back to article Google's plan to make User-Agent string even less useful breaks our device detection tech, says NetMarketShare

NetMarketShare – which has supplied free statistics on browsers, devices, operating system, and search engines for the last 14 years – is ending its reports, with October 2020 being the last month covered. In a notice on its site, the California-based company said: "We are retiring NetMarketShare in its current form. October, …

  1. Claverhouse Silver badge
    Mushroom

    Original Sin

    I really don't see any justification for the original decision to let browsers declare their information to sites. If one lawfully accesses a site and it works what business is it of the site to see what one is using ?

    That let in everything else.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Original Sin

      It was historically used by the server to deal with the various and significant differences between different browsers and devices. The differences are significantly fewer these days and much of the decisions of how to render content are done client-side in javascript, but historically when the server rendered the HTML it needed to know what particular flavour of HTML to send you.

      1. Electronics'R'Us Silver badge

        Re: Original Sin

        Deep in the mists of time, there were a number of websites that would complain to Firefox and Netscape that their site 'only works with Internet Explorer' <some version>.

        Changing the UA string (pretty simple to do in Firefox) got rid of the complaint and in the vast majority of cases the site worked just fine.

        One company I worked for from 1998 had some developers in California (I was sitting in my office in Princeton NJ running Netscape on an SGI Indy) where an internal set of pages written by said developers gave me an error that 'your browser does not support frames'. Quite amusing really as those were invented at Netscape IIRC.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Original Sin

          Yes, in the midst of time... And just as it was breathing its final breath, out came a new generation of dumb coders who now use it to determine whether to present the normal web site, or a dumbed down "mobile" version..

          These people still think mobile web capability is like WAP, so much so that I won't use a mobile browser that doesn't let me permanently spoof my user agent to a desktop one.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Original Sin

        It was used for that, yes, but it was never designed for that.

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Original Sin

        That's not the reason.

        Back in the day, nobody really expected the WWW to be more than a convenient way to access files and resources across diverse machines whichever their architecture and wherever they might be.

        So the header was put there just because. Nobody gave it much though and somehow it made sense for it to be there, just like the From header, in which we used to put our email address.

    2. Dinanziame Silver badge
      Paris Hilton

      Re: Original Sin

      Isn't it still the way the server decides whether to redirect you to the website for mobile?

      But also, let us remember this was used by Microsoft to prevent people using Opera from accessing their MSN portal. That was back in 2003, when Microsoft thought that MSN could become a "trusted" part of the web, where everybody would want to go and they would control everything, and the rest of the web would become irrelevant.

      1. Arthur the cat Silver badge

        Re: Original Sin

        Isn't it still the way the server decides whether to redirect you to the website for mobile?

        Not if you have a modern "mobile first" web site. Having two different versions of a web site is a PITA for all concerned.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Original Sin

        > Isn't it still the way the server decides whether to redirect you to the website for mobile?

        No, with the exception of some weird sites such as Wikipedia.

        Anyone else (who know what they're doing and have refreshed their site in the last ten years) use only one site and one code base. The styling is then taken care of by your CSS rules (CSS is the domain-specific language that controls how content is shown and interacted with, and complements HTML which describes the content); this styling is normally based on the characteristics of your viewport as reported by the browser rather than the type of device the browser runs on. For instance, if you navigate to a well designed site you should see its pages morph from "desktop" to "mobile" and vice-versa as you change the size of your browser window.

  2. Neil Barnes Silver badge
    Flame

    We expect this change to improve compatibility...

    Surely if the standards were being followed, there would be no incompatibility? As Claverhouse suggests: the site should not need to know.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: We expect this change to improve compatibility...

      You are new to IT standards aren't you?

    2. alain williams Silver badge

      Re: We expect this change to improve compatibility...

      Trouble is which version of the standards ... 'the standard' is not so meaningful in a world where they are continually evolving and browsers implement features in different orders over time. See https://caniuse.com/

      Listing all of the features supported (maybe partially) is hard as there are so many of them. So, if you are at the bleeding edge browser+version+browscap-database might be what you have to do -- or resort to javascript magic.

      Screen/viewport size ... should not be needed, CSS can handle that.

      If the browser lies: well, in theory, if things go wrong the will blame the browser - in practice the user will blame the web site.

      1. dajames Silver badge

        Re: We expect this change to improve compatibility...

        Trouble is which version of the standards ... 'the standard' is not so meaningful in a world where they are continually evolving ...

        The browser should, rather than identifying itself, identify the most recent version of the standard(s) with which it is fully compliant.

        ... and browsers implement features in different orders over time.

        Which they should not do ...

        It's not as though anything in the standards should be a surprise to the major browser-writers, they all have representation on the bodies that agree those standards.

        1. FILE_ID.DIZ
          Facepalm

          Re: We expect this change to improve compatibility...

          It's not as though anything in the standards should be a surprise to the major browser-writers, they all have representation on the bodies that agree those standards.

          That presupposes that the user chose to keep an up-to-date browser.

        2. alain williams Silver badge

          Re: We expect this change to improve compatibility...

          The browser should, rather than identifying itself, identify the most recent version of the standard(s) with which it is fully compliant.

          It does not work like that.

          To start with browsers have to implement many standards that are independent of each other and churn out new versions at their own pace: HTML, CSS, Javascript, image formats, network protocols, ...

          Next: each of these new standards 'version' come up with many new features or varying difficulty. Eg look at Javascript. Should the browser wait until they are all implemented before making a new release ? No: they will come out with them as they are ready.

          It is much more complicated than meets the eye.

          1. dajames Silver badge

            Re: We expect this change to improve compatibility...

            It does not work like that.

            No, it certainly doesn't ... but ...

            ... browsers have to implement many standards that are independent of each other ...

            Yes, they do, and they could be required to advertise their support for each of those standards independently. I wasn't suggesting a one-size-fits-all approach to versioning.

            Indeed, a browser might not implement some standards at all, and servers would then be at liberty to refuse to deliver the content, to deliver partial content, or to render the page in a different way (if they could be bothered).

            ... much as they do at the moment, but based on clear and unambiguous information about the browser's actual (claimed) capabilities rather than a bit of guesswork based on a (possibly falsified) User-Agent string.

            It is much more complicated than meets the eye.

            That depends how attuned your eyes are.

      2. Steve Davies 3 Silver badge
        Flame

        Re: Trouble is which version of the standards

        Back in the day.. it is Microsoft and IE6 that defined the standards.

        Not the standard is whatever Google decides that they would be...

        This is clearly wrong but that's life and us plebs have to accept it.

        An the browser designers just have to lump it. Google + Chrome controls the internet even if many of us would rather wash our mouths out with soap than use Google for anything.

        Certainly time for google to be broken up. I'd go for a million tiny pieces.

        1. The obvious

          Re: Trouble is which version of the standards

          Obligatory XKCD

          https://xkcd.com/927/

    3. Charlie Clark Silver badge

      Re: We expect this change to improve compatibility...

      Relying on the User Agent string was always broken, servers shouldn't be using this before deciding which content should be served. Client hints are definitely a more granular approach and can be disabled by the browser. In general, they shouldn't matter but there are cases where they can help in content negotiation.

      Apple probably won't bother with them as is the case with much of the newer stuff that it didn't come up with itself.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: We expect this change to improve compatibility...

        Very much this!

      2. IGotOut Silver badge

        Re: We expect this change to improve compatibility...

        Agree.

        Webp anyone?

      3. tfewster
        Facepalm

        Re: We expect this change to improve compatibility...

        One website I know of stopped working because the UA was (honestly) reporting "Firefox-Linux", and the Webdevs claimed they didn't support Linux. A quick hack of the UA later, normal service was restored.

  3. Greybearded old scrote Silver badge

    Well

    I'll be blocking client hints as soon as Firefox or an EFF extension gives me the option.

    1. IGotOut Silver badge

      Re: Well

      Good luck with FF android.

  4. pavel.petrman Silver badge

    I suggest a rename...

    Not-so-generic Browser Fingerprhints.

  5. cd

    The problem for Google is that user-agent switcher extensions and simple editing of UA are possible, making it harder for them to track and label individuals.

    As always disguised as "for your benefit".

    I change my UA randomly, makes no discernible diff in browsing experience.

    1. Arthur the cat Silver badge

      I change my UA randomly, makes no discernible diff in browsing experience.

      A few years back I'd set my UA string to mimic IE6 to do some testing, got interrupted and forgot I'd made the change. When I next went to the Google search page it was distinctly retro(*) which confused the hell out of me until I realised what was going on.

      (*) Not quite spinning dollar signs and animated men at work signs, but very old fashioned.

  6. HildyJ Silver badge
    WTF?

    Their loss

    I use Firefox with all its tracker blockers on and uBlock Origin.

    As a result, some sites look funky and some sites break.

    I can live with that. If a site doesn't work, I'll find a different site.

    Ultimately it's the site that is losing my business by trying to be too fancy.

  7. vtcodger Silver badge

    Prior Art

    Genesis -- Chapter 11

    [11:1] Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.

    [11:2] And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.

    [11:3] And they said to one another, "Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly." And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar.

    [11:4] Then they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth."

    [11:5] The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built.

    [11:6] And the LORD said, "Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.

    [11:7] Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another's speech."

    [11:8] So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.

    [11:9] Therefore it was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

    ---------------------------------------------------------------

    Is it possible that the answer to the problem of great complexity is not greater complexity?

    1. IGotOut Silver badge

      Re: Prior Art

      I read that and think "sheez, what a dick".

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