Why is Google sending insecure browsers back in time?

Why is Google sending insecure browsers back in time?

Image of old monitor courtesy of ShutterstockThe Google search home page is famously simple and, well, famous.

It’s so famous and so familiar that when it changes, even a little, we tend to notice. A few days ago a user going by the moniker DJSigma noticed a fault and reported it on the Google product forum.

The Google search page had seemingly gone back in time.

A few minutes ago, Google's homepage reverted to the old version for me. I'm using Opera 12.17...

...I've tried clearing cookies and deleting the browser cache/persistent storage. I've tried disabling all extensions. I've tried masking the browser as IE and Firefox. It doesn't matter whether I'm signed in or signed out. Nothing works. Please fix this!

Others, like 92filmgeek, reported similar problems:

I'm having the same problem in Safari 5.1.10

User bluquoll offered an unwitting hint at Google’s mischief.

I'm seeing the old UI in Opera 12, but all seems OK in Opera 23.

Opera 12? Safari 5? It seemed that the web as it used to be was only visible to users with a penchant for internet antiques.

A Google employee, nealem, popped up to reassure everyone that everything was working exactly as intended.

Hi everyone,

Thanks for the reports. I want to assure you this isn't a bug, it's working as intended.

We’re continually making improvements to Search, so we can only provide limited support for some outdated browsers. We encourage everyone to make the free upgrade to modern browsers -- they’re more secure and provide a better web experience overall.

And that, so far as I’ve discovered, was the first and last word on the subject from Google – a gentle push in the direction of less geriatric, more secure, technology.

Google’s got a point – just take a look at the version history for Opera.

What’s the one phrase that all 10 new versions of Opera listed on that page has in common? Under New Features every one of them says: Stability and security enhancements.

It’s the same story for Safari. There are 13 separate security updates or security fixes between the current version of Apple’s browser and the version used by 92filmgeek.

I thought I’d play Google’s little game for myself.

When a web browser requests a web page it sends a few lines of information about itself including a bit of meta data called the user-agent header. The user-agent is more-or-less the only thing that a website can use to identify the kind of browser it’s talking to so it was a fair bet that Google was dishing out old home pages in response to old user-agents.

Like any and all information sent from a browser to a website the user-agent is ultimately under the control of the user and easy to fake.

Armed with the latest version of Chrome and a handy list of user-agent strings I took a trip down memory lane by pretending to be a couple of long-obsolete Safari variants.

This is Google as it appears to Safari 5.1 (browser circa July 2011):

Google viewed with a Safari 5 user-agent headerUser-agent: Mozilla/5.0 (iPad; CPU OS 5_1 like Mac OS X) AppleWebKit/534.46 (KHTML, like Gecko ) Version/5.1 Mobile/9B176 Safari/7534.48.3

And this is the Google Safari 3.0 users get (browser circa June 2007):

Google viewed with a Safari 3 user-agent headerUser-agent: Mozilla/5.0 (Windows; U; Windows NT 6.0; sv-SE) AppleWebKit/523.13 (KHTML, like Gecko) Version/3.0 Safari/523.13

Of course, browsers go back much further than 2007 and so did I – aiming for the web’s year zero, I shot the NCSA Mosaic user-agent at Google but, alas, Google dodged it.

Perhaps that’s understandable. Google and Mosaic barely overlapped – when I first started messing around with websites Internet Explorer 3 was the world’s favourite most widely used browser, Google was so new that absolutely nobody had heard of it and the NCSA’s Mosaic browser was already a fusty relic.

Nobody would browse the 2014 web with Mosaic, Netscape Navigator, Camino or Phoenix. Very gently, Google is trying to nudge Safari 5, Opera 12 and all the other obsolete browsers still in use on to that list, and with good reason.

Browsers are our gateway to the web and the first point of contact for all the landmines, bear traps and ambushes that cybercriminals set for us.

Modern browser manufacturers take security extremely seriously. They patch and upgrade the security of their products at a furious pace and they make it as easy as possible for us to stay in the vanguard with automatic updates offered free of charge.

Browser choice is an important part of keeping a computer secure and a poorly protected computer isn’t just a problem for its user. It’s a potential zombie capable of cannoning gigabytes of malware-infested spam at the rest of us every day it stays infected.

If you find yourself looking at the Google search page and wondering why it looks like something written with Microsoft Frontpage then you’re part of the problem; upgrade your browser.

Image of old monitor courtesy of Shutterstock.