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Return to the browser wars?

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on March 7, 2003
(Issue 2110, Computer Vagabond)

As unlikely as it seems, we may be heading back to an era of open competition in the browser arena.

Not that anyone's making any money off of selling browsers; not that anyone ever made made off of selling browsers.

Even at the height of the Netscape vs. Microsoft battle in the mid-1990s, both companies were giving their browsers away.

Oh, sure, Netscape suggested that for-profit businesses pay for the browsers they installed on their employees' computers, but if they got paid for even 10,000 out of the tens of millions of installed copies, I'll eat a floppy disk.

Instead, the battle over browser is akin to TV news ratings wars: Just like you get Dan Rather or Peter Jennings for free in order for the networks to be able to sell advertisers access to you, the browser war is about getting eyeballs to look at the ads on the browser publisher's portal page.

And so it's more about getting you to go to or than it is actually getting you to use their browser.

They get you to go to their portals by making those sites the default home page on their browser; a significant portion of us never bother to change the default settings, and so they get nice visitation numbers on those pages – allowing them charge top dollar to advertisers.

And of course, with Netscape now owned by AOL-Time Warner, building Netscape's user base back up is about using Netscape's portal to promote the parent company's other products – CNN and Time and TBS and AOL and ... well, you get the picture.

Microsoft's strategy is to use Internet Explorer to build up brand loyalty to its MSN portal, and drive potential customers to all of Microsoft's various online commercial enterprises.

Even Opera, which offers both a free, advertising-free version of its browser and one with embedded ads, also now has a default portal page.

Apple steps in

And yet here comes Apple with a new browser designed specifically for the new OSX Jaguar operating system, "Safari." Still in beta, Safari seems a solid entrant on the Mac side of the browser war, but with IE, Netscape, Mozilla and Opera all also offering top-flight browsers for Mac OSX, what's the point?

Further, what's the angle? The default home page in Safari is Netscape's portal. The only explanation is that Apple felt none of the other browsers really showed off OSX's capabilities.

Still, at least in beta, Safari comes across as solid if not spectacular, but with some very impressive and useful features.

The waterdrop-look of OSX is certainly more pervasive in Safari than in the OSX-compatible IE, Netscape, Mozilla or Opera browsers – even standard HTML buttons now appear as the Mac's stylized waterdrops.

Based on the open-source GNUtella license, Safari has the best History feature of any browser I've run across: All the sites you've visited in the last 24 hours display immediately in the History pull-down menu; before that, it's organized by date! And the Clear History function is simply an entry on the History pull-down menu – as quick and clear a way of clearing your history as any.

The built-in Google search window in the top toolbar is handy, as is the space-saving activity bar running in the same window as the URL (when you type in a new URL and hit Enter, the loading progress shows as a blue bar moving from left to right behind the URL). But the toolbar is far less slick than any of the competing browsers' except possibly the open-source Mozilla's, and the interface overall is less polished. Perhaps that's on the board for the next iteration or final release.

But even in its present, presumably incomplete form, Safari is a nice addition to the selection available to Mac OSX users – and one assumes another nudge to OS9 users to upgrade.