August 18, 2010
Simplifying the Lives of Web Users
By DAVID POGUE
I’m about to make your life better. No need to thank me.
But first, a warning: On the way to understanding how your life will get better, you’ll have to read about some technical, fairly arcane topics. Trust me: it’ll be worth it.
In this case, the topic is your Web browsing, and the magic wand is a free service called OpenDNS.
You know how every Web site has an address, like www.google.com
Turns out that’s just a fakeout. It’s a convenient crutch for you, the human with limited brain capacity.
Behind the scenes, the actual address is a string of numbers (called an I.P. address, for Internet protocol) that looks something like this: 188.8.131.52. (That happens to be Google’s address.)
Nobody can remember those addresses, though they are no longer than a phone number, so the Web’s thoughtful designers came up with a secondary system: plain-English addresses like www.whatever.com.
When you type that into your browser, a computer at your Internet provider performs a quick lookup. “Aha,” it says to itself in its little digital way, “you just typed www.google.com.
What you really want, of course, is 184.108.40.206. Please hold; I’ll connect you.”
That, in a nutshell, is how D.N.S. works. (It stands for domain name system, in case that helps.)
Unfortunately, from time to time, your Internet provider’s D.N.S. computer goes down. To you, it seems that the Web itself has gone out, because you can’t pull up any sites at all. In December 2008, for example, 1.2 million Los Angeles citizens thought that the entire Web had gone offline, because of a crashed Time Warner D.N.S. computer.
That story was gleefully provided by OpenDNS, the one-of-a-kind company with a killer idea: to provide a free, alternative D.N.S. service that works better than your Internet provider’s. Faster, more reliably and with more features. You don’t pay anything, sign up for anything or install anything. All you have to do is make one change to your network settings, and you get all of these benefits:
NO D.N.S. CRASHES The company claims that in its five-year history, its D.N.S. computers have had zero downtime. In fact, had you been using OpenDNS in 2008, the Time Warner crash would not have affected you at all. You’d have kept right on surfing while your next-door neighbors were gnashing their teeth and playing board games.
A similar feature called SmartCache lets you pull up individual Web sites even when, because of broken addresses, they are unavailable to everyone else.
FASTER PAGES To speed up the conversion of plain-English addresses to numeric ones, every Internet provider caches, or preloads, the addresses of thousands of the most popular Web sites. This trick can save you microseconds or fractions of seconds with every page you open. When you visit a site that’s not on that “most popular” list, though, you may wait a bit.
But OpenDNS caches the entire Web. Every Web site appears slightly faster. If you don’t actually feel the difference, you can measure it using Google’s free Namebench program. It told me that OpenDNS was performing that looking-up business 14.8 percent faster than what I’d been getting before.
TYPO CORRECTIONS As long as OpenDNS is inserting itself between you and the Web, it can do you some favors. One is correcting typos. If you type “nytimes.cmo” or “wikipedia.og,” for example, OpenDNS quietly and instantly corrects the typo and sends you where you wanted to go. Most of the time, you never even realize your fingers misfired.
Unfortunately, this feature auto-fixes only the suffix (.com, .org, .gov and so on). If you type “dinseyworld.com” or “wikipeida.org,” you’re on your own.
PHISHING PROTECTION Phishing is the Internet scheme where you get a fake e-mail note from your bank about a problem with your account. When you click the link to correct the problem, you get a fake Web site, designed to look just like your bank’s — and by logging in, you unwittingly supply your name and password to the bad guys.
OpenDNS intercepts and blocks your efforts to visit the fake sites. It works like a charm.
SHORTCUTS Web address shortcuts are short, memorable abbreviations for your favorite sites. You can set up “nyt” so that, when you type it into your address bar, you go to a much longer Web address like http://www.nytimes.com/pages/todayspaper/index.html.
Shortcuts are great. There’s limited space on your bookmarks toolbar, and the bookmarks menu is clumsy for people who like to keep their hands on the keyboard. And unlike the similar feature in Firefox, OpenDNS’s shortcuts work in any browser on any computer or phone in the house.
PARENTAL CONTROLS The latest OpenDNS feature is site-blocking. Here again, having an account means that you can create a setting that applies to every computer in the house — and block your choice of 57 categories of Web sites, including Pornography, Nudity, Lingerie, Instant Messaging, File Sharing, Game and Humor. (Honestly. What kind of parent would block humor?)
How can OpenDNS possibly track every Web site on earth and put it into the right 57 categories? It doesn’t. Its fans do. Anyone can submit a site to the master database of categorized sites, whereupon other people vote on its placement. This Wikipedia-style crowdsourcing is ingenious, and, as far as my testing was concerned, bulletproof.
(Teenagers often subscribe to mailing lists that publish the addresses of proxies and anonymizers, special sites that they use to get around traditional Web blockers installed by schools or parents. But I was amused to learn that the engineers at OpenDNS subscribe to those lists, too. They block the proxies as fast as they are created.)
All of this OpenDNS goodness is free, automatic and always improving. Surely there’s a catch. How, for example, does OpenDNS make money?
First, although everything described here is free, the company sells additional services to businesses.
Second, if you type the address of a nonexistent site, OpenDNS throws up the equivalent of Google’s “Did you mean?” screen: a list of sites, provided for (and paid for) by Yahoo, that behave as though you’ve done a search for that term. Presto: more income.
About the only worry anyone seems to have about OpenDNS is about privacy. Already, 20 million people use OpenDNS, according to the company — 1 percent of everyone on the Internet. Even if OpenDNS doesn’t know your name or anything about you, couldn’t it be collecting all kinds of Web traffic data, concocting its evil plans?
Of course, whoever is providing your D.N.S. lookups now (not to mention your bank, phone company and grocery store) could be doing exactly the same thing right now. At a certain point, you have to let go.
The biggest realistic challenge may be setting up OpenDNS in the first place. It involves typing two addresses into the D.N.S. settings page of your computer or router: 220.127.116.11 and 18.104.22.168. That new address directs your computers’ Web requests to OpenDNS’s lookup service.
At OpenDNS.com, the step-by-step instructions take all of two minutes to complete. But fooling around with these network underpinnings may strike some people as intimidating.
You can, if you like, turn on OpenDNS on each computer and phone in your building individually. But it’s much smarter and quicker to make the change on the router itself, the little box that distributes your Internet connection throughout your home. At OpenDNS.com, you’ll find illustrated instructions for each router brand.
In any case, OpenDNS is one of the last great freebies of the Web. It manages to pull off the Google trick: offering, at no charge, incredible utility and speed to the masses — while still finding inoffensive ways to make money. Even if you use only one or two of its features, you’ll find that OpenDNS makes your Web life better.
Come to think of it, you can thank me after all.