Wednesday Sep 30, 2009

foaf+ssl in Mozilla's Fennec works!

At yesterday's Bar Camp in La Cantine I discovered that Mozilla's Fennec browser for mobile phones can be run on OSX (download 1.0 alpha 1 here). So I tried it out immediately to see how much of the foaf+ssl login would work with it. The answer is all of it, with just a few easy to fix user experience issues. I really am looking forward to trying the Nokia N810 Internet Tablet for real.

Anyway here are quick snapshots of the user experience.

Getting a certificate

First of all the best news is that the <keygen> tag, now documented in html5 works in Fennec. This means that one can get a client certificate in one click without going through the complex dance I described in "howto get a foaf+ssl certificate to your iPhone".

This is how easy it can be. Go to foaf.me.

After filling out the form, you can create yourself an account on foaf.me:

To make your WebId useful all you need to do is click on the "Claim account with SSL certificate" button -- which could certainly be phrased better -- on the account creation successful page:

Once clicked, your browser will start calculating a new public private key pair, send the public key to the server which will turn it into a certificate, and send that back to your browser, which will then add it to they keychain! All you will see of this whole transaction is:

The Fennec message here is a bit misleading: you should not in fact need to keep a backup copy of your certificate. Foaf+ssl certificates are very cheap to produce. And without a link to the keychain from the popup, most users won't know what is being talked about, or how to keep a backup. Also on a cell phone they may well wonder where to put the backup anyway. So in this case it is wrong, and not that helpful. Much better would be to have a popup say: "Your certificate has been installed. Would you like to see it?" Or something like that. Most people won't care.

Using the certificate

You can then test the foaf+ssl certificate on any number of sites. The foaf.me site has a login button for example that when clicked will get the browser to ask the user to choose a certificate. And, this is where the User Interface choices made by the Mozilla team are just simply embarrassing. Not unusable, but just really bad.

No user ever cares about these details! It is confusing. Do you think users have issues with URLs? Well what do you think they are going to make of the old outdated Distinguished Names?

Just compare this with the User Experience on the iPhone

Quite a few bug/enhancement reports have been reported on this issue on the Mozilla site. See for example Bug 396441 - Improve SSL client-authentication UI, and my other enhancement requests.

Still this user interface issue should be really easy to fix, as it is just a question of making things simpler, ie. of reducing the complexity of their code. And clearly on a cell phone that should be a priority.

Another issue I can see on the Fennec demo browser, is that I could not find a way to remove the certificates.... That would be quite an important functionality too.

But in any case using foaf+ssl on Fennec is the easiest of all cell phone browsers to use currently - and one of the rare ones, if not the only one, that works correctly! So kudos for that! Fennec and the Nokia N810 is the place to look for what a secure life without passwords, without user names, and a global distributed social network can look like on a mobile platform.

Thursday Jan 15, 2009

The W3C Workshop on the Future of Social Networking Position Papers

picture by Salvadore Dali

I am in Barcelona, Spain (the country of Dali) for the W3C Workshop on the Future of Social Networking. To prepare for this I decided to read through the 75 position papers. This is the conference I have been the best prepared for ever. It really changes the way I can interact with other attendees. :-)

I wrote down a few notes on most paper I read through, to help me remember what I read. This took me close to a week, a good part of which I spent trying to track down the authors on the web, find their pictures, familiarise myself with their work, and fill out my Address Book. Anything I could do to help me find as many connections as possible to help me remember the work. I used delicious to save some subjective notes, which can be found on under the w3csn tag. I was going to publish this on Wednesday, but had not quite finished reading through all the papers. I got back to my hotel this evening to find that Libby Miller, who co-authored the foaf ontology, had beat me to it with the extend and quality of her reviews which she published in a two parts:

Amazing work Libby!

70 papers is more than most people can afford to read. If I were to recommend just a handful of papers that stand out in my mind for now these would be:

  • Paper 36 by Ching-man Au Yeung, Laria Liccardi, Kanghao Lu, Oshani Seneviratne and Tim Berners Lee wrote the must read paper entitled "Decentralization: The Future of Online Social Networking". I completely agree with this outlook. It also mentions my foaf+ssl position paper, which of course gives it full marks :-) I would use "distribution" perhaps over "decentralisation", or some word that better suggests that the social network should be able to be as much of a peer to peer system as the web itself.
  • "Leveraging Web 2.0 Communities in Professional Organisations" really prooves why we need distributed social networks. The paper focuses on the problem faced by Emergency Response organisation. Social Networks can massively improove the effectiveness of such responses, as some recent catastrophes have shown. But ER teams just cannot expect everyone they deal with to be part of just one social network silo. They need to get help from anywhere it can come from. From professional ER teams, from people wherever they are, from infromation wherever it finds itself. Teams need to be formed ad hoc, on the spot. Not all data can be made public. Distributed Open Secure Social Networks are what is needed in such situations. Perhaps the foaf+ssl proposal (wiki page) can help to make this a reality.
  • In "Social networking across devices: opportunity and risk for the disabled and older community", Henni Swan explains how much social networking information could be put to use to help make better user interface for the disabled. Surprisingly enough none of the web sites, so taken by web 2.0 technologies, seem to put any serious, effort in this space. Aparently though this can be done with web 2.0 technologies, as Henny explains in her blog. The semantic Web could help even further I suggested to her at her talk today, by splitting the data from the user interface. Specialised browsers for the disabled could adapt the information for their needs, making it easy for them to navigate the graph.
  • "Trust and Privacy on the Social Web" starts the discussion in this very important space. If there are to be distributed social networks, they have to be secure, and the privacy and trust issues need to be looked at carefully.
  • On a lighter note, Peter Ferne's very entertaining paper "Collaborative Filtering and Social Capital" comes with a lot of great links and is a pleasure to read. Did you know about the Whuffie Index or CELEBDAQ? Find out here.
  • Many of the telecoms papers, of which Telefonica's "The social network behind telecom networks" reveal the elephant in the room that nobody saw in social networking: the telecoms. Who has the most information about everyone's social network? What could they do with this information? How may people have phones, compared to internet access? Something to think about.
  • Nokia's position paper can then be seen in a different light. How can handset manufacturers help put to use the social networking and location information contemporay devices are able to access? The Address Book in cell phones is the most important application in a telephone. But do people want to only connect to other Nokia users? This has to be another reason for distributed social networks.

    I will blog about other posts as the occasion presents itself in future blogs. This is enough for now. I have to get up early and be awake for tomorrow's talks which start at 8:30 am.

    In the mean time you can follow a lively discussion of the ongoing conference on twitter under the w3csn tag.

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