File Under: Browsers

Chrome Extension Opens MS Office Docs in the Browser

Viewing MS Office docs in Chrome. Image: Screenshot/Webmonkey

Google Chrome OS users have long enjoyed the ability to open Microsoft Office documents right in the web browser. Now Google is expanding its MS Office support to include Chrome on Windows and Mac as well.

The new Office Viewer beta is an extension for Google Chrome. You’ll need to be using Chrome 27 or better (currently in the beta channel), but provided you’re willing to use the prerelease version, you can install the new Office Viewer (also a beta release) from the Chrome Store.

The new extension can open most Microsoft Office files including .doc, .docx, .xls, .xlsx, .ppt, .pptx. The interface is very similar to the existing PDF view in Chrome and comes from QuickOffice, which Google acquired last year.

The main downside to the new plugin is that it’s definitely still a beta — very buggy and rough around the edges. In my testing two very simple spreadsheets simply didn’t open and selecting text in .docx Word documents was hit or miss; sometimes it worked, other times it was as if the document had been converted to an image.

On the plus side your MS Office files open in a specialized sandbox which protects you from any malware and viruses lurking in the files.

Still, there are enough rough edges that Chrome’s Office plugin isn’t ready for prime time. While it’s a necessity on Chrome OS, which has no Microsoft Office suite, everywhere else you’re probably better off using Google Drive to view files when you’re online (assuming you want to use Google services, Zoho Docs works well if you don’t), and Microsoft Office or Open/Libre Office when you’re not.

File Under: servers

Nginx Server Speeds Up the Tubes With ‘SPDY’ Support

Tubes so fast they’re blurry. Image: Wetsun/Flickr.

The team behind Nginx (pronounced engine-ex) have released version 1.4, which brings a number of new features, most notably support for the SPDY protocol.

SPDY, the HTTP replacement, promises to speed up website load times by up to 40 percent. Given that Nginx is the second most popular server on the web — powering big name sites like Facebook and WordPress — the new SPDY support should prove a boon for the nascent protocol. Apache, still far and away the most popular server on the web, also has a mod_spdy module.

SPDY support should also help make Nginx more appealing, not that it needs much help. Nginx’s winning combination of lightweight and fast have made it the darling of the web in recent years with everyone from Facebook to Dropbox relying on it in one form or another.

Indeed, part of Nginx’s success lies in its versatility. The server can be used for everything from a traditional high performance web server to a load balancer, a caching engine, a mail proxy or an HTTP streaming server.

It’s worth noting that if you’re installing Nginx 1.4 on a Linux server directly from your distro’s repos the new SPDY support may not be enabled. See the Nginx documentation for instructions on building from source with SPDY support enabled.

SPDY isn’t the only thing new in Nginx 1.4, there’s also support for proxying WebSocket connections and a new Gunzip module that decompresses gzip files for clients that do not support gzip encoded files.

For more details and to grab the latest Nginx source, head on over to the Nginx website.

File Under: CSS, Web Standards

Experimental CSS Shaders Bring Photoshop Filters to the Web

Blend mode example in Chrome Canary. Image: Screenshot/Webmonkey.

Chrome’s experimental Canary channel and Safari’s WebKit nightly builds both now support all of the Photoshop-inspired blend modes for CSS Shaders, part of Adobe’s effort to bring Photoshop-style filter tools to the web.

To see the new blend modes in action, grab a copy of the latest Chrome Canary or WebKit nightly builds, enable the CSS Shaders option in about:flags and point your browser to Adobe’s sample code over on Codepen. Previously, CSS Shaders required a special build of WebKit [Update: As Adobe’s Alan Greenblatt points out in the comments, CSS shader support has been in Chrome stable since v25 (you still need to enable the flag). But if you want to play around with these new blend modes then you’ll need Canary (or a WebKit nightly).]

The new blend mode support is part of Adobe’s CSS Shaders proposal, which recently became part of the W3C’s CSS Filter Effects specification. There are two types of shaders in the spec, CSS fragment shaders, which provide features similar to what Photoshop’s blending modes offer, and CSS vertex shaders, which handle the 3D animation filters we’ve showcased in the past.

The blending modes currently available include all the familiar options you’ll find in Adobe Photoshop, such as multiply, screen, overlay, luminosity and other photographer favorites.

For more details and links to the corresponding specs, be sure to check out this post from Max Vujovic, who is working on the CSS Filters implementation in WebKit and Blink.

As the CSS Filter Effects specification progresses through the standardization process (and stabilizes), hopefully other browsers will add support as well.

File Under: Mobile

First Firefox OS Developer Phones Sell Out

The Firefox OS-based Geeksphone. Image: Screenshot/Webmonkey.

The first Firefox OS-powered mobile devices, manufactured by the Spanish company Geeksphone, went on sale today. Unfortunately for anyone hoping to get their hands on some hardware explicitly designed for Firefox OS, the phones have apparently already sold out.

For the average user that’s probably a good thing. Despite being a 1.0 release on real hardware these phones are not, according to Mozilla, ready for prime time.

Instead these devices are intended for developers looking to build and test applications for Firefox OS. And clearly there’s a lot of interested developers. That’s not terribly surprising given that apps for Firefox OS are built using web basics, like HTML, CSS and JavaScript, which means anyone who can build a website can build a Firefox OS app.

Indeed, thanks to the Firefox OS simulator there are already quite a few Firefox OS apps available. But while the simulator is helpful, it’s just not the same as testing on an actual device. Having actual hardware allows developers to “test the capabilities of Firefox OS in a real environment with a mobile network and true hardware characteristics like the accelerometer and camera,” writes Stormy Peters, Mozilla’s Director of Developer Engagement.

While Geeksphone may be the first company to produce an actual Firefox OS phone (albeit a “developer preview”), Mozilla has some more familiar hardware makers lined up to produce consumer devices, including Sony, LG and Alcatel, all of which have signed up to turn out Firefox OS mobile phones.

There’s still no official word on when these manufacturers will be joining the Firefox OS party, but Mozilla’s plan is to have a more polished version of its OS out in the next few months, with official releases in Brazil, Venezuela, Portugal, Spain and Poland over the next several months.

One of the Geeksphone devices is on its way to the Webmonkey lair, so we’ll give you the lowdown on what it’s like to develop for Firefox OS as soon as we get a chance to play with it. In the mean time, if you missed out on the Geeksphone today the company is hoping to have more available for sale later this week. Alternately, you can always install Firefox OS on your own device or just use the Firefox OS simulator.

File Under: JavaScript

Web’s Most Popular JavaScript Library Drops Support for Older Versions of IE

IE voodoo doll by Cheryl Brind/Flickr.

The popular jQuery JavaScript library has hit a major milestone with the release of jQuery 2.0. The 2.0 release is some 12 percent smaller than its predecessor, but the big news is that jQuery 2.0 drops support for Internet Explorer 6, 7 and 8.

Created to simplify the process of writing JavaScript and manipulating HTML, jQuery began life a mere seven years ago, but quickly found favor with developers sick of dealing with cross-browser JavaScript hassles. According to one survey published last year, jQuery turns up on roughly half of all sites on the web.

Will dropping support for older versions of IE change that? Probably not. If your site needs to maintain support for IE 8 and below (or even IE 9 and 10 running in compatibility mode) you’ll just need to stick with jQuery 1.9 or below.

“jQuery 2.0 is intended for the modern web,” writes jQuery’s Dave Methvin on the Query Foundation website. “We’ve got jQuery 1.x to handle older browsers and fully expect to support it for several more years.”

If you want the best of both worlds you can use a conditional comment to serve 2.0 to newer browsers and 1.9 to older ones, but the far easier way to go is sticking with jQuery 1.x. For now at least the primary use case for the 2.0 line is situations where IE support isn’t a consideration — think Chrome or Firefox add-ons, PhoneGap apps or node.js.