Apple's Safari hunts Explorer users

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.

Also impressive is the dialogue box that appears when you drag an address to the "Favorites" bar: You get the immediate opportunity to edit the name such that more sites can fit it in their bars.

Safari further makes it relatively easy to organize your bookmarks, engaging an iTunes-like set of panes. On the right is a set of folders, each containing a collection of related bookmarks with such names as "News," "Sports" and "Shopping." Clicking on a folder reveals the site names and their respective addresses in the right pane.

Reflecting Apple's proclivity to integrate its software, Safari's bookmarks also pick up any home pages the user might have in his or her Address Book. But you can't import bookmarks from any browser but Explorer, although Safari does that automatically.

The Google search field built into the toolbar is a nice touch, but it's borrowed from the Opera browser, which has similar fields for and eBay, as well as Google.

Similarly, Safari's ability to block pop-up ads can't be overestimated, but Opera and Chimera can do that, too.

So is Safari the greatest Mac browser ever? Not yet.

Issues with Safari include its default to 72 DPI (dots per inch) rather than the 96-point standard, which on many sites renders the type too small -- as well as a strict enforcement of Internet security protocols that causes it to reject some sites, such as those for banks.

But most troubling have been reports of users who had their home directories on their hard drives erased when they held down the option key to download a link on a Web page.

Other Safari pioneers -- Apple reported 500,000 downloads in less than four days -- experienced problems such as the inability to print or launch Classic (Mac OS 9) mode.

But Safari, after all, remains beta software – a work in progress – and Apple is listening to its users.

The company responded quickly last Friday to reports of problems with a version that rectified several issues. Acknowledging the browser's unfinished nature, Apple has even included a "bug button" on Safari's toolbar to make it easy to report problems.

Most of Safari's worst bugs should be squashed soon, but Safari also lacks some significant features other browsers have that a lot of Mac users depend on.

Chief among these is "tabbed browsing," which allows the user to switch between several open Web pages just by clicking on the tabs at the top of the window. Chimera and its cousin, Netscape 7.01, both offer tabbed browsing.

Safari also has severely limited preference controls compared with other Mac browsers. Many options common to most browsers simply don't exist on Safari, but more customization may appear as the software matures.

And, no one ever has copied some of Internet Explorer's best innovations -- the ability to save whole Web pages, images and all, to a scrapbook for offline viewing, or the handy Auction Manager.

Safari's flaws mean that you can't, and shouldn't, delete all other browsers from your Mac. Most experienced Mac users keep two to three browsers on their machines anyway, because no browser is perfect; each has trouble rendering one site or another.

Despite the variety of Mac browsers available, most people have stuck with the default Internet Explorer. With Netscape failing to keep up with Microsoft until very recently and other challengers such as Opera, iCab and OmniWeb suffering from a range of quirks, Explorer has been the most practical choice.

The only other potential Explorer-killer in the bunch is Chimera, whose speed and features also offer Safari its only true competition.

But as Apple's own product, Safari has a nearly insurmountable advantage. Every new Mac will have Safari set as the default browser, and since most users never bother to change the default browser, any rival will need to be overwhelmingly superior.

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