Google Browser Sync: Two steps away from besting Yahoo's

Google Browser Sync: Two steps away from besting Yahoo's

Summary: I woke up Saturday morning to an email from Sun's Francois "Mr. JavaDB" Orsini that alerted me to Google Browser Sync.

TOPICS: Browser

I woke up Saturday morning to an email from Sun's Francois "Mr. JavaDB" Orsini that alerted me to Google Browser Sync.  If you've caught any of my previous blogs about JavaDB, then you know that I'm pretty excited about its potential to solve the so-called "offline" problem with Web-based applications like the recently released Google Spreadsheets.  Also referred to as "Webless applications," what's a Web-driven application to do when it has no Web to get its directions from or save its files to?  JavaDB has the potential to solve that problem because it uses a browser's Java compatibility (usually a plug-in) to store just about anything (data, HTML pages with Javascript, etc.) in a cache that technically doesn't require a separate filesystem. 

The idea I've been pitching to Orsini is the one where I'm on an airplane with no Web connection and I want to author a WordPress-based blog or write some Yahoo Mail-based mail.  Theoretically, with JavaDB, I should just be able to fire up my browser, go to my bookmarks for either of those applications, bring up the blog or email authoring page, finish my work, and press the submit button.  It could all work just as though I'm on the Web.  But where the magic could really come in is what happens the first time I reconnect to the Web.  Upon such reconnection, the Yahoo Mail I wrote would automatically synch up with the real Yahoo Mail and the blogs I wrote would automatically synch up with ZDNet's WordPress installation.

Taken one step further, if the architecture supported the use of a USB-based thumbdrive as the place where JavaDB stores everything, then, theoretically speaking, if all  your computing was Web-based (eg: if you used Web-based email, word processors, spreadsheets, CRM systems, Wikis, blogs, etc.), you might not need a PC anymore.  All you'd need is lots of Java-capable terminals with USB ports everywhere (kiosks, on the seatbacks in airplanes, in buses, at the office, at home, etc.). 

Pretty much everything for this to happen is in place.  In addition to support for Flash and Acrobat, a great many computing devices (PC, kiosks, etc.) already support Java though some may not have a USB port (also note that, because of its prevalence, some developers are experimenting with Flash to play the same role as JavaDB).  Per a demonstration that Orsini has been giving that shows an online tax application that works if your connected to the Web or not, JavaDB clearly has the capability.  Java even has USB support.  

But to go beyond the simple tax app proof of concept that Orsini is showing, someone has to sit down and write the code. The code that makes JavaDB emulate the repositories of popular Web apps like WordPress and Yahoo Mail (separate code for each).  The code to detect the loss of a connection and re-route all submits and gets to the JavaDB-based repository. The code to do the synching once a JavaDB-based repository (be it on a hard drive or a USB key) has a clear path to the real back-ends it needs to synch with.  I'm selfish.  I told Orsini that if he wants to generate a lot of publicity and make a lot of friends very quickly, to get it working with Typepad and Wordpress.   No word yet on where he might be with that.  But, in this weekend's email, he was clearly groking the idea of synch that I was talking about.  Wrote Orsini of Google Browser Sync, "This does in a way reinforce the the notion of 'synchronized web' which we discussed." 

It sure does.  It's just the reverse of what we've been talking about with JavaDB because in this case, it's the repository on the Web that has to be tuned to what's happening on the browser side as opposed to the browser with JavaDB being tuned to some specific Web application (where JavaDB emulates that application's back-end).  But the idea of keeping a browser's cache data synched with the Web, which is one of the things Google Browser Sync does, is only a stone's throw away from what Orsini and I have been talking about.

So, what exactly does Google Browser Synch (GBS) do?  It's pretty simple. First, it only works with Firefox 1.5 and up.  Second, once you install it, it synchs your  bookmarks, cookies, saved passwords, history, tabs, and windows to an online repository that Google runs on it's servers (through its configuration screen pictured below, any one of these can be turned off.  Third, once you configure your other installations of Firefox (perhaps at home or on another computer) with GBS, then all of your Firefox installations should stay in synch with each other.


In my tests, GBS asked me for my Google Account credentials (in my case, these were my Gmail credentials). Google associates your browser data with your credentials so that when you go to another computer that has GBS installed on it, it (1) knows where on Google's servers to find your synched data and (2) uses your credentials to securely access them.  Google adds an extra layer of security by forcing you to assign a PIN to your Firefox data.  Without the PIN, other GBS-enabled Firefox installations will not be able to get at your GBS data.

There are several obvious applications for GBS.  The first of these, as previously stated of course, is to keep multiple browsers in sync.  When I first discovered social bookmarkleting service, I was more excited about being able to access my bookmarks from anywhere than I was the social tagging part and I still use it for that purpose today.  But the one thing it doesn't do (that I hoped that it would) is synch those bookmarks with my various Firefox installations.  There's a way to fudge it.  You can pick up the RSS feed that goes with any one of your personal tags and subscribe to it with Firefox's Live Bookmarking feature.  But it's not synch.  If is unreachable for some reason (which it sometimes is), any Live Bookmarks that live off my RSS feeds disappear.  Another problem that I've noticed with excessive use of Firefox's Live Bookmarking feature is degradation in system performance.  So, I've been using the Live Bookmarking feature very sparingly in hopes that one day, Yahoo (which now owns would get some sort of synch working (as as side note, if everything universally and natively supported OPML, most of the heavy lifting needed for bookmark synching would be done).  

Ask and you shall receive,  I guess.  I wanted bookmark synching.  But instead of coming from Yahoo, it came from Google. That said, Google is still two steps away from taking what it has done (synching bookmarks, cookie, passwords, etc.) and besting  All Google has to do now is (1) give us Web-based access to the bookmarks it's already storing for us (can't be too difficult) and (2) take the tagging system it already runs for and make it available to GBS so we can tag our bookmarks. 

GBSreconnect.jpgThe last two data types that are synched (tabs and windows) bears some explanation.  At any given point, GBS is keeping track of what windows and tabs you currently have open in Firefox.  If you shut Firefox down, if Firefox crashes (which it does to me occasionally),  or, if you start up a GBS-enabled version of Firefox on another system, you'll get an opportunity, in very Opera-like fashion, to reopen those windows and tabs.  Cool.  One point, based on my tests, Google servers can only stay in touch with one GBS-enabled browser per Google account at a time.  While using a GBS-enabled version of Firefox on one system and starting a GBS-enabled version of Firefox on another, the GBS plug-in on the first system notified me that it had been disconnected (see partial screen shot, above right).

The other (and final for now) obvious application for Google Browser Synch is system switching/upgrading.  I know there are utilities for transferring everything on an old system to a new system.  But, for some reason, some of the more nuanced stuff doesn't seem to make it over.  So, at the very least, Google Browser Sync is a way to manage the transfer of some of your browser-based stuff.  All? Apparently not (at least not based on my tests).  The one thing I'd die for that didn't get transferred in my tests was Firefox's autocomplete-cache for filling out Web forms. Sigh.  Also, my browser's settings (for example, the page I want launched -- "about:blank" -- everytime I open a new Firefox window or tab) didn't get transferred. 

So, it's not perfect.  But, if Google takes just a couple more steps in' direction (or, if takes a bunch of steps in GBS' direction), I'd be one extremely happy camper.  

Topic: Browser

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  • Yes, this is what it will take for web applications to take off.

    Offline use, autosync, etc.

    Google also needs to make Firefoxe mandatory for advanced features since MS will do everything they can to make sure Google does not work very well.
  • Web Apps, no thanks

    With all the stories of personal info leaked and stolen all over the place, and no REAL workable security measures in place, I'll keep my data on the PC thanks. While nobody is safe if you connect to the internet at all, I'd still rather keep the bulk of my personal data off the web. You guys can enjoy the "convenience".
    • I'm in full agreement

      With the government apparently having the ability to scarf up private data without a warrant, or reasonable cause or even a hearing before a judge, I don't want google or yahoo or anyone else storing one byte of data on me that they don't absolutely have to. For this reason I use yahoo and gmail as a last resort. I'm a libertarian political activist (unloved by the government) and gay (unloved by the government) and a Second Amendment activist (unloved by the government). They can surely track my online life if they try but I have no plans to make it easy for them.
      • These are valid points that are obviously...

        ...driven home by recent events. Particularly the access that the Chinese government was given to data that people thought was safe-guarded by outfits like Yahoo.

        Thanks for the counterpoint. It's probably worthy of a blog unto itself.

        • Yes, this is becoming a Big Issue

          It's amazing how easily data is compromised or subpeonaed (sp?). All the more reason, IMHO, to have an architecture where I put my personal data on my own hard disk and/or thumb drive and use the web apps for their mobile, zero-install convenience, and incremental upgradability, without having to entrust my data to someone else.
    • Webapps can still manage data in a very secure way and locally

      Why would webapp not be able to offer this? it has been demo'ed already - I can create a webapp which will keep the user's private and sensitive data locally into some encrypted data storage...I can use a local and secure storage capability such as Apache Derby or/and Java DB (which is based on the first one)...
  • Offline or Online We're Talking Scary Stuff

    Web based apps could be a significant future reality but security implications should be #1, even above portability. A federal employee takes home a laptop that is lost compromising the social security numbers for thousands of military personel. Guess how much easier it is to lose or have stolen a thumb drive!
    • Some stuff shouldn't be "under your thumb"

      Clearly, what can be off-loaded to a thumb drive and what can't should be a matter of technology-managed policy. Some applications will and should require that there's no offline access. One advantage of a Web-based architecture is that lost notebooks doesn't mean lost data. It's not a perfectly clean scenario (admittedly, I'm contradicting myself here), but if the bigger question is about how to secure data that can potentially disappear in laptops, then, as a matter of IT policy where senstive data like that is involved, perhaps there shouldn't be an offline capability anyway.

      One other point is that there's no reason such data can't be encrypted (a solution that is divorced from the application architecture). If the data is going to be cached or stored in any device (thumb drive, notebook hard drive, etc, etc.), regardless of how it got there (web-app, ms -office, something else), encryption, two factor security, and other data-breach countermeasures can go a long way to ensure that lost or stolen storage is of little or no value to anybody but the "owner."


      • everything on ENCRYPTED flash drive

        I have thought for a long time that all important data should be on an encrypted flash drive and then you could use any kiosk to get work done. In fact, if the flash drive was part of your phone, simply walking up to an available terminal could allow you to establish a bluetooth connection where your web apps worked against the data on your phone. Only a matter of time. I can carry everything in my pocket except the large screen. :) The keyboard could be projected onto a flat surface via the phone and even the processor will eventually be sufficient. Just need to be able to make contact with a full size screen when doing any significant work.
    • Addressing security

      I agree, this is a big issue. Java DB / Apache Derby was architected from the get-go to work well on mobile devices. For this reason, security has been a big focus. In particular, you can encrypt your entire database using your choice of a number of strong encryption algorithms. App writers have to remember to enable this, but the capability is there.

      Personally, I'd rather keep my data encrypted on my thumb drive than entrust it to these corporate folks who could care less about my data security and seem to routinely let the data get compromised.
      • This way, at least big brother...

        has to go through YOUR lawyers rather than someone else's to get at YOUR data.

  • Interesting, but Google still the worst search engine

    Synching my bookmarks would be nice, ... but I really want to do all this through Yahoo, not Google.

    Google searches have proven terribly disappointing lately (within the last year). Searching for known web sites via obvious keywords always produces great results in Yahoo and MSN, ... but Google is either unable to find those web sites at all, or it puts them way down on the 2nd or 3rd page of the results (if you are lucky).

    Worse than that, the results are ever changing. The web site you found in position 15 of a Google search one day may end up being in position 27 the next day, or even briefly jump to position 7. No consistency. No rhyme or reason.

    Meanwhile, all the other search engines find the web sites I need within the top 3 or 4 results. By ALL, I mean Yahoo, MSN, AltaVista, AllTheWeb, A9, Vivisimo, Lycos, SearchSight, ... etc. I just did a comparative search using the same keywords on all of them. They are all better than Google.
  • gmail

    how about synching gmail contacts with a PDA or mobile phone?
    • Should be VERY doable.

      With so many phones supporting Java, it doesn't seem like it would be hard for Google, Yahoo, or any other contact management hoster to offer such functionality.

  • Giving Google your passwords?!

    The idea that people should give Google all their "bookmarks, cookies, saved passwords, history, tabs, and windows" gives me shivers.

    When W (or the Chinese gov't for that matter) asks for it, or your ex-wife's attorney's PI or your business competitor manages to impersonate you, your insecure storage of that data [i]will[/i] come back to haunt you and/or your employer. Think storing any of your business info (let alone passwords) on Google's servers would pass muster with your security people? I'd suggest you ask before doing it.

    Frankly, the idea that you would suggest offline storage of security credentials and other confidential data with an unaffiliated entity leads me to question how much thought you really gave this whole concept...
    • But why?

      Of course, nobody is holding a gun to anyone's head and forcing them to store anything on Google's servers. The only place you can store any data completely securely is in your head. Even that's not entirely safe, given the right interrogation techniques.

      The article only suggests that the tool offers you the facility of sharing your browsing settings between multiple computers, so that your online experience is not compromised.

      Finally, is there any indication that Google has any intention of using the stored data for any purpose other than providing a positive user experience?
  • SPOF!

    Speaking of single points of failure (well, I was), here we have it for sure. Maybe a good model for travelers, but not only do you need to be connected, and need Google to behave itself, and need Google servers to be available and responsive, but you need to have super strong protection against all kinds of hackers.
  • Fear and horror!

    In a nice world, with nice people, where no one existed anywhere who was intending to do us harm as we played like innocent babes with our tech toys, lounging about in our garden of wonderfulness and peace and tranquility -- this would be a delicious idea.

    In the world I unfortunately actually find myself in every morning, this is a recipe for fear and horror at all of the bad, bad things all the bad, bad people will do to us.

    A lovely idea for synchronization? I suggest not.
  • No PC a great idea

    Encryption works for the most security required uses. In any case you don't stick your butt on the web unless you want it kicked. Use this new tech responsibly and above board and it is a great idea. To reduce the hardware on my desk would be welcome and add those new glasses that show you a 40 inch screen as if you were 7 feet away and walaaa.
  • Yes, nice extension -- if it worked. It doesnt.

    Have attempted running GBS on multiple computers; it hangs on all of them after establishing connection with Google's server. Fails to synchronize/complete cycle. It seems to be alpha software and a premature release.