January 26th, 2009

JAVA Applets Debut in LuxSci WebMail

LuxSci has added plug-ins to its WebMail application in version 10.10 of LuxSci’s software which includes two JAVA applets.  So, were we hesitant to add JAVA applets, FLASH, ActiveX, and other plugins in the first place?  And why the sudden change of heart?  What does this mean for our customers who are concerned about security or who do not want or cannot use JAVA applets?

Why not use JAVA applets or other kinds of plugins?

LuxSci has restricted itself to using regular HTML, Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), and Javascript / AJAX on its sites. There are many reasons why LuxSci and many other sites avoid using other kinds of plugins and applets if possible.   They include:

  • Security: Plugins/programs all have a much greater access to your computer than JavaScript does.  They can access your hard drive and files and do many cool things.  This also makes them a security risk … if you run a malicious plugin and there is any kind of security hole in the underlying system (i.e. browser, or plugin infrastructure), you may be in trouble!  This makes users rightfully wary of using them or even enabling their use in web browsers.They should be wary.The ubiquitous JavaScript has itself been a serious vehicle for attack on browser, computer, and personal information via cross site scripting and may other kinds of attacks and vulnerabilities.  Even the lowly JPEG image format has proven to be a mechanism by which malicious programs could infect your computer!
  • Heavy: Web pages with these features load more slowly, especially for users on slow connections or with older computers.
  • Browser Support: Any use of plugins, applets, or other technologies will inevitably exclude some people from being able to use your web site.  None of these features are universally supported by all web browsers and operating systems (even JavaScript is not the same everywhere) and many will require users to manually install things before the new features can be used.
    • FLASH requires that the FLASH plugin be installed.  On many browsers, this has to be done manually by the user.  FLASH is not supported at all on some browsers.  In any case, use of FLASH will not be possible for some people.
    • ActiveX only runs on Windows.
    • JAVA runs on many browsers and operating systems (more than FLASH), but the JAVA plugin has to be installed on some systems manually.  Unlike FLASH, the JAVA implementation does not vary between browsers and operating systems.  FLASH has minor variations.
  • Technical Support: Use of these features results in increased technical support requests due to random issues with regards to browser support, compatibility, and usage.

So, with the end user’s security, ease of use of your web site, and your own technical support costs in mind, its is clear that there is no need for or gratuitous use of these technologies, no matter how fashionable they may purport to be.

Enter the LuxSci Xpress / Mobile WebMail portal

In fact, LuxSci has in the past gone in the opposite direction, providing a service that works for those who are extremely security conscious.  Many years ago, we introduced our “Xpress” WebMail portal.  Its design considerations included:

  • Providing as many of the standard features of regular LuxSci WebMail as possible.
  • No JavaScript: Does not use JavaScript at all.  Users can disable JavaScript support in their web browsers for enhanced security and still use and access the Xpress WebMail portal just fine.
  • No Cookies: Does not use any cookies for tracking information about users. Privacy-conscious users can disable the use of cookies in their web browsers to prevent tracking of their browsing activity between web sites — and LuxSci’s Xpress portal will still work just fine.
  • No Images: Uses almost no images (just a few structural ones) and does not display images or HTML attachments from your email messages inline to you by default.  This protects you from HTML and images as vectors for security problems and protects you from any kind of tracking when you open email messages. (Inline display of images and HTML can be enabled if you like in your preferences, if these are not concerns.)

One side effect of these requirements, in addition to enhanced security and privacy, is a very fast web site! We have recently updated the Xpress portal with one further requirement: mobile support.  Xpress WebMail now also works very well on mobile devices and PDAs that have very narrow screens.

LuxSci’s Xpress Mobile portal is a simple, fast, secure portal for WebMail that works on most web browsers of any size, as long as cascading style sheets are supported (which is considered universal these days).

Why would we then ever want JAVA applets or related technologies?

Well, there are many things that would make a web site more user friendly and which could save users a lot of time and aggravation.  And that can’t possibly be done with JavaScript.  Our clients have long requested some missing features and we have also wished that there were ways that we could implement them to our satisfaction.  Here are the features most relevant to LuxSci WebMail (and the ones addressed by the addition of our new JAVA applets):

  • Download Many Files at Once. In a regular web site, you can only download one file at a time, after clicking on a link.  If implemented by the web site, you could download a ZIP file containing many files, but then you still have to deal with unzipping it — and ZIP files can only be “so big”.  Wouldn’t it be great if you could select a bunch of files (maybe hundreds), point to a directory on your computer, and say “Download!” … and it would all be taken care of while you get a cup of coffee?
  • Upload Many Files at Once. On the other hand, lets say that you want to send many images to someone via email, or upload hundreds of documents to our online Documents storage area.  In the regular HTML and JavaScript world, you would have to upload the files by selecting each one in turn in its own “upload” form field.  This is exceedingly tedious.  It would be so efficient if you could just select a bunch of files on your hard drive and say “Here you go!”
  • Drag and Drop. Taking the previous two ideas one step further, it would be terrific if you could drag and drop files from the web site to your computer to download them, or drag and drop selected files from your computer to the web site to upload them…. just like you can with a normal application.  Well, in plain old “JavaScript land,” it is easy to drag and drop within a web page, but completely impossible to drag and drop with anything outside of the web page (like your local computer’s hard drive).

All of these things can be done using various plugins or applets, as those objects can access your local hard drive and can support interacting with your computer in a way that permits drag and drop.  These are among the features of LuxSci’s two new JAVA applets — the “Bulk File Uploader” and the “Bulk File Downloader”.

OK, but why choose JAVA and not something else?

We did some research on what the best and most effective way to implement these features would be.  We wanted to be sure that the solution would:

  • Work for the largest population of users and web browsers
  • Require the least amount of work from our users to get it running
  • Work on Windows, Macintosh, and Linux
  • Be most consistent between web browsers and operating systems

It turns out that JAVA fits these criteria better than any of the other available technologies.  JAVA support comes installed and enabled by default in FireFox, Opera, and Safari.  Some browsers (like Chrome and some versions of Internet Explorer) require you to download the JAVA plugin (but this is very easy).  Plus, all of the browsers that we normally support have excellent support for JAVA.  Also, JAVA applets have matured a lot in the last 10 years and are really much more stable and reliable than they used to be (though they still have issues here and there).

Also, JAVA has a really good security model and a good track record.

What features of LuxSci use the new JAVA applets?

LuxSci has added the following new features via the two new JAVA applets:

  • Download all attachments in an email message at once.
  • Download all selected email messages at once as individual “eml” files.
  • Download all attachments to Address Book, Calendar, Task, or Documents WebAide entries at once
  • Download all files stored in selected Documents WebAides matching any arbitrary search criteria
  • Upload up to 250 files at once consuming up to 1 GB of space to be attached to any WebAide Address Book, Calendar, Task, or Documents entry.
  • Upload up to 250 files at once consuming up to 1 GB of space to a Documents WebAide, making new Documents entries for every file (and optionally PGP-encrypt them in the process).

Additionally, in the near future, LuxSci will also enable:

  • Uploading multiple attachments at once when composing new email messages
  • Download all selected files from your Documents WebAides
  • … a yet to be finalized list of additional features

What about folks who don’t want to or cannot use JAVA? What about Security?

LuxSci has integrated these features in such a way that the conventional means of uploading and downloading files and attachments is presented first and the use of the JAVA applets for enhanced functionality is optionally accessible by clicking on a link.  This means that if you do not need or do not want to use the JAVA applets — you never have to use them or see them.  If you have JAVA disabled in your web browser — no problem, you will not be able to use these new “convenience” features, but you will still be able to do everything else.

It also means, even if you are normally against using JAVA and have it disabled, that you can choose to enable it for a little while should you find yourself needing to upload or download lots of things and want to save time.  When you are done, disable JAVA again.

So, the addition of these applets is unintrusive and does not detract from our security models.  We have essentially provided some new, optional tools for your tool box that can make life faster and easier on occasion, should you choose to use them.

And, making LuxSci simpler and more enjoyable.

One Response to “JAVA Applets Debut in LuxSci WebMail”

  1. Computer Technical Support Says:

    Good informative post.Thanks for sharing this blog.

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