In defense of the URL

Does the URL need defending? The URL has been under attack seemingly since the beginning of the Web. When I was busy launching web sites for magazines and journals in the mid-90s, I remember a radio ad (have no idea what they were advertising) where a clueless sounding guy complained:

“I just double-u double-u double-u don’t get it!”

Back then, the future of the Web and indeed the Internet as a ubiquitous communication medium was far from certain. Scores of voices, including big successful companies like AOL and Microsoft, were still pushing a more “cable TV” type approach to the delivery of digital content and services. In this model, service providers got to control the experience,  and be a funnel for delivery of services to people. Content providers that partnered with AOL would publish their “AOL keyword” on advertisements. Then AOL-competitor Microsoft Network tried to sew up exclusive content deals with newspapers – they wanted to be the sole source for news online. And remember – at this time, if you wanted to use AOL or Microsoft Network (or any of their competitors) you would have to “dial up” to that service, use their client and  then everything you saw from then on would be controlled by that company.

People rejected this approach in favor of the open web. People learned to decouple Internet access from the services they used, the web browser became the way people experienced online services giving those providers direct control over the user experience without any intermediary, and the URL became the cornerstone of that experience. The “dot com” era was born.

The URL is based on the domain name system (DNS) which is distributed in nature and not beholden to any one company, organization or government. Domains are cheap ( costs the same as and once you have one you can do whatever you want with it. And once you type the URL of a web site into the address bar of your web browser, you make a direct connection to that service. No intermediary service gets in the way. When you type, you go to Facebook. That is the way the web works and one of the reasons it has become such a powerful platform.

My feeling is that after 20+ years, people understand URLs. A 2014 pew research study of users’ “Web IQ” found that 69% of American Internet users knew that URL meant “Uniform Resource Locator.” That frankly surprised me – I think fewer people generally know the term URL. But I bet if you presented people with a URL and asked them “what is this?” they would tell you something like “it’s a web address,” “it’s a web site,” “it’s an internet address,” “it’s a link” or something that indicated they basically knew what it was. Furthermore, I bet most people would know what to do with that if you put them in front of a web browser and told them to go to that site. Yes – some of them would go google and then type the URL into the search box. They would still get to the site in question.

So why do marketers still seem bent on the URL’s destruction? Today I came across a bit of advertising on the Tube from Transport-for-London (the organization that runs the Tube)

This tweet elicited an almost instantaneous response:

The thing is: @Codepope isn’t wrong. But he doesn’t need to be wrong for me to be right. Yes, people do search more than they type URLs in. That doesn’t mean we should be ditching URLs in favor of pointing people to search engines. TFL could just as easily have posted a URL such as “” which would give people exactly the information they are looking for without any intermediary step. And, as discussed, if people typed that into a search engine it would go to the same place – search engines are savvy that way. But sending people to a search engine with a few random words defies logic in that it cedes back power and control of the experience to intermediaries (search engines and app stores). The argument on the “pro search” side seems to be “people can remember them better” but (a) I don’t see any evidence and (b) isn’t this a self-fulfilling prophecy? Surely it’s in the best interest of content and service providers to keep people using their URLs as it eliminates the middleman and allows people to connect to them directly.

I just  W W W don’t get it!

My actual theory of why marketers want to kill the URL: they don’t see an angle in it. A marketer who has been going to SEO conferences all year and getting an ear-full about how to cook search results by spending money takes a look at the relatively cheap URL and says “that can’t be as good because it doesn’t cost as much” which leads through a kind of sunk cost bias to the notion that search terms are easier to remember than URLs.

My research on this topic has shown me one thing: researching use of the URL is really hard. Unfortunately, I think this because most search engines aggressively ignore the term URL. I haven’t found any research studies that support or weaken my hypothesis. That Pew study gave me some hope that I’m not entirely off-base though. What do you reckon?

Posted in Web


Jeremy Keith’s post on owning his own words has reminded me about the importance of running your own blog in your own space that you control. Of course, I’ve long been a supporter of this idea, but I’m afraid the ease-of-use of Medium has pulled me over to the dark side where I’ve recently been more prolific. Of course, the “barrier to entry” that Jeremy cites is not the only reason I moved to Medium. It is easier to compose there, largely because of the great work they’ve done on a web-based editor. But the main reason I started posting on Medium has been engagement. I simply get more engagement (views, ❤️s, comments, re-shares, tweets) on my Medium posts than I ever did on my blog. Case in point: I wouldn’t have read Jeremy’s original post if I hadn’t seen it on Medium (sorry, Jeremy). There’s a value to the platform that Medium provides. But there’s also a value to owning your own words. I’m also a little disappointed that Medium keeps trying to push their app on me when I’m on mobile devices instead of building a great progressive web app, but that’s a different story.

I run this blog on a self-installed WordPress. So today I’m experimenting with a WordPress plugin for Medium which may allow me to have my cake and eat it too. I’m going to use the blog as the primary platform and see whether I can still get the same level of engagement on Medium.

Update: After making this post, I discovered that subsequent edits to the WordPress post are not reflected on Medium so that’s one strike unfortunately against this method. Why can’t anything ever be easy?

Posted in Blogs, Web

Why are Web Companies Biting the Hand that Feeds Them?

Why are Web Companies Biting the Hand that Feeds Them?

Posted in Misc

WTF Lanyrd?

I posted the following on Medium earlier today. Basically I have just had it with Lanyrd’s downtime and the seeming unwillingness of parent EventBrite to make any investment in this important service. Let me know what you think and more importantly suggest some alternatives.

Dear EventBrite and Lanyrd: WTF?

Posted in Technology, Web

How do I “Use” Apple Watch?

So one question I get asked a lot about my Apple Watch is “how do you use it?” (Or sometimes ”how often do you use it?”) From my experience with the Apple Watch thus far, this isn’t the right formulation. In one sense you’re always “using” it because it’s always on you. It isn’t usually something you affirmatively use though. It’s more about the notifications and the ways in which it can replace (mostly with better / easier overall user experience) some functions of the iPhone.

Apple WatchAt right is my boarding pass for a recent flight I took to Vienna to speak at the Uberall App Congress. I presented this image at the end of my talk (which was about how app developers should better make use of the web) to illustrate a point. I was able to get my Austrian Air boarding pass on my wrist without the need for a special Austrian Air app either on my phone or on my watch. The check-in took place on the web site (used from my phone’s browser in this case) and the passbook boarding pass was delivered by email. Once the boarding pass was in passbook, it magically loads into the watch. When the time for the flight drew near, a notification appeared on the watch bringing me directly to the boarding pass. The only slightly cumbersome bit was scrolling down to the 2d barcode with luggage and passport in hand – certainly no less cumbersome (and accident-prone) than fishing out your phone to do the same. The mobile payment scenario for Starbucks is similar, by the way – thought that does require an app install.

I’ve also been pleasantly surprised as how much I’ve been using it for “activity tacking” especially since I’ve never done activity tracking before nor ever felt a burning need in my life to track my activities.

But certainly the main thing I find myself “using” the Apple Watch for is notifications – notifications of text messages / iMessage, Twitter & Facebook activity, Photo sharing activity, LinkedIn activity, Slack activity, calendar entry alerts and the like. The haptic feedback means you never miss an important notification yet also gives you the power to silently ignore or quickly dismiss alerts when appropriate and and in a much less interruptive way than pulling out a phone. In practice this means I feel more in control of my digital life. Because the haptic feedback is not perceptible to anyone besides you and because it’s not visual, you’re not subject to “distracted talking” syndrome a-la Google Glass. By the way, one of the first things I did on configuring the watch was to turn off all email alerts. This is not a device for email – especially with the amount of spam I receive. I’m also still unsure on things like breaking news alerts – I think this only works until New York Times decides to alert me about something I don’t care about.

Things that need work on the Apple Watch, software wise, include the wifi connectivity. The promise is that when you’re on (e.g.) your home wifi network, you can leave your phone in one room and walk anywhere else not necessarily within bluetooth range but still in the same wifi network and your watch will remain connected to your phone. In practice this works maybe 80% of the time. In trying to debug the issue, I’ve found that that both the watch and the phone are indeed on the wifi (by inspecting the access point config) but that they are somehow not communicating. So there is some work to do there. Another issue is that the “turns on when you look at it” feature is maybe 90% reliable – leaving plenty of times when you’re stuck looking at a blank screen. Another feature that would be great but is currently, well, not so great is walking directions. The functionality is that it guides you (via haptic feedback and highly contextual alerts such as “make a left on Carnaby Street in 20 yards”) as you’re walking to your destination. It would be great if it worked. My experience using it in London is that it needs some work. For example, “enter the roundabout” is not a useful walking direction. I expect this to improve with IOS9 but it would be great if I could get Google walking directions (and cycling directions) on the watch. Finally (and this is more of an IOS issue than a Watch issue) I want Safari push alerts on IOS. These push notifications already work well on Safari on Mac OS and it’s hight time Apple brought them to IOS (as Google has done with Chrome for Android).

All in all, I’m very happy with Apple Watch and I definitely think it has the potential to open up the wearables market and make the smart watch as common as the smart phone has now become. There’s been quite a lot of debate recently about how successful the Apple Watch is / will be and how successful it needs to be. This is, to a large extent, a new category of product so it’s difficult to define what success is. Eight years ago Apple opened up the smartphone market with the iPhone. I remember a lot of grumbling back then about how people “didn’t want” touch screens, etc… Well, the doubters have been proved wrong and we are now firmly in the middle of the mobile era. Will the Apple Watch herald the next phase in innovation? My bet would be yes, it will.

Posted in Technology

Keybase: Reinventing PGP For the 21st Century?

Let’s face it, PGP is pretty old school. It’s like pocket-protechor old-school. I’ve personally taken several runs at trying to get PGP up and running. The problem has always been: once I get PGP working, there’s nobody to send encrypted email to. PGP just has never had enough scale to get even close to mainstream. Enter keybase, which is trying to revolutionize the way people use and think about PGP with a friendly web site and integration into services such as Twitter, reddit and github. I finally cajoled an invite out of a friend today and have been giving it a whirl.

My first impression is that Keybase does not entirely solve the problem of making public-key encrypted email work better. For one: if you want to incorporate PGP email into Apple Mail, you still have to download and install GPG tools, and the command line keybase tools (which require Node and NPM). And though there is some integration between the GPG tools and the Keybase tools, it’s fiddly and requires lots of command line usage (e.g. to make sure people you “track” on the Keybase web site also have their public keys imported into your GPG keychain so you can send them encrypted emails from within Apple Mail. AND you have to use GPG tools to manually add additional email addresses into your key, if you generated the key with Keybase. So that’s a pretty high bar if you want seamless PGP email from the desktop. I haven’t even tried to get it running on any of my mobile devices yet – which will definitely mean moving to a new email client (or just not being able to access encrypted emails on mobile, which is not ideal). There’s a lot of work going on to remedy these issues if the github issue threads are any indication.

What Keybase does allow you to verify PGP signatures without physically validating fingerprints in person, though proofs you add to your social networks.

Anyway, I now have some keybase invites. If you would like one, please message me in some way and have a look yourself.

Posted in Misc Tagged with: ,

Mixed Feelings About the UK Government #Cyberstreetwise Campaign

Tube Ad for Cyberstreetwise campaign

Watch out for spammy emails! Or mimes!

So the UK government seems to have launched a new public awareness campaign dubbed #cyberstreetwise  (evidenced by posters in the Tube I spotted this weekend). The campaign’s web site is : Bonus points for a https URL. Negative points for choosing a “.com” domain instead of a more appropriate “” or even “.uk” domain.

So first of all, I was confused initially about who was supporting it. The logos at the bottom left panel include HM Government but also the more recognizable Facebook and Twitter logos (without explanation) which seems (to me) to mean “this is being sponsored by the government, Twitter and Facebook” or possibly “this is a government initiative with sponsorship provided by Twitter and Facebook.” In fact, reading the web site, it appears that neither Twitter nor Facebook have any formal role, so the presence of their logos is somewhat mystifying. I Suppose they just mean “we are on Twitter and Facebook” but honestly, these days who isn’t? [Side note: what is up with random Facebook and Twitter logos on things?  See my Twitter update on this topic that seemed to “go viral” earlier today.]

But putting this to the side for a second, I really don’t know what to make of this campaign. On the one hand, it’s exactly the kind of public awareness campaign thatI feel is needed. People need to start getting more aware of the the web basics, especially around privacy, e-safety, scams. use of strong passwords, installation of updates and use of security software. So yes. Great. But the information provided doesn’t seem to cover a lot of the key basics that I would think need to be covered. For example, under “privacy” i find no mention of private browsing modes or when you might want to use them, and no discussion of tracking on the web.

Tube Ad for Cyberstreetwise campaign

Download all updates at all time, cyber-citizen!

Under “keeping your child safe online” I see “Parental controls are available through your internet provider.” but no mention of Apple’s built in parental controls. More importantly, the text on this screen looks like a placeholder. As I’m leafing through their site, I’m asking “where is the actual content?” It feels like this could be a good use for wizards or possibly a cartoon. Also this campaign seems to be aimed both at businesses and families, and those are two different groups with different needs – so that’s weird. Finally some of the advice is a little questionable. For example: always download updates. Yes, but: sometimes phishing scams can masquerade as software updates as a vector to get malware into your computer. I know that’s a difficult message to package into a Tube advert, but it feels like the messaging could be better thought through. “Sign up to security software provided by your bank, such as Trusteer Rapport.” No. No, no, no. Judging from my experience with the software my own bank was trying to push me, I don’t think this is good advice – at all. Rather, how about educating people about how they can click on the padlock icon in their browser to verify the provenance of that certificate.

So I haven’t done a rigorous analysis of the whole campaign, but I’m of two minds about what I’ve seen so far. On the one hand: yes, it’s needed and yes, some good info. On the other hand some of the info provided makes me suspicious about its provenance and whether or not it has all been fact-checked by actual domain experts.

What do you think? Leave a comment here or on my Google+ post.

Posted in Politics, Technology Tagged with: ,

HTML5 is done, but two groups still wrestle over Web’s future – CNET

#HTML5  goes to "Rec." Definitely worth celebrating. But also, Web Standards are messy. This CNET article by +Stephen Shankland really does a good job of peeling that back. Bonus points for featuring a #w3cmeme .


The World Wide Web Consortium finishes an update to this seminal Internet technology, but with two organizations in charge of the same Web standard, charting the Web’s future is a mess.

Posted in Misc

“Anonabox”: One-Stop-Shop for Internet Privacy?

AnonaboxAccording to The Verge, the “Anonabox” Kickstarter is Trying to be a One-Stop-Shop for Internet Privacy.

So the hacker in me loves the idea of this, but actually I think it’s probably over-kill (and an over-promise) for most people’s web privacy needs.

First of all, if you want to surf the Web through the Tor network you just have to download an install the Tor browser bundle ( – also see this Guardian article from last year: . This application download actually pairs a heavily customized (with additional anonymity-enhancing features) Firefox browser with the Tor networking software. But even that is overkill for most casual “private browsing.” If you are just trying to search privately (for example, for medical-related topics that you don’t want showing up in your ads the next time you search the web) then the private browsing modes that now come as standard with modern browsers (Chrome calls it “incognito”) are perfectly fine. What these modes don’t protect you from is your network provider (ISP) snooping browsing. Tor does encrypt your network traffic (to the Tor service) but it comes with major downsides such as slowness. Because of the way Tor works, routing your traffic around the Internet until it finally pops out onto the public Net at an “exit node”, your traffic will also appear as if it’s coming from another country than the one you live in. So for example if you live in the UK you will find BBC iPlayer will not work through Tor. Also if you run all your traffic through Tor but don’t use private browsing modes, or Tor’s special browser build, then you are still exposing yourself to tracking through cookies, fingerprinting and other techniques.

But if you do use TorBrowser it also blocks certain technologies such as Flash player, so it’s a trade off.

Basically people need to gauge how much privacy they need in a given situation and employ the right tool for the job. Unfortunately it doesn’t look to me like anyone is working to drive general public awareness of Web privacy these days, which is a shame.

Posted in Technology, Web Tagged with: , ,

Yosemite Hand-off and tel: URIs

Just playing around with the new “hand off” (I guess this falls under) feature in IOS8 / Yosemite. If you have a phone number in a web page suitably marked up as <a href=”tel:…”>link</a> and visit that page with Safari, clicking on the link will automatically send you to the FaceTime calling application which will start calling the number from your (i)phone with the audio piped through your Mac. Very neat trick!

Posted in Technology Tagged with: , ,