Approaching software with open eyes

You have to judge any product you use. Does it do what you want? Does it have hidden flaws that may bite you later on? You then have to make a decision based on your judgment and not just grumble. It’s amazing how many people claim to hate Facebook or Microsoft Word and keep using it in spite of the existence of many alternatives. If you use it, you have to decide how to use it. Even an annoying product can be more tolerable when used intelligently.

A lot of software is distributed for the largest audience and is dumbed down in various ways. The iThingy has its infuriating auto-correct. Word has defaults which get in the way of formatting things the way you want. Firefox seems to intentionally make it hard to tell if you have a secure HTTPS connection.

Some software is positively sneaky. I just launched the new version of Safari under OS X Mountain Lion and entered the so-called “private browsing” mode. 29 cookies mysteriously appeared, with domains including adsupply.com, advertising.com, google-analytics.com, huluad.com, and many others. Most if not all of these cookies were from sites I certainly haven’t visited since the last time I cleared cookies in Safari. I clicked “Remove all website data” and the number of stored cookies merely went down to 17. This puts Safari on my “don’t use if you can help it” list.

Software makers have to appeal to sophisticated users as well as the mass market. Even if we’re small in number, we’re the ones who write about the apps and can wreck the reputation of a product we hate. To keep us happy, applications generally provide ways to tweak them, even if they’re hard to find. When I start using a new piece of software, I always spend time going through its preferences to make it work the way I want it to. Not everything is in the preferences, though. In Firefox, a lot of changes require going through the “about:config” page. If you try to change things, Firefox says this will void your warranty (What warranty?), but you can change lots of things. You can tell Firefox you really want to know whether you’re on an HTTPS page (set browser.urlbar.trimURLs to false), that you don’t want animated GIFs (set image.animation_mode to none), and so on. To find out all the tricks, you have to search forums on the Internet. There’s a lot of good advice to be found — and even more bad advice, but with some effort you can usually tell the difference.

I’ve started evaluating a browser called iCab. I used it years ago and liked it, but it fell behind the system software when OS X came out. Its creators have caught up again now, and iCab offers a lot more options than any other browser I’ve tried lately. The evaluation version puts up a reminder periodically, which can be removed by registering the software for $20. I’ll register if I don’t find any serious problems. However, one thing it lacks is an equivalent of NoScript, which lets me select which domains I accept JavaScript from. I consider NoScript a lifesaver from the standpoint of both security and esthetics. But it’s useful to have two browsers running at once so I can keep both of my Twitter accounts logged in, and it’s good to have an alternative at hand in case Firefox takes a turn for the worse.

Some people treat software like a store-bought appliance that they just plug in and use, but it should be approached more like a used car whose quirks you have to learn and deal with. The consequences of a crash may not be as traumatic with software, but it’s worth having a measure of control. It’s certainly better than just complaining.

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