Netscape Navigator 1.0

So, Why Are Hyperlinks Blue, Anyway?

You’ve no doubt noticed by now that while some links are gold and/or bold, most links out there are blue, especially on web pages of yore. But why? the TL;DR answer is that the Mosaic browser, released in early 1993 used blue links, and since the browser was widely distributed, blue just became the norm. Okay, fine. But why did they choose blue? That’s a question that requires a deep dive into technology through the ages as the Web and personal computing developed in tandem.

It’s important to remember that the idea of hyperlinks predates the invention of color monitors, which thickens the plot a bit. But the pivotal point seems to be Windows 3.1, released April 6th, 1992, when hyperlink blue becomes a navigational and interactive color. A year later, the April 12, 1993 release notes for Mosaic include a bullet that becomes the point of origin for blue hyperlinks:

Changed default anchor representations: blue and single solid underline for unvisited, dark purple and single dashed underline for visited.Mosaic release notes

Around the same time, the Cello browser was developed at Cornell Law, which also used blue hyperlinks. So the blue hyperlink concept was arguably browser-agnostic even before Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer came along.

The writer speculates that blue was chosen to stand out against black and white once color monitors took over, and that seems legit to us. Can you imagine blue hyperlinks on Hackaday, though? Ouch.

Speaking of important questions in computing history — who invented the mouse?

FreeBSD Experiment Rethinks The OS Install

While the medium may have evolved from floppy disks to DVDs and USB flash drives, the overall process of installing an operating system onto a desktop computer has been more or less the same since the 1980s. In a broad sense you could say most OS installers require more clicking than typing these days, but on the whole, not a lot has really changed. Of course, that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement.

Among the long list of projects detailed in FreeBSD’s April to June 2021 Status Report is a brief update on an experimental installer developed by [Yang Zhong]. In an effort to make the installation of FreeBSD a bit more user friendly, the new installer does away with the classic terminal interface and fully embraces the modern web-centric design paradigm. Once the user has booted into the live OS, they simply need to point the browser to the loopback address at any time to access the installer’s GUI.

Now that alone wouldn’t be particularly groundbreaking. After all, Google has implemented an entire operating system with web frameworks in Chrome OS, so is making the installer a web app really that much of a stretch? But what makes [Yang]’s installer so interesting is that the web interface isn’t limited to just the local machine, it can be accessed by any browser on the network.

That means you can put the install disc for FreeBSD into a headless machine on your network, and use the browser on your laptop or even smartphone to access the installer. The Graybeards will point out that savvy users have always been able to access the text installer from another computer over SSH, but even the most staunch Luddite has to admit that simply opening a browser on whatever device you have handy and pointing it to the target machine’s IP address is a big usability improvement.

While the software appears complete enough to get through a basic installation, we should remind readers these are still early days. There’s currently no authentication in place, so once you’re booted into the live environment, anyone on the network can format your drives and start the install process.

Some sections of the GUI aren’t fully functional either, with the occasional note from [Yang] popping up to explain what does and doesn’t work. For example, the manual network configuration panel currently only works with WiFi interfaces, as that’s all he personally has to test with. Quite a modern installer, indeed.

Some would argue that part of what makes alternative operating systems like Linux and BSD appealing is the fact that they can happily run on older hardware, so we imagine the idea of an installer using a memory-hungry web browser to present its interface won’t go over well with many users. In our testing, the experimental installer ISO won’t even boot unless it detected at least 4 GB of RAM onboard. But it’s certainly an interesting experiment, and something to keep an eye on as it matures.

[Thanks to Michael for the tip.]

GridSound – An Audio Workstation In Your Browser

If you’re into creating music, you’ll have a surprisingly large variety of open source options at your disposal, ranging from Audacity as rather simple audio editor to Ardour as a full-blown, studio-worthy DAW — and LMMS, Rosegarden, MusE etc. for anything in between. With [Thomas Tortorini]’s GridSound project, you’ll have one additional choice on your list now, except this one runs in your browser. So if you find yourself in a sudden moment of inspiration, all you’ll need is a browser and off you go.

From the feature set’s point of view, GridSound leans towards LMMS and offers a drum kit, piano roll, and synthesizer. It appears that you won’t be able to record real world instruments at this point, but it’s also a work in progress, so who knows what the future will bring. The code is available on GitHub and you can explore GridSound itself here — no login required, unless you want to save your work. Running in a browser, GridSound is naturally written in JavaScript and uses the Web Audio API to perform the actual audio tasks.

What’s impressive is that [Thomas] opted against any UI framework-of-the-week, but instead implemented everything from scratch in pure vanilla JavaScript. In fact, the entire code base seems to be self-contained without any third party dependencies, and that alone deserves some respect. Sure, JavaScript isn’t everybody’s cup of tea — “real developers use assembly” — so if you prefer something more physical, how about some cardboard music?

PHONK – A Hacker’s Fun Shortcut To Android Programming

As the common myth goes, the average human utilizes only about 10% of the true potential their smartphone is capable of. Especially when it comes to electronics projects, it seems that we often overlook how we can integrate and take advantage of their functionality here. Maybe that’s not a big surprise though — while it isn’t rocket science, getting into mobile development certainly has its hurdles and requires a bit of commitment. [Victor Diaz] figured there had to be a better way, so he went on and created PHONK, the self-contained creative scripting toolbox for Android.

PHONK is installed like any other app, and allows rapid prototyping on your Android device via JavaScript by abstracting away and simplifying the heavily boilerplated, native Java parts. So instead of setting up an app from scratch with all the resources defining, UI design, activity and application lifecycle management — not to mention the Android development environment itself — PHONK takes care of all that behind the curtain and significantly reduces the amount of code required to achieve the task you’re actually interested in. In case you’re worrying now that you have to actually program on your phone, well, you can, which can definitely come in handy, but you don’t have to.

Once the app is opened, a web server is started, and connecting to it from any modern browser within the same WiFi network presents you the PHONK development environment with everything you need: editor, file browser, console, and API documentation. You can write your code in the browser, and pressing the run button will execute it straight on the device then. As everything is self-contained within the app itself, no additional software is required, and you can start right away by exploring the set of provided examples that showcase everything supported so far: sensor interaction, BLE server and client, communication protocols like MQTT or WebSockets, OpenStreetMap maps, and even integration with Pure Data and Processing. Attach a USB OTG cable and you can program your Arduino, have serial communication, or interface a IOIO board. You can even connect a MIDI controller.

This is really impressive work done by [Victor], and a lot of attention to detail went into the development. If you have an old Android phone collecting dust somewhere, this would be a great opportunity to revive it and build something with it. And as [Victor] writes on the project’s GitHub page, he’s always curious what people will come up with. If you’re thinking about building a mobile sensor lab, or want to learn more about the sensors inside your phone, have a look at the 36C3 talk about phyphox.

Firefox Reality, A Browser For VR Devices

The browser you are reading this page in will be an exceptionally powerful piece of software, with features and APIs undreamed of by the developers of its early-1990s ancestors such as NCSA Mosaic. For all that though, it will very probably be visually a descendant of those early browsers, a window for displaying two-dimensional web pages.

Some of this may be about to change, as in recognition of the place virtual reality devices are making for themselves, Mozilla have released Firefox Reality, in their words “a new web browser designed from the ground up for stand-alone virtual and augmented reality headset“. For now it will run on Daydream and GearVR devices as a developer preview, but the intended target for the software is a future generation of hardware that has yet to be released.

Readers with long memories may remember some of the hype surrounding VR in browsers back in the 1990s, when crystal-ball-gazers who’d read about VRML would hail it as the Next Big Thing without pausing to think about whether the devices to back it up were on the market. It could be that this time the hardware will match the expectation, and maybe one day you’ll be walking around the Hackaday WrencherSpace rather than reading this in a browser. See you there!

They’ve released a video preview that disappointingly consists of a 2D browser window in a VR environment. But it’s a start.

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Lowering JavaScript Timer Resolution Thwarts Meltdown And Spectre

The computer security vulnerabilities Meltdown and Spectre can infer protected information based on subtle differences in hardware behavior. It takes less time to access data that has been cached versus data that needs to be retrieved from memory, and precisely measuring time difference is a critical part of these attacks.

Our web browsers present a huge potential surface for attack as JavaScript is ubiquitous on the modern web. Executing JavaScript code will definitely involve the processor cache and a high-resolution timer is accessible via browser performance API.

Web browsers can’t change processor cache behavior, but they could take away malicious code’s ability to exploit them. Browser makers are intentionally degrading time measurement capability in the API to make attacks more difficult. These changes are being rolled out for Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Microsoft Edge and Internet Explorer. Apple has announced Safari updates in the near future that is likely to follow suit.

After these changes, the time stamp returned by performance.now will be less precise due to lower resolution. Some browsers are going a step further and degrade the accuracy by adding a random jitter. There will also be degradation or outright disabling of other features that can be used to infer data, such as SharedArrayBuffer.

These changes will have no impact for vast majority of users. The performance API are used by developers to debug sluggish code, the actual run speed is unaffected. Other features like SharedArrayBuffer are relatively new and their absence would go largely unnoticed. Unfortunately, web developers will have a harder time tracking down slow code under these changes.

Browser makers are calling this a temporary measure for now, but we won’t be surprised if they become permanent. It is a relatively simple change that blunts the immediate impact of Meltdown/Spectre and it would also mitigate yet-to-be-discovered timing attacks of the future. If browser makers offer a “debug mode” to restore high precision timers, developers could activate it just for their performance tuning work and everyone should be happy.

This is just one part of the shock wave Meltdown/Spectre has sent through the computer industry. We have broader coverage of the issue here.

The Worst CAD Package Ever Is Still Handy

A lot of great schematics wind up on the back of bar napkins or diner place mats. When inspiration strikes, you have to capture it, after all. Today, you are as likely to draw schematics on a computer and there are plenty of options for that; if you can install software your options are almost limitless. And if you have a modern Web browser, there are lots of good options that don’t even require an install.

But what about those times when you need a quick schematic to pop into a presentation? You are on some ancient conference room computer where you can’t install anything and it’s still running a browser that understands the <BLINK> tag? Try out the Klunky Schematic Editor. Your browser will need Javascript, but that’s about all. No HTML 5 or anything fancy.

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