’s also basic demographic information. Diana notes that this also includes “major life events like getting engaged or married.” So, if you’re recently engaged and note that on Facebook, you’ll see ads about things like wedding planning.

 

When an advertiser creates an ad on Facebook, they can select all sorts of parameters so they reach the right people. A simple example of a parameter would be: “Someone engaged to be married, who lives in New York, between the ages of 20-30.” That’s simple, but advertisers can actually narrow that down to insane specifics, like “Someone engaged to be married, who lives in New York, between the ages of 20-30, who likes swimming, and who drives a BMW.” If your profile fits those parameters, you’ll likely see the ad. If you want to see how it works, you can even try your hand at creating an ad.

 

It boils down to this: the more information you put about yourself on Facebook—where you live, your age, where (and if) you graduated college, the companies, brands, and activities you like, and even where you work—determines what kind of ads you’ll see. In theory, it makes it so targeted ads are more relevant to you.

 

What Happens When You Don’t Like or Share Anything

 

How Facebook Uses Your Data to Target Ads, Even OfflineThe way Facebook targets ads is based a lot around the information you provide. Using your likes, location, or age, Facebook puts you in a demographic and advertises to you. But what happens when you don’t include any of that information on your profile? It turns out that your friends are used to fill in the gaps.

 

Chances are, even a barebones profile has a few bits of information about you. You probably at least have where you live and your age. That combined with the information your friends provide creates a reasonable demographic that advertisers can still reach you at. The ads won’t be as spookily accurate to you as if you provide a lot of data, but they’ll at least be about as accurate as a television ad on your favorite show.

 

How to Keep Facebook from Targeting Ads Online

 

We know Facebook has an idea of what you’re doing online. That can be unsettling if you’re concerned about your privacy and you don’t want your online habits contributing to advertisements, or if you don’t like the idea of Facebook collecting data about you that you’re not willfully providing. You’ll “miss out” on targeted ads, but here here are a few tools to keep that from happening online:

  • Facebook Disconnect for Chrome and Firefox: Facebook gets notified when you visit a page that uses Facebook Connect (the little “Like” button you find on most web sites, including ours), and that data can be used to target ads. Facebook Disconnect stops that flow of data.
  • Facebook Privacy List for Adblock Plus: This subscription for Adblock Plus blocks Facebook plugins and scripts from running all over the web so your browsing data doesn’t get tied to your Facebook account.
  • DoNotTrackMe: DoNotTrackMe is another extension that blocks trackers and anyone who wants to collect your browsing data to create targeted ads.

 

Finally, you want to opt out of the Facebook Ads that use your actions (liking a page, sharing pages, etc) to promote ads to your friends:

 

  1. Click the lock icon when you’re logged into Facebook and select “see more settings”.
  2. Click the “Ads” tab on the sidebar.
  3. Click “Edit” under “Third Party Sites” and change the setting to “No one.”
  4. Click “Edit” under “Ads & Friends” and select “No One.” This disables Social Ads.

 

So, that takes care of the online advertising. If you don’t actually mind the advertising, but want to improve the ads shown to you, you can always click the “X” next to any ad to get rid of it.

 

How Facebook Uses Your Real World Shopping to Target Ads

 

Of course, you probably knew about a lot of that already. Using information in Facebook profile to target ads is old news, but with a few recent partnerships, Facebook is also going to use what you buy in real life stores to influence and track the ads you see. It sounds spooky, but it’s also older than you may realize.

To do this, Facebook is combining the information they have with information from data collection companies like Datalogix, Acxiom, Epsilon, and BlueKai. These companies already collect information about you through things like store loyalty cards, mailing lists, public records information (including home or car ownership), browser cookies, and more. For example, if you buy a bunch of detergent at Safeway, and use your Safeway card to get a discount, that information is cataloged and saved by a company like Datalogix.

 

How much do these data collecting companies know? According to The New York Times: way more than you’d think, including race, gender, economic status, buying habits, and more. Typically, they then sell this data to advertisers or corporations, but when it’s combined with your information from Facebook, they get an even better idea of what you like, where you shop, and what you buy. As Diana describes it, Facebook is “trying to give advertisers a chance to reach people both on and off Facebook,” and make advertisements more relevant to you. Photo by Joe Loong.

 

How Real-Life Ad Targetting Works

 

The most shocking thing you’re going to find on Facebook is when something you do in the real world—say, buy a car, go shopping with a loyalty card at a grocery store, or sign up for an email list—actually impacts the ads you see. This is no different than any other direct marketing campaign like junk mail, but seeing it on Facebook might be a little unsettling at first. There are a couple reasons this might happen: custom audiences, and the recent partnerships with data collection companies we talked about earlier.

Custom audiences are very simple and it basically allows an advertiser to upload an email list and compare that data (privately) with who’s on Facebook. Diana offered the simple example of buying a car. Let’s say you purchase a car from a dealership, and when you do so, you give them your email address. That dealership wants to advertise on Facebook, so they upload a list of all the email addresses they have. That data is then made private, and Facebook pairs the email address with the one you registered on Facebook. If they match, you might see an ad from that dealership on Facebook for a discounted tune-up or something similar. Additionally, Lookalike audiences might be used to advertise to people similar to you because you purchased a car there. That might mean your friends (assuming you’re all similar) will see the same ad from the dealership.

 

The custom audiences can be used by any company advertising on Facebook. So, if you’re on your dentist’s email list, or that small bakery around the corner snagged your email for a free slice of pie, they can potentially reach you through this system.

 

The partnership with other data collection agencies like Acxiom and Datalogix is going to look a little different. This means that when you use something like a customer loyalty card at a grocery store, you might see a targeted ad that reflects that. The New York Times offers this example:

 

At the very least, said Ms. Williamson, an analyst with the research firm eMarketer, consumers will be “forced to become more aware of the data trail they leave behind them and how companies are putting all that data together in new ways to reach them.” She knows, for instance, that if she uses her supermarket loyalty card to buy cornflakes, she can expect to see a cornflakes advertisement when she logs in to Facebook.

 

A new targeting feature, Partner categories, takes the data collected by these third-party data brokers and puts you into a group. So, if you’re in a group of people who buys a lot of frozen pizza at Safeway, you’ll see ads for frozen pizza, and maybe other frozen foods.

 

It sounds a little weird at a glance, but it’s important to remember that this is all information that you’re already providing. Facebook is using data collected by outside companies to create a more accurate portrayal of you so marketers can advertise to you directly.

 

How Your Data Is Kept Private

 

How Facebook Uses Your Data to Target Ads, Even OfflineAll of this information being exchanged should make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up a little. If anything goes wrong, it could leak a bunch of your private information all over the place. Or, at the very least, marketers would get a lot more information about you then you want like your username, email, and location data. To keep your information private, Facebook uses a system called hashing.

 

First, your personal information like email and name is encrypted. So, your name, login info, and anything else that would identify you as a person goes away. Then, Facebook turns the rest of the information into a series of numbers and letters using hashing. For example, Age: 31, Likes: Lifehacker, Swimming, BMW’s, Location: New York, turns into something like, “342asafk43255adjk.” Finally, this information is combined with what the data collection companies have on you to create a better picture of your shopping habits so they can target ads. Slate describes the system like so:

 

What they came up with was a Rube Goldbergian system that strips out personally identifiable information from the databases at Facebook, Datalogix, and the major retailers while still matching people and their purchases. The system works by creating three separate data sets. First, Datalogix “hashes” its database—that is, it turns the names, addresses and other personally identifiable data for each person in its logs into long strings of numbers. Facebook and retailers do the same thing to their data. Then, Datalogix compares its hashed data with Facebook’s to find matches. Each match indicates a potential test subject-someone on Facebook who is also part of Datalogix’s database. Datalogix runs a similar process with retailers’ transaction data. At the end of it all, Datalogix can compare the Facebook data and the retail data, but, importantly, none of the databases will include any personally identifiable data—so Facebook will never find out whether and when you, personally, purchased Tide, and Procter & Gamble and Kroger will never find out your Facebook profile.

 

From the actual advertisers point of view, the flow of information doesn’t reveal personal details. It just tells them how many potential customers might see an ad. “An advertiser would learn something like, ‘about 50% of your customers are on Facebook,'” says Diana, “But they don’t know who you are.” Image by Jorge Stolfi.

 

How to Opt Out of Offline Targetting

 

Unlike the internal advertising system that uses the information you already provide to Facebook to give you ads, these new partnerships with real world data collection agencies go way beyond that. Now, they’re able to see what you’re buying at stores offline, and that’s disconcerting for a lot of people. The goal, of course, is more relevant ads, but that comes at the price of privacy and security. With all this data out there, it would be easy to get a very clear image of who you are, where you live, what you like, and even if you’re pregnant. Thankfully, opting out of the data collection companies also gets you out of the integration with Facebook (and everywhere else).

This process is a lot more complicated than it should be, but the Electronic Frontier Foundation has a step-by-step guide for each of the data brokers. Basically, you’ll need to opt out in three different places: Acxiom, Datalogix, and Epsilon in order to ensure your shopping data in the real world isn’t used on Facebook (and beyond). BlueKai, unfortunately, has no direct way to opt out so you’ll need to use the browser extensions listed in the first section.

 

If you really want to keep those loyalty cards from tracking you, just use Jenny’s number (867-5309) at the checkout lane instead of setting up an account.

 


 

Those are the basics of how Facebook’s various targeted advertising systems work. Of course, a lot of complex math and algorithms are in place to actually generate this data, but it really boils down to how much information you’re making public—whether you’re aware of it or not—that makes the system tick. If you like the targeted ads, they should improve even more as the years go on. If you don’t, opting out is always an option.

 

iPhone 5S to offer multiple screen sizes, analyst says | Apple – CNET News

(Credit: CNET)

iPhone 5S buyers could have their choice of screen size, according to Topeka analyst Brian White.

Citing information from a meeting with a “tech-supply chain company,” White said today he believes Apple will unveil the iPhone 5S in at least two or possibly three different screen sizes.

“We believe Apple is coming around to the fact that one size per iPhone release does not work for everyone, and offering consumers an option has the potential to expand the company’s market share,” White said in an investors note released today.

The analyst didn’t specify or even speculate which screen sizes might be available. The iPhone 5 sports a display size of 4 inches, a boost from the 3.5-inch screen found in previous models.

This isn’t the first time White has pitched this prediction. In January, the analyst cited sources who claimed the next iPhone might be offered in different screen sizes as well as different colors.

Let’s play with the assumption that Apple considers three different screen sizes for the next iPhone.

One model would likely adopt a size larger than 4 inches. That could prove tempting to consumers who might otherwise gravitate to larger-screen Android phones. A second model would stick with the current 4-inch display for people who don’t want a change. And a third could go smaller than 4 inches and sell at a lower price.
However many screen sizes Apple offers, White believes the iPhone 5S will debut in July. That forecast echoes the opinion of other analysts eyeing a summer release for the next iPhone.

Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster believes the new iPhone will come out in late June, while KGI Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo thinks the iPhone 5S will be announced in June and available by July.

White also joins his fellow Apple analysts in anticipating a lower-priced iPhone this year, forecasting a summer launch along with the 5S. And just how low-priced will it be?

“Our research is now indicating that we should not expect the price to dip below $300 and those expecting a $150 to $200 iPhone will be disappointed,” White said. “We have previously discussed an [average selling price] of $250 to $300 for a lower priced iPhone; however, a price tag of $300 to $350 now makes more sense.”

The predicted price range would be for an unlocked, non-subsidized version of the low-cost iPhone targeted to developing markets such as China.

An iPhone in different sizes and colors? A low-cost iPhone? All of these notions sound atypical for a company such as Apple, which tends to move more slowly, surely, and traditionally.

But Apple is facing increasing pressure, both from Android rival Samsung and from investors. The company needs to apply more innovation and offer more choices across its traditional lineup to prove it’s still a competitive force.

Adobe almost does something amazing by accident | Ars Technica

It seemed like an intriguing deal. An old version of Adobe Creative Suite—the 2005 vintage CS2, to be precise—became freely downloadable from Adobe, with nothing more than a free-to-create Adobe ID required from users. Although basically useless for Mac users, as CS2 is only available for PowerPC, for Windows users this is a powerful, if not quite cutting edge, suite of graphics apps.

This looked like a clever move from Adobe. Photoshop is widely held to be one of the most routinely pirated applications there is. In making an old but still servicable version of the software it appeared that Adobe was offering a good alternative to piracy: instead of using a knock-off copy of CS6, just use CS2.

A free CS2 would also go some way toward starving alternative applications of oxygen. Given the choice between a free copy of CS2 and downloading, say, the GIMP, one imagines that many users would plump for the commercial application. It’s more of a known quantity, with a more polished user interface. And Photoshop is, frankly, the gold standard of bitmap image editing. Even an older version has a prestige that GIMP doesn’t. This is not to say that CS2 is necessarily superior to the GIMP; it may or may not be. It doesn’t really matter; Photoshop has a reputation and respect that the GIMP doesn’t have, and even if some might argue that it was undeserved, it influences the decisions users make.

Giving away an old version in this way certainly appears unusual, and perhaps even a little brave for a commercial company such as Adobe. But Adobe is already being quite brave at the moment. The company is in many ways reinventing the way it both develops and licenses its products. It is creating a wide range of HTML5-oriented tools under the Edge brand that use a mix of open source and proprietary technology, and it is pushing hard its subscription software model with the Creative Cloud.

In this context, giving away an old version of its software doesn’t seem quite so outlandish. It might sacrifice some revenue (though one suspects not all that much), but it strengthens Photoshop’s dominance—and also makes Adobe look pretty good, to boot. And although an unusual move, it’s not entirely unprecedented. Just last month, Microsoft made its previously commercial Expression suite freely downloadable after the company decided to cease further development. But this isn’t quite the same; Creative Suite is still a going concern for Adobe. Expression isn’t for Microsoft.

Unfortunately, it appears that Adobe wasn’t really intending to give out CS2 for everyone. Shortly after news of the apparently free software spread across Twitter on Monday, the download page became unavailable, producing an error instead. Subsequent blog and forum posts indicate that this wasn’t an inspired decision to liberate an obsolete but still useful application after all. It was something between a mistake, an error of judgement, and a misunderstanding.

CS2 used a product activation scheme to control licensing. When you install the software, it interrogates an Internet server to ensure that the license key you entered is acceptable. In December, Adobe retired the activation servers used by CS2. This posed a problem for CS2’s licensed users, because without the activation servers, they can no longer reinstall the software.

To help these people out, Adobe offered versions of CS2 that didn’t need activation. Mere entry of the serial numbers that Adobe put on the download page would suffice. The company says that although it looks like it was giving the software away for free, it in fact wasn’t. It was just trying to assist its customers. Adobe says in order to legally use CS2, users still require a purchased license.

There are ways that Adobe could have helped out these users that didn’t result in putting the software up on a server that anyone could get at. For example, the company could have released a patch that removed the activation checks from the applications and the license key entry from the installer. This could work with original media, and hence not require distribution of CS2. For whatever reason, the company decided not to go this route.

So it turns out that rather than doing something a little bit daring and unusual—something that might even inspire a new approach to licensing old, obsolete software—Adobe was doing something somewhat useful for existing, paid up, licensed users, in a rather peculiar way. This is a shame. The company could have earned a lot of goodwill by making CS2 free, and it would have been easy enough to offer a no-cost license for the software.

There is one final surprise. Originally, acquiring CS2 required an Adobe ID. It seemed a fair enough trade; Adobe knows your e-mail address and name, and in return you get some no-cost software. Since the whole issue blew up on Twitter, forcing the company to issue its clarification, perhaps one would have expected it to restrict access to the downloads, or use some other technique to remove the activation check.

It has not. Instead, Adobe has made CS2 even easier to get, by removing the Adobe ID requirement. The company created a new CS2 download page, and this time around, it had no registration requirement at all.

It’s almost as if the company wanted people to download the software.

Update: Or perhaps not. The new download page has now been pulled. Alas. While it’s still working for some people, for others, it’s redirecting to a CS6 page.

This Is the Best of Lifehacker 2012

This Is the Best of Lifehacker 2012

As we get ready to jump into 2013, we’ve spent the last month looking back at our best posts of 2012. Here’s one last look back at this year in Lifehacker in case you missed anything along the way.

This Is the Best of Lifehacker 2012

Most Popular How-To Guides of 2012

Some of the best and most interesting topics we cover here at Lifehacker are our how-to guides: Those posts that take you through a project step by step and leave you at the end having completed something you’ve always wanted to do. More »

This Is the Best of Lifehacker 2012

Most Popular Top 10s of 2012

Sometimes, there are just so many tips regarding a specific topic that they just beg to be compiled into a definitive list. Here’s a look back at our favorite top 10 lists of 2012. More »

This Is the Best of Lifehacker 2012

Most Popular Photography Tips, Tricks, and Hacks of 2012

2012 was a great year for all things photography, with posts to help you behind the camera, in front of it, when you’re shooting, and when you’re editing. More »

This Is the Best of Lifehacker 2012

Most Popular DIY Projects of 2012

2012 has been a great year for DIY. We’ve seen a ton of awesome DIY projects, hacks, and creations over the last twelve months, but here are the most popular ones, from creating your own kickass media center to building a secret closet door and more. More »

This Is the Best of Lifehacker 2012

Most Popular Windows Downloads and Posts of 2012

Windows had a big year in 2012: Windows 8 came out and caused quite a stir, new downloads came and rocked our world, and old programs once forgotten showed us they can still be great. More »

This Is the Best of Lifehacker 2012

Most Popular Mac Downloads and Posts of 2012

2012 brought us a new version of OS X with the launch of Mountain Lion, and we’ve had plenty of great Mac-oriented content throughout the year. We’ve had a ton of great new software, guides, and ways to fix annoyances. More »

This Is the Best of Lifehacker 2012

Most Popular Linux Downloads and Posts of 2012

We tacked some great Linux subjects this year, from building home servers to finding the perfect Linux distribution and even fixing some Ubuntu annoyances. More »

This Is the Best of Lifehacker 2012

Most Popular Hive Fives of 2012

2012 was a huge year for the Hive Five, where we ask you every week to tell us which products, gadgets, services, or applications are the best in a category. More »

This Is the Best of Lifehacker 2012

Most Popular Repurposing Tricks of 2012

Getting a shiny new toy is great, but nothing beats the special thrill of realizing something you already have can do something incredible you never knew it could. More »

This Is the Best of Lifehacker 2012

The Most Popular Featured Desktops and Home Screens of 2012

Every week, we feature customized desktops and home screens submitted by readers that show off great customization tools and UI tweaks. 2012 was a great year to customize your desktop or home screen, and we saw more great-looking and highly-functional setups than ever before. More »

This Is the Best of Lifehacker 2012

The Most Popular Explainers of 2012

We’re pretty well-known for our how-tos here at Lifehacker, but from time to time we also like to break down complicated subjects and just explain how things work-and maybe offer a little info on how to use that information. More »

This Is the Best of Lifehacker 2012

The Best Wallpapers of 2012

We’ve featured over 500 amazing wallpapers this year and it’s hard to choose our favorites, but we’ve combed through the collection and made some tough decisions. More »

This Is the Best of Lifehacker 2012

Most Popular Lifehacker Videos of 2012

Just a little over two years ago, Lifehacker only had six videos in its Youtube Channel. As we near the end of 2012, that number has grown to 720. Which ones were the most popular this year? More »

This Is the Best of Lifehacker 2012

Most Popular iPhone Apps and Posts of 2012

2012 was an interesting year for Apple’s iPhone and iPad. We got a new operating system with iOS 6, and that came with a fair share of problems. Still, lots of new features, apps, and fixes came along. More »

This Is the Best of Lifehacker 2012

Most Popular Android Downloads and Posts of 2012

2012 was a huge year for Android. Jelly Bean hit the stage, Android tablets really came into their own, and we showed you how to install a new kernel, choose a great ROM, hack your Android tablets, more. More »

This Is the Best of Lifehacker 2012

Most Popular Chrome Extensions and Posts of 2012

2012 brought a lot of new people to Google Chrome as the browser has been toying with the top browser spot throughout the year. Alongside all the new Chrome devotees comes a slew of new Chrome extensions that enhance privacy, add functionality, and more. More »

This Is the Best of Lifehacker 2012

Most Popular Firefox Extensions and Posts of 2012

2012 saw a few updates to Firefox with improvements of all types, and alongside those we’ve seen plenty of add-ons to customize your browsing experience. More »

This Is the Best of Lifehacker 2012

Most Popular Episodes of the Lifehacker Podcast

A lot happens on Lifehacker every week, and elsewhere in the world. We created the podcast to easily share our top stories, favorite tips and downloads, and answer your questions. More »

This Is the Best of Lifehacker 2012

Most Popular Long Form Features of 2012

We thrive on bringing you small tips, tricks, and downloads to enhance your daily life, but sometimes we like to dig our heels into a project and go a little deeper, too. More »

Thanks to everyone for a great year, and here’s to an even better 2013!

Web technology: 5 things to watch in 2013 | Internet & Media – CNET News

Chrome on iOS icon

Chrome on iOS has a chance to shake up the OS-browser alignment in the mobile market.

The evolution of the Web is a messy process.

We do so much with the Web today that it’s easy to take it for granted. Banking, social networking, word processing, travel planning, education, shopping — the Web is reaching to new domains and tightening its grip where it’s already used. To match that expansion, the Web is evolving.

But the Web is built by countless individuals — browser engineers who enable new technology, Web developers who bring that technology online, and standards group members who iron out compatibility wrinkles. With so many constituents, it’s no wonder there’s so much craziness in charting the Web’s future.

The new year will bring new chaos on the Web, and things will be sorted out in only some areas. Here’s a look at what’ll settle down in 2013 — and what won’t.

Alternabrowsers
iOS comes with Safari. Windows Phone comes with Internet Explorer. Android comes with its own browser and, for Android 4.x users, Chrome. It’s a very different way of doing things compared to the browser free-for-all in the PC market.

In 2013, though, there’s a chance people will exercise choice where they can and reject a future where browsers end up being effectively locked to the mobile OS.

The forces for lock-in are strong, if for no other reason that it’s just simpler to use a smartphone’s built-in browser. But don’t forget — there was a day when IE ruled the desktop browser world. In 2012, programmers laid the groundwork for big-name alternabrowsers.

Today, the companies that control the mobile operating systems -- Apple and Google -- lead the race for mobile browser usage.

Today, the companies that control the mobile operating systems — Apple and Google — lead the race for mobile browser usage.

(Credit: data from Net Applications; chart by Stephen Shankland/CNET)

We saw the arrival of Chrome on iOS and the reboot of Firefox on Android. iOS and Windows Phone place restrictions on third-party browsers, but Android is open, and other browsers there include Dolphin, Opera Mini, Opera Mobile, and UC Browser.

The restriction on iOS is that third-party browsers must use an Apple-supplied version of the WebKit browser engine that’s more secure but slower than the version Safari uses. Windows Phone and Windows RT have related restrictions.

On personal computers, it’s completely ordinary to switch to other browsers depending on security, performance, features. In the mobile world, that’s not the case.

But the alternative browsers — especially when companies like Google put marketing muscle and brand equity behind them — could convince people that maybe they should venture farther afield. With Android spreading into more hands than iOS, it’s possible the openness of the PC industry could

Oh, one more thing — don’t be surprised to see a Mozilla browser on iOS, too.

Firefox OS makes a peep
Mozilla announced some early progress with Firefox OS in 2012 — though it failed to deliver it during the year as it had planned. Expect the browser-based operating system, which runs Web apps and is geared for budget smartphones, in early 2013.

Firefox is barred from iOS and Windows RT, and it is a rarity on Android. Without a presence in the mobile market, Mozilla can’t use its browser as leverage to pursue its goal of an open Internet. Firefox OS, geared for smartphones and running browser-based apps, is Mozilla’s answer. With it, Mozilla hopes to break the ecosystem lock that is settling people into the phone-OS-app store-cloud service silos from Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon.

The first big Firefox OS partner is Telefonica, which plans to offer phones in Latin America with the operating system as a cheaper smartphones alternative.

“Mozilla’s prediction is that in 2013, the Web will emerge as a viable mobile platform and a third, alternative option to closed, proprietary walled gardens,” said Jay Sullivan, Mozilla’s vice president of products. Firefox and Firefox OS obviously are key parts of Mozilla’s effort to make that happen

Firefox OS won’t be an easy sell since inexpensive Android phones are common and iPhones continue to spread. But carriers can’t be happy ceding power to Google and Apple. And Mozilla doesn’t need to have 40 percent market share to claim victory: as long as its foothold is big enough to keep Web programmers from coding mobile sites only for the big boys.

Web standards divisiveness persists
Those hoping the end of a rift in Web standards governance most likely will have to keep on waiting.

The new frontier of emerging Web standards is populated by a hodge-podge of acronyms.

The new frontier of emerging Web standards is populated by a hodge-podge of acronyms.

(Credit: Bruce Lawson)

The World Wide Web Consortium long has played a central role in revising the standards out of which the Web is built, but a decade ago it chose to push a standard called XHTML that wasn’t compatible with HTML. The browser makers, it turned out, had veto power, and largely ignored XHTML in favor of advancing HTML on their own through a group called WHATWG. This split persists — and it’s not going away.

The W3C is enthusiastic about HTML and related Web standards such as CSS for formatting. But even as it’s ramped up its efforts, with plans to finish HTML5 standardization in 2014, the WHATWG has moved to a “living document” model that constantly updates HTML.

W3C CEO Jeff Jaffe has been trying to speed up Web standardization, with some success, and the W3C has remained relevant when it comes to CSS and some other work. But it has yet to fully regain its status with HTML itself, despite new members, new editors, and new energy. In fact, the cultural gulf in some ways appears to be widening. Even as the W3C’s formal committee machinations expand with new members, the WHATWG’s HTML editor, Ian Hickson, is moving the other direction. He said in a Google+ post:

Consensus (also known as “design by committee”) is a terrible way to design a language or platform. Committee design dilutes responsibility and blame (everyone just starts saying things like “yeah, I didn’t like it, but we had to do that to get consensus”) while letting everyone take credit for everything (since their ok is necessary to get consensus), which makes it an attractive proposition for people who want to further their careers without really doing any work…

You end up with a technology that doesn’t know what it is and doesn’t do anything well.

Web standards continue to evolve, but at least regarding HTML itself, it doesn’t look like either side will agree the other has the superior process.

High-res images on the Web
Apple’s Retina displays — the high-resolution screens used in iPhones, iPads, and MacBooks — enable a new level of crispness and clarity in images and text. Software makers have been gradually updating their programs with new icons, graphic elements, and abilities to take advantage of the displays. It’s been work, but not exactly a major re-engineering effort.

The W3C's new HTML5 logo stands for more than just the HTML5 standard.

The W3C’s new HTML5 logo stands for more than just the HTML5 standard.

(Credit: W3C)

But Retina on the Web is a very different matter. First of all, nobody likes slow-loading pages, and Retina imagery has four times the pixels as conventional imagery. Worse, more of the Web is moving toward mobile devices that have an even harder time managing big images and whose data usage is pricey, and you especially don’t want mobile users downloading multiple versions of the same image when they don’t need to.

At the same time, mobile devices are often held closer to the eye than PCs but using physically smaller screens with higher pixel densities. That means old assumptions no longer are valid about how many pixels wide a graphic should be. The technology to fix this has the label “responsive images.”

Standards to the rescue! But uh-oh: Two camps each favor their own approach — one called the srcset attribute, the other known as the picture element.

Resolution probably will come in 2013, though.

There have been emotional differences of opinion, but Robin Berjon, one of the five new HTML editors at the W3C, sees discussions as fruitful now. He said in a blog post:

We have two proposals for responsive images, the srcset attribute and the picture element. Both have now reached the level of maturity at which they can be most usefully compared, and this discussion is about to go through a new chapter.

Browser makers and Web developers are actively moving to high-resolution graphics and videos on Retina-capable devices, so regardless of what happens in standards groups, the responsive images issue will be fixed. After all, high-resolution displays are increasingly common, mobile devices are increasingly important, and nobody likes looking at pixelated, mushy images when they don’t have to.

Web bloat
The good news is the Web is getting steadily more sophisticated, powerful, and useful. The bad news is there’s a price to pay for those advantages. Unfortunately for those who have capped data plans or who live in rural areas with subpar broadband, that increase in Web sophistication means Web pages get bigger and take longer to fetch.

The HTTP Archive's records show a steady increase in the size of Web pages over the last two years.

The HTTP Archive’s records show a steady increase in the size of Web pages over the last two years.

(Credit: HTTP Archive)

There’s an old adage in the computing industry that the new horsepower that chips deliver is immediately squandered by new software features, so computers don’t actually appear to get faster. There’s a corollary in the Web world: As broadband spreads and speeds up, as faster LTE supplants 3G, so Web pages sponge up the extra network capacity.

The HTTP archive keeps tabs on the state of the Web, and it shows just how things are ballooning in its sample of tens of thousands of Web pages.

From December 16, 2010 to December 15, 2012, the average Web page increased in size from 726KB to 1,286KB. The amount of JavaScript increased from 115KB to 211KB. And the images ballooned from 430KB to 793KB.

An optimist can find good news here, too. Google has an entire team devoted to making the Web faster, introducing new technology such as SPDY to speed up servers and browsers. Browser makers obsessively test new versions to try to catch any regressions that would slow things down. New standards make it easier for Web developers to time exactly how fast their pages actually load.

And don’t forget the bloat is there for a reason. Do you really want to dial the Web back to 1997?

How I Learned to Rely on My Own Memory (and Stop Depending on Technology)

How I Learned to Rely on My Own Memory (and Stop Depending on Technology)

The majority of us rely on “external memory” of some kind. Whether it’s calendars, to-do lists, notes, or even Google Maps, we frequently outsource our memories to paper. I wanted to see how much I could remember if I ditched all these. Here’s how it went.

We talk a lot about to-do lists, and notes, but relying on moving your memory elsewhere means you spend a lot of time managing your notes instead of actually getting things done. They can be fantastic tools to help you remember things, but they can also be a burden.

For me, the big motivator was that I found myself pushing ideas onto paper, then immediately forgetting about them. They weren’t stewing and working to become better, they were stagnant and sitting in an unkempt state on my hard drive. So, I decided to take Jeff Atwood’s challenge:

Here’s my challenge. If you can’t wake up every day and, using your 100% original equipment God-given organic brain, come up with the three most important things you need to do that day—then you should seriously work on fixing that. . . You have to figure out what’s important to you and what motivates you; ask yourself why that stuff isn’t gnawing at you enough to make you get it done. Fix that.

I decided to take Atwood’s challenge a step further. So, for the last month I haven’t written down anything to remember it. I haven’t looked on Google Maps to get the exact address of a restaurant, I haven’t jotted down a quick note to remember an idea. I didn’t use shopping lists, to-do lists, or schedules. I even stopped looking up trivia facts on my phone. I wanted to see how much I could force myself to remember. In the end, I was able to remember a lot more than I thought possible. I remembered locations, lists, names, and even a complicated holiday schedule. Here’s how to make sure you remember everything without those tools.

Practice Makes Perfect

The first few days of this experiment were tough. I rely on my phone as an external memory device for far more than I thought I did. I often search for stupid trivia facts when I’m in conversation, or I’ll frantically whip out my phone when I’m walking the dog to write down an idea. Now, I have to dig through my memory to find those facts, and I have to actually remember an idea if I wanted to pursue it further. It’s not as easy as it sounds.

I deleted every app from my computer and phone I might use. I got rid of to-do lists, notes apps, my calendar, Google Maps, and anything else I might be tempted to write in. For everything that couldn’t be deleted, I just told myself I couldn’t write things down or look up information while I was out and about (obviously I still had to research and double-check things for work).

How I Embedded Lists In My Memory

Things like to-do lists, shopping lists, and schedules are probably the most common things we write down. It makes it easy to recall the information without expending any real brain effort. A while back I started turning my to-dos into a story to help me remember them, and I employed that same technique here.

Instead of merely writing out a list of what I have to do throughout the day, I turn it into a story. For example, here’s what a (shortened) to-do list for an average day might look like: four posts for Lifehacker, email grandma, get new tires, and cook lunch for tomorrow. Instead of putting all that into an app, I just mentally walk through the day: I wake up and bust out my four posts for Lifehacker. When I finish up, I email grandma a quick thank you note before heading out and dropping off my truck to get new tires. When I get home, I cook up dinner and then store everything for lunch tomorrow.

I did the same for everything else in a list format that needed my attention for the day. For shopping lists I mentally walked through the store in my brain and picked up what I needed. Scheduling things, I did the same thing. It took a few days to really get into the habit of this, and it was taxing to try and remember the non-recurring items (grab zip-loc bags at the store, pick up the dog’s medications). Eventually, it all settled into place and a quick runthrough of my day each morning was enough that I didn’t need to resort to apps or paper.

The reason this works is pretty simple. It essentially uses pattern recognition and “chunking” to create a web of information that’s tied together instead of a series of random things. When we link items together, we have a better chance of remembering them, and making a micro-story does just that.

Another trick is the memory palace, a technique that our own Melanie Pinola found useful for remembering random bits of information. The basic premise is simple: for each bit of information you need to remember, peg that information to a location in an imaginary home with an additional piece of weird information. For example, if you need to remember a grocery list, you can peg that information like: yellow bananas in a monkey’s hand on the porch, kiwi on a keychain in the foyer, an overweight Chewbacca eating sausage on the sofa, and so on.

With just a little effort I was able to train myself to remember my lists. Typically these weren’t longer than 20 or 30 items at the most, but it gave me the assurance that I could live without lists if I wanted.

How I Memorized Dates, Facts, and Other Random Information

Of course, our lives aren’t just lists. We need to remember all types of different things. We store everything from dates of events to short facts you want to remember. For me, this mostly included a splurge of holiday plans, tidbits of facts I wanted to remember for articles, and other minor things like where I saw a pair of shoes I wanted.

For all of these more random bits of information, I combined bizarre visual images with the information. In my case, this usually meant lurid images combined with mundane details. For (a tame) example: Bryan and Jen’s wedding is on August 24, the day Augustus spent 24 hours eating and puking cake non-stop. I will not forget that image, and every piece of information I need is right there, August, cake, and 24.

I did the same thing for other random details, including names (Betsy Sheff, like Betsy Ross the Chef who cooked the flag), and facts (William Taft on his sweet sixteen in a bathtub cursing corporations for the 16th Amendment).

Addresses were a lot easier. Instead of combining random bits of information I took the time to stop and look at the signs at the cross streets. The visual memory of the sign itself (not the physical address) was enough to help me remember. When I got an address wrong by a few blocks, I learned the right one pretty quickly as I navigated the city again. It turns out that getting lost is a pretty good way to remember where you want to go.

These techniques didn’t always work, of course. I’d occasionally have to ask again (“You said August 24, right?”), or on some occasions the memory was just lost completely. Once, I had to ask several friends to get the name of a person I was talking to because I had no idea what her name was or why she knew me.

But over time, I got better at remembering to remember. For me, that’s the crux of this experiment. When I actually pay attention and try to remember, I’m considerably more likely to remember something. I’ve had to rewire my brain away from the, “Oh, I can just look that up later,” or “I’ll put it in my calendar” mentality, and actually pay attention to what’s going on. Photo by Marcin Wichary.

Replacing My Notes with Fully Fleshed Out Ideas

Remembering notes, story ideas, and project ideas was the hardest part of this experiment. I love note-taking apps, and I write down every single idea I have. This was a hard habit to break.

I came up with two solutions. The first was to take single line ideas and combine them with bizarre visual images or mnemonics, just like remembering facts or names (Make Parking Better by Barking Letters). This worked great for when I was out in a car where I couldn’t take a note anyway, or if I just needed to quickly remember an idea while working on something else.

But when I had time to work through an idea, things changed considerably. My second approach was pretty simple: just start working. Instead of jotting down an idea for a post on Lifehacker, or whatever other project started in my head, I started work on it. For example, I had an idea for a writing and editing iOS app one day while watching a movie. Instead of jotting down the note, I started working out the interface and user experience. I didn’t stop until it was done, and then I emailed the idea off to a friend who actually knows how to program.

This was big for me. More often than not I come up with a problem I want to solve, and then leave it sitting there on a notepad. This forced me to start dealing with it right away. I had to pay attention to the idea and immediately start working through it actively. If I was out walking the dog and had a idea for a Lifehacker post, I started organizing and writing it in my head. If I was home playing video games I’d pause it and start typing. This cemented ideas in my head because they weren’t just single lines, they were actual half-baked plans.

How I’m Taking This Into the Real World

Obviously this is an extreme example that most people aren’t going to bother with. But it’s still easy enough to take bits and pieces and apply to your own external memory.

Ditching all the apps that help you remember doesn’t exactly improve your memory—I still forget things like my bike lock when I walk out the door, or that I’m out of olive oil—it’s more about teaching yourself how to remember. I feel like I’ve spent a lot less time dealing with to-do lists because, as Atwood points out, if it’s not important, I’m not going to remember it. And I’m okay with that.

As for other lists, I’ll stick to my paperless method whenever I can. Shopping and daily to-dos seem easy enough, but remembering far off dates or details will still get relegated to a calendar or tasks app. The same goes for Google Maps. I’ll continue to use to find a new place, but I won’t rely on it for directions or addresses to places I’ve been before.

Note taking, however, is something I’ll certainly return to, but with a few new rules. I like just jotting down an idea and leaving it to stew for a while—especially if it’s something that simply isn’t usable right now (like a Valentine’s Day post, or an idea for next Black Friday). However, if I have the time to instantly start working on something, I’m going to embrace that. It’s far too easy to plop a potentially brilliant idea away in a note where it gets forgotten. Forcing yourself to immediately start work on it captures that eureka moment and extends it for a little longer. Photo by Dvortygirl.