Cookies – an Introduction

Cookies, cookies, cookies, we've heard about cookies now for many years, the perenial red herring, used like the threat of a nuclear bomb, to strike fear in the hearts of all who used a personal computer to surf the Internet, maybe not quite that forceful, but never in a favorable light. Cookies were started by Lou Montulli of Netscape in 1994, and they were first used by Netscape to see if a visitor had previously been to their site. Besides the Netscape browser, they were next supported in release 2 of Internet Explorer. Every browser since then has supported cookies. The general public first became aware of cookies early in 1996, and has been suspicious of them ever since then.

Cookies are bits of text information stored on your computer from a site you have visited on the Internet. They are stored in a different folder on your computer depending on what browser you are using, and if you surf the Internet a lot, you can amass quite a few of them. If cookies have such a bad reputation, one has to ask, why do all browsers support cookies?

Cookies offer web site owners and you several advantages. When your browser stores bits of text information from a web page on your computer, it allows the web site to know what page you've visited, and choices you've made on that page. For example, cookies can keep track what items you have selected in a shopping cart, and keep the list for you, even if don't return to the site for a couple of weeks or even years, if the cookie is still on your computer. Another example is saving your login information so you don't have to login every time you return to the site. If you have ever returned to a site, and gotten a "Welcome back, Frank" type of message, you can thank cookies.

For marketing cookies can be used to see what pages you have visited on a web site, the domain or page URL can be stored as you visit every page. Thus was born the often dreaded "DoubleClick" cookie, which can track your Internet usage from one site to the next site and gather a history of your web usage. Some consider this malware, adware, or spyware, whatever you want to call it, and they use programs to remove all the cookies on their computer to "protect" their PC.

And there lies some of the problems with using cookies to retain data. Although cookies are specifically linked to the user, his computer, and his particular browser, they are still, by many, considered to be malware, because they can pass your personal web usage history to marketing organizations, even though, it may seem anomynous, it's still your history being passed. Cookies are not secure from others, which reminds me to warn you against putting any sensitive user information in cookies. They can be viewed by others.

Users delete cookies with cleaning and malware programs, or by disabling cookies in their browser, because of this, as a way to save information beyond the current session, cookies are unreliable for storing information, and inconsistent in storing information from one user to the next. Besides for marketing reasons, cookies are mainly used to retain user information on a current session. Instead, most websites require a user to log in, and by doing this, the user's information is retained on the server, instead of on the user's computer, a safer and quicker way to retain information from one web page to the next, especially for ecommerce.

Nevertheless, cookies can be useful, in retaining information about the user that is non-personal, like your favorite color, or the language you speak, and they can retain this information for a fairly long period of time, thus, they are still in use some 15 years later. Are purpose is to show how to use cookies to store information, which we'll address in are very next post.

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