10 November 2013

Why I use my bank's mobile site on my desktop

(or, cutting out bloat by using a platform where bloat won't fly)

Let me start off by saying I'm generally a huge fan of my bank, USAA. Their offerings are free of hidden fees, their phone support excellent, and the perks they provide are competitive. They don't have the best savings interest rates, but you can always find a better deal online to park money not actively in your checking account.

However, USAA's website is a behemoth. My account page took about 8 seconds to fully load, downloading 1.4MiB of content.

The "My Accounts" page you're redirected to after logging in.
It is frequently buggy; whenever I log in via Google Chrome on Ubuntu 12.04 I land on a page with a URL beginning with "https://www.usaa.com/inet/gas_bank/AccountBannerAjax" and a bunch of GET parameters like "currentaccountkey" and "accnumber" with values like "encrypted12a1f4dd1[…]". The server returns a 200 OK, promises a Content-Length of 20, but then actually returns zero bytes. After navigating to the homepage and clicking a button, I end up getting logged in, but I wonder what percentage of their userbase are experiencing this problem?

For some strange reason, I get a lot of checks. It appears that nobody else informed the banking system that it's 2013, and the easiest mechanism for people to send money without paying fees is still on paper. To its credit, USAA made remote deposit of checks available to all customers in 2006, when it was mostly an offering limited to businesses. However, it seems like they haven't updated their web workflow since then. 

Using it on the web still requires using a signed Java applet (itself discouraged by CMU's CERT) that does the incredibly complex task of… letting you select a file from your computer and upload it to their servers. At least, that's what I think it does, because any time I chose "Run", my browser complained a few minutes later that the tab had stopped responding. Regardless of functionality, you can accomplish almost anything their site could currently be doing with HTML5 and a third party service if they want to crop images locally.

Spinning after logging
in on Android
USAA's mobile app for Android has another host of problems; I haven't been able to log into it for 2 weeks, and when I chatted with someone today I was told they were "doing some maintenance this weekend", so I should try again in a few hours once that's finished.

I googled around a bit for some way to perhaps make the applet work in Ubuntu (which admittedly is not a supported platform), and came upon a Facebook thread where a rep suggested using the mobile web site.

A breath of fresh air
I loaded it in my browser, and was amazed at how well it functioned. Obviously designed for higher-end devices (It didn't even load in one WAP emulator I tried), the mobile web interface was a refreshing breath of fresh air. It scaled well to a full-screen device (see below), loaded quickly, and gave me all the information I would have wanted out of the normal web interface.

Most notably: remember the whole "upload a check" workflow that required a buggy Java applet on the main website? We get bog-standard HTML form fields, no additional magic. There goes any theories about the Java client doing some magic validation or prep of the image; here, all they're getting is the images and my session cookie.

I'm still shocked at whoever thought a My Yahoo!-style homepage was the best layout for a bank, but props to the web developers who managed to make a mobile interface that was both pretty and allowed me to work around broken functionality in their implementations on every other platform I had access to.

But why was the mobile web interface the least bloated? Easy. On the desktop, you generally have a nice pipe, or if not, the user knows it and won't be too upset if your site is just as slow as other sites similarly situated. On mobile, the user downloaded all the code already, so the only latency should be the API requests against the server, right?

On the mobile web users have come to expect relatively speedy mobile-optimised sites and there's less screen real estate to do fancy things that get in the way of content. For many sites, that's a huge improvement. Of course, it would be really nice if more banks supported open protocols for interactions (USAA has a read-only, limited-duration OFX feed), but I would settle for a better web interface.

So tl;dr: USAA, please make www.usaa.com redirect to m.usaa.com, kthxbai.

20 July 2013

Joining the Debian FTPTeam

I'm pleased to say that I have joined the Debian FTPTeam as of the Friday before last. See Joerg Jaspert's announcement on debian-devel-announce.

The FTPTeam is responsible for maintaining the Debian software archive, and ensures that new software in Debian is high-quality and compliant with our policies.

As an "ftpassistant", I (along with PaulScottGergely, and others) will be helping to process the NEW queue, which is currently at a whopping 297 packages. Here's hoping we'll be able to get that number down over the coming weeks!

03 April 2013

Teaching free/open source to high school students

A few weeks ago I taught a class on Open Source: Contributing to free culture (catalog entry) for Spark, a one-day program put on by the student-run MIT Educational Studies Program. I was fortunate to have two helpful co-teachers, Tyler Hallada and Jacob Hurwitz, who assisted with the lesson plan and the in class lecture.

We ended up teaching 3 sessions of the 1hr 50min class that Saturday, with about 10 students in each session.

I was pretty impressed by the quality of the students; a number of them had used GNU/Linux before, but even those who hadn't were able to gain something from the experience. The class was broken up into three segments:

  1. Lecture on a brief history of open source and the free software movement
  2. Small research project on an open source project
  3. Lab where students could work through OpenHatch's training missions
The point was to mix up what could otherwise be a very boring lecture.

I think we might have missed the mark on the last bit, as I get the feeling that we didn't end up giving the students good actionables. While the quality of OpenHatch is high and the organization's campus outreach programs are amazing, skills practice only goes so far without clear direction to apply said skills. I'll be following up with the class participants to see how they're progressing on their own open source contributor journey, and will post updates if I have any.

While not an OpenHatch event, if this sort of thing interests you, OpenHatch runs a series of events like this one and has a mailing list for discussing planning and sharing best practices. Subscribe and say hi!

The presentation is enclosed below, and of course is licensed under CreativeCommons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0. [PDF]