Apple's Safari hunts Explorer users

The firm enters 'the browser wars' with its new software, but does Apple really have something else going on?

With the introduction of Safari at the Macworld San Francisco trade show last week, Apple Computer Inc. boldly entered "the browser wars."

Though currently a "beta," computer-speak for "unfinished test version," Safari is impressive software. Apple said a final version will be available later this year.

Still, one might consider the release of a free-for-the-download Web browser an odd move, but you can never be quite sure what Apple CEO Steve Jobs is thinking sometimes.

Safari puts the Cupertino, Calif.-based Apple squarely at odds with Microsoft Corp., since once finished, it will displace Internet Explorer as the installed browser on new Macs. So Apple must have a compelling reason for doing such a thing, right?

Perhaps Apple wants to establish more independence from the behemoth based in Redmond, Wash.

"Microsoft continues to weave its tentacles around the industry -- and it's not surprising that some companies are trying to break free," said Roger Kay, an analyst with IDC, a research firm based in Framingham, Mass.

Or, maybe Apple plans to integrate the OS X-only Safari into its other software offerings, like iTunes and iPhoto, if not with the Mac operating system itself.

"As they control more and more of their applications, the Internet becomes more of an ingrained function," said Brett Miller, an analyst with A.G. Edwards Inc. in St. Louis.

In particular, Miller sees Safari becoming an Internet portal for other applications. A multimedia editing program, for instance, could use it to transparently fetch and integrate such content as music or video.

"You'll still feel like you're in your home application," Miller said. "The Internet will be embedded in the application."

If nothing else, an in-house Web browser gives Apple control over one of the personal computer's most fundamental roles, interacting with the Internet, which dovetails neatly with the company's overall strategy of controlling the entire user experience.

During his speech last week, Jobs said the biggest reason Apple developed its own browser was speed. Mac users long have endured sluggish Web surfing (on both Netscape and Internet Explorer) relative to browser performance on Windows PCs.

Jobs cited benchmarks showing that Safari renders pages three times faster than the latest Mac version of Internet Explorer.

In admittedly unscientific tests -- on my home Mac (an 867 megahertz G4 "Quicksilver" desktop tower loaded with over 1 gigabyte of memory and sucking data through a high-speed Comcast Internet connection), Apple's boasts appear valid.

Safari consistently whipped Internet Explorer by large margins, if not always by a factor of three.

It took Explorer, for instance, 7.25 seconds to render the SunSpot home page on the first visit, and about 3.75 seconds on subsequent visits (browsers store pages in a "cache" on the hard drive to accelerate return visits). Safari's numbers were 4 seconds for the first visit, and less than 2 seconds for each subsequent visit.

When compared with five other Mac OS X browsers, however, Safari's speed margin is decidedly slimmer. For example, the speed difference is negligible between Safari and another beta browser, Chimera 0.6, an offshoot of Netscape Inc.'s open-source Mozilla project and a favorite among Mac power users since last spring.

Aside from speed, Jobs said Safari sought to offer innovation in the area of Web browsers -- and, surprisingly, it does.

One such Safari feature is SnapBack, a button in the Web address field that, after you've burrowed several links deep into a particular Web site, returns you to the page from which you started.

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