In late September, the popular Xmarks bookmark synchronization service announced it was planning to pull the plug in January 2011, having failed to implement a business model that would keep it pushing bookmarks between browsers. Luckily, an outcry from users granted the Xmarks service a respite, and now it appears that Xmarks has a real future under the wing of password-management and form-filling service LastPass.
I became quite fond of Xmarks some time ago, but never found the spare time to write about it. Quite simply, it’s an online service and Web browser extension that enables you to maintain exactly the same set of bookmarks between Safari, Firefox, Chrome, and, for Windows users, Internet Explorer. Xmarks also provides synchronization for open tabs (for Firefox, Chrome, and Internet Explorer), passwords (Firefox and Chrome, though I suspect this feature will eventually be disappearing in favor of LastPass), and browsing history (Firefox only).
This is extremely useful for me, since I keep Firefox, Safari, and Chrome running at all times. That’s because I maintain different login states in each, some sites work better in one browser over another, each browser has certain unique features, and I often need to test things in multiple browsers. (I also launch Camino fairly frequently when I need to pretend to be someone else for login testing.)
Before Xmarks, I would often run into annoying situations where I couldn’t easily do something in a particular browser because the bookmark I needed existed only in a different browser. That’s now an annoyance of the past: all my browsers on my Mac Pro, and all the browsers on my MacBook as well, have exactly the same set of bookmarks, and any change I make is quickly reflected in all the rest. So I’m extremely happy to see that Xmarks won’t be disappearing.
So what is LastPass? I found out about it only a few months ago but have been using it happily since. It’s an online Web password management service that uses a Web browser extension to provide features somewhat along the lines of the built-in password storage capabilities in most Web browsers, or of the standalone 1Password utility. However, LastPass stores your passwords online (in encrypted form, of course) so as to make them available in multiple browsers and on multiple computers. Needless to say, you have to be comfortable allowing your Web passwords to be managed by an online service, which some people won’t be. But LastPass’s main advantage over 1Password at the moment is that it can automatically fill login forms with your stored username and password, and submit the form with absolutely no interaction required from you at all. (1Password requires that you choose a menu item or press a hotkey to fill and submit a login form, which isn’t hard, but is another step on every login.)
If you spend a lot of time using Web apps that require logins, LastPass can significantly reduce the amount of time you spend fussing with usernames and passwords. It can fill other types of forms as well, which is a help when using a browser other than Safari, which still has the best form-filling capabilities I’ve seen.
LastPass is free, but you can pay $12 per year for LastPass Premium, which adds mobile clients (including LastPass for iPhone), multi-factor authentication via YubiKey, priority email and phone support, and the elimination of ads.
Xmarks will now use a similar model, with Xmarks Premium priced at $12 per year, or $20 when combined with LastPass Premium. As far as I can tell from the Xmarks site, open tab synchronization will soon become an Xmarks Premium feature, joining iOS and Android apps, the capability to back up and restore bookmarks for three months, and priority email support. (The iOS app is just a nicety; nothing prevents you from synchronizing your Safari bookmarks with Xmarks and again to MobileMe or via iTunes to your iOS device.)