February 25, 2009

Safari 4's Introduction A Clear Salvo In the New Chrome Wars

In today's Web-centric computing world, there is practically no more important software than that of the Web browser. While an argument could be made that one's e-mail is equally as important, the move to Web-hosted mail services, like GMail and Apple's Mobile Me means that the Web browser itself is where most of today's work gets done. The move from the operating system being the center of our world, and the prism by which we see everything, to that of the Web browser, was central to Netscape's annihilation by Microsoft, and has now practically come true, even as Navigator's time has now come and gone.

Almost 14 years after Netscape as a company went public, a new wave of browser wars is upon us. And while, yes, Internet Explorer, the standard on practically all Windows-based PCs, is still the market share leader, the innovation is not being perceived as coming from Redmond. Instead, it's products like Firefox, Google's Chrome and Apple's Safari which are pushing the envelope and working to enhance our browsing experience. Unfortunately for Microsoft, it's gotten to the point that even if they made a better product with all the possible bells and whistles, nobody outside of Dare Obasanjo would give them credit.

Yesterday, as practically every tech blog on the planet mentioned, Apple introduced a new 4.0 beta version of the Safari browser, including speed enhancements, and most notably, a Top Sites feature that mimics Chrome's most visited sites page. And while other usability enhancements were made, including to the toolbar, expanded browser history and further integration with Google's search bar, it was this addition of "Top Sites" that has everyone thinking about how Apple is taking on Google's Chrome even before the company comes out with its much-awaited official Mac version.

My Top Sites - After Editing Out All Work-Related Sites

And this is exactly the dialog that has long-been needed in the browser space but was lacking when IE finally reached the summit atop Netscape's corpse. Opera and OmniWeb and iCab all had their handful of users, but never gained the kind of mindshare and deployments possible from Firefox, Safari and Chrome. Now, it could be said that Microsoft is being hit from all sides after years of letting Explorer stagnate. (I first called it the Chrome Wars on FriendFeed yesterday)

Being hard wired both as an Apple fanboy and an early adopter, I downloaded Safari 4 beta as soon as I knew it was available. After finally updating the laptop with the latest security updates, we were good to go - and honestly, there will be no turning back. For whatever reason, over the last few weeks, I have had the worst time keeping Safari up and running. Every new tab welcomed a new opportunity to stall and require a force quit. But Safari 4, after a full day's aggressive use, hasn't fallen on its sword even once. And considering I spend practically all my waking hours in front of a browser, that's a good thing.

For me, it's the stability and the speed, and the support for standards, that will make using Safari on a daily basis a success. The Top Sites feature is interesting, a cute way to have 12 pages on hand to click through at all times, but it's not exactly going to save me a ton of time. With RSS, keyboard shortcuts and autocomplete, it's not like I was taking tons of time to enter URLs and go site to site. So yes, we like the new features, but we like it even more that it doesn't crash and will support new Web services that may be using bleeding-edge code.

And while I assume you already know, Safari is more than just a Web browser for Macs. It's also available for Windows, and forms the core browsing experience on the iPhone and iPod Touch. You can get the new Safari 4 beta here: http://www.apple.com/safari/download/.