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Apple’s Safari in search of success

Thursday, 10 April 2008 — by

As tempted as I am to call this a Safari versus Firefox face-off, in reality, there is no competition — Firefox is hands-down immeasurably better than Safari. And for a long-time, committed Mac user like me, some might find that an unusual disclosure…

Mac user I may be, but Safari really isn’t all that suited for my needs. Of course it works and I’m sure for a great number of people out there, Safari is just fine. But there are some notable problems that really haven’t been fully addressed since it’s inception, in January of 2003.

Safari is based on KHTML rendering engine, which Apple have called WebKit. It’s the same rendering engine used by OmniWeb, which is a truly remarkable web browser, well worth a squint, I assure you — also, there are a number of other web browsers for the Mac, should you be interested.

Lost on Safari

I first started using OmniWeb some years ago, but as good as OmniWeb is — and it’s light years ahead of Safari or Firefox in terms of feature set — because it’s based on the same flawed rendering engine as Safari, it inherits the same problems. So for the same reason I stopped using Safari, I moved on and looked elsewhere.

For those who’ve used Safari as their main browser, they like me will be familiar with the deeply quirky nature of its rendering engine. Certain web pages just look odd and don’t display correctly, while some form elements just don’t look right.

Despite these cosmetic short-comings, the most fundamental weakness of Safari is the lack of any plug-in architecture, similar to the very successful Add-Ons used by Firefox.

It’s not as if such things are new, either. Going back to version 2 of Netscape Navigator, when they introduced their Plug-in system, it was possible to extend the functionality of the web browser.

So compelling was this idea, Microsoft was effectively forced into supporting Netscape Plug-ins. Let’s be straight here, how the hell did we get by before before browser Plug-ins — specifically Add-Ons for Firefox?

I imagine the obvious question is why Apple has so far snubbed such software extensions. It’s the same reason they initially refused to allow developers to write applications for the iPhone — one of complete control of the user experience.

Arguably, what makes the Mac a Mac is the reliability, the stability and the consistency. These are qualities that Apple control with all the measure, balance and rigidity of a benign dictator.

Now, I’m not going to debate the pros & cons of this approach, that’s the stuff of further writings. What I will say is, Apple is unlikely to gain major traction with Safari if people are stuck with a vanilla-flavoured web browser, which they can’t change or enhance in some way.

Here’s a recent comment on a Search Engine Journal article regarding Apple using iTunes to promote Safari on Windows, sadly containing a typo, which I’ve rectified in the following:

“Compared to Firefox, Safari still doesn’t pose much of a threat.

I’m a Mac user through & through, but I can see that Safari has two fundamental weaknesses:

1. it often renders web pages badly;
2. there’s no plugin architecture.

The first point might might be addressed, but Apple has so far made so sign of engaging developers from a plugin point of view…”

If you take the time out to read the comments, you’ll probably find yourself wondering who the hell is “spreading their cooties”, for who, why and what cooties are in the first place, if indeed they’re actually anything at all.

Spreading? What, like a cold? Or like something you put on bread? Dare we explore the other possibilities? I guess not.

Unless you’re on the same dose of recreational drugs as the author of those comments, don’t ask me. I’m just as confused as you are.

But I digress…

Apple has had some time to sort out the rendering issues. Given that they haven’t, I have to either doubt their commitment or ability to do so. I cannot imagine that they haven’t seen them, so something has to be wrong.

As for a viable Plug-in architecture, Apple’s notorious control freakery might be an influential player in making of such a strategic decision. But I believe it’s something Apple could turn to their advantage, leveraging their other development tools and their growing suite of media applications to allow developers to create truly compelling reasons for people to adopt and then extend the Safari web browser.

Take for example iTunes or iPhoto, here is the perfect opportunity for Apple to allow developers to create integrated and seamless links from within Safari, streaming music and photos to friends from their .Mac accounts.

If I’ve learned anything from being an Apple fan and watcher all these years it’s that since Jobs returned, Apple has a clear strategy, with Safari at the very heart of things.

While some are clearly more impressed than others about the future of Safari on Windows, for Safari to emerge from the Windows web wilderness with any real relevance, Apple needs to keep the pace with the rest of the pack…

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ratty → Thursday, 10 April 2008 @ 17:07 BDT

I use Safari. Deal with it.

Eytan → Thursday, 10 April 2008 @ 18:14 BDT

I have a few comments in response to your blog:
1. I have found Safari to be the best at rendering complex pages on any platfrom, and extremely standards compliant – something that cannot be said of IE
2. Safari does indeed have Plug-In support. You are confusing Netscape style PlugIns (which Safari does support, or else you would not be able to use Flash, Real media, etc.) and the Firefox extension mechanism. While Apple does not have an extension mechanism, Mac OS does allow for extension to applications across the board. My Safari uses 3 on a regular basis – Safari Stand, which is free and excellent and gives me color coded source, thumbnail tabs similar to what OmniWeb gives you, “History Flow” which brings the coverflow interface to history, etc.; Inquisitor, another free add on which brings live search to the search bar, and saft, a paid product that brings tons more enhancements to the Safari interface. I recommend you check out pimpmysafari.com for a list of Safari add-ons

If the rendering engine was as bad as you claim it to be, why would Nokia, Adobe, and Google all have adopted it as their future (Nokia and Google use it in their phones, Adobe made it the centerpiece of Adobe AIR)

And lastly, Safari, unlike Firefox, actually adhered to the Apple standard keystrokes and text handeling, supports the services menus, supports the Apple built-in spell checker, etc….

Brett → Thursday, 10 April 2008 @ 18:21 BDT

This is just another case of one person attributing their desires to the user-base at large. Over the years, Apple has gotten lots of hate from power users.. from command line geeks that resented the GUI, skinners who complained that they couldn’t mutate the UI sufficiently, to DIY’ers who wanted to configure their own Macs from parts. There will always be a vocal minority bemoaning Apple for not catering to their need to tinker.

Apple’s original charter for the Mac was to build a computer for “the rest of us”: those who don’t aspire to be technically elite, and who don’t want to be overwhelmed with options and paralyzed with choices. Apple incorporates functionality that is widely useful, leaving others to cater to special interests. This philosophy has continued to apply to their other product lines (iPhone, Apple TV, iPod). Power users have also dissed these products for not having enough features or extensibility, but it clearly hasn’t affected Apple’s success.

I wonder how many people actually install and use browser plug-ins? Most people can barely use the full feature set of their browsers. Let the plug-in enthusiasts use Firefox. Safari will do just fine without them.

As for as Safari’s page rendering problems, Apple is aggressively working to make Safari completely standards compliant, and will continue to do so. Perhaps the problems can be attributed (at least in part) to nonconforming code used on certain sites. If this is the case, put the blame where it belongs and let the sites fix their code.

Wayne Smallman → Thursday, 10 April 2008 @ 22:15 BDT

Ratty, no idea what you mean! But yeah, whatever, mate…

Wayne Smallman → Thursday, 10 April 2008 @ 22:36 BDT

Hi Eytan, I’m a web developer, and I tend to see Safari creak when it comes to standards compliance.

Much like Internet Explorer, there are usually simple ways around these issues, but sometimes, an if / else statement is required to load in different code just for Safari. But that’s not been the case for some long time.

There’s a business network I’m a member of and there’s been a lot of discussion about Safari choking on standardized code, so it’s a known issue with a lot of the developers I know.

As for the Plug-in thing in Safari, I’m aware of it, but it’s not like the previous Plug-ins that Netscape Navigator used. It’s more for just for things like media extensions (as you mention) and light-weight modifications, but not like the Add-Ons for Firefox.

Add-Ons for Firefox — as you’ll no doubt know — open up the whole of Firefox to being altered and extended.

That said, I should have mentioned this and made the distinction, so thanks for highlighting that.

Regarding 3rd parties using WebKit for their web browsing experiences, that’s something I’ve discussed in a peripheral way before now.

I’d hazard an educated guess and say it’s about politics; Apple are a company that both Adobe and Nokia have relationships with, and they will trust Apple’s stewardship, probably more so that Mozilla’s.

There’s still a general distrust of Open Source, but Apple have helped legitimize Open Source with OS X and Safari respectively. So maybe in the minds of Adobe, Nokia et al, they’re a better candidate to go to?

Apple would look a little silly if they didn’t stick to their own UI guidelines, while Mozilla have made it clear that Firefox 3 will rectify this issue.

It’s not like Firefox isn’t without its quirks — it’s certainly more of Windows application than a Mac one at times, which shows. But on the balance, it’s still far better than Safari.

This isn’t a Safari bash! Not by any stretch of the imagination. I still use Safari daily, just not for web development, or for my regular Pownce, Twitter, Facebook stuff.

Thanks for the comment, Eytan!

Eytan → Thursday, 10 April 2008 @ 22:50 BDT

Thank you for your thoughtful response.
As I said, you should really check out some of those add-ons. Apple even highlights saft on their website, so it is not as if they are not aware of them. They have just not created a great mechanism to add them. They did back off their insistence that they would not support input managers in 10.5, so we do have some great plug-ins. As I said, SafariStand is a game changer. Check it out.

I disagree about Adobe, Nokia etc and why they went with Webkit. I think they went with it because it is smaller and cleaner code, and one where they could actually have MORE and not LESS to say about its direction. Apple is truly doing much better with the open source direction of WebKit then Mozilla is doing with their engine, IMHO. It has now even been backported to khtml, QT, and is the basis of the rendering engine for the future of Pidgin on Linux and Windows.

As for Firefox 3 rectifying the UI issues, I have found it does not. All those complaints I had I still have with FF 3. Please read John Gruber’s excellent post on Daring Fireball that sums up what I was saying, Firefox 3 vs. Safari 3 and Firefox 3 vs. Safari 3 Addenda

Thanks for reading!

Wayne Smallman → Thursday, 10 April 2008 @ 23:02 BDT

Hi Brett, I’m a purist when it comes to my Macs. I don’t use any of those UI modifiers, or anything like that. I did in my college days, but those days are long gone!

Also, this isn’t anything to do with me forcing my views on other people at all. This is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time and when I’ve mentioned this to those few people I know who use Safari, they’ve agreed with me.

Look at it this way: if Firefox was to suddenly abandon Add-Ons while Apple added their own equivalent, who do they think would suddenly gain the most interest from developers?

Also, consider the recent situation with the iPhone and look at the buzz of interest when Apple opened it up to 3rd parties.

This is about giving people a choice, not railroading them into a way of doing things just to please a select few.

Having a good Plug-In architecture will ultimately benefit everyone involved, even Apple for their part.

“Apple’s original charter for the Mac was to build a computer for ‘the rest of us’: those who don’t aspire to be technically elite, and who don’t want to be overwhelmed with options and paralyzed with choices.”

Agreed. But you contradict yourself with your next statement:

“This philosophy has continued to apply to their other product lines (iPhone, Apple TV, iPod).”

How are those things a part of that original mandate, Brett? Besides, that was over 20 years ago and things have changed since then.

Like any business, Apple follow their customers wishes, which will ultimately override their desire to plow their own inimitable furrow.

Before I was a web developer, I studied product design at a degree level. That’s where I fell in love with Apple products and their minimalist, “form follows function” approach to design.

As you point out, Apple offer those options specific to the product and little more, if anything else at all! And that’s something I recognized early on and is a very major part of the way I do things right now.

It’s not like I’m asking for Apple to offer floppy drives or parallel ports. Plug-Ins are a legitimate part of a web browser that have been around for well over a decade.

If we agree that Apple are about empowering their users, isn’t this an extension to that philosophy? Also, this is about remaining relevant, which Safari will struggle to be to that vocal minority you’re quick to dismiss. Don’t forget, Brett, people like me are the evangelists who push Apple products like unofficial, unpaid sales staff.

To again reiterate my comments to Eytan, those web pages that exhibited errors were entirely standards compliant. The problem lies entirely with Apple and no one else.

It’s worth reading the Ars Technica article I linked to. That highlights the momentum of the progress Apple are making, which is encouraging.

Thanks again for your comment. Always appreciated…

Don → Friday, 11 April 2008 @ 2:52 BDT

You make good points about Safari, but why not use proper grammar. Apple is a singular expression, not plural. Apple “is”, not Apple “are”.

Brett → Friday, 11 April 2008 @ 16:30 BDT

The reason I mentioned the iPod, Apple TV, and iPhone as examples of Apple’s continuation of simple products for “the rest of us”, is that each has been criticized by power users as missing features critical to its success, and yet each has proved its viability.

Among other things, the iPod was initially bashed for its lack of a user-replaceable battery, FM tuner, voice memo recorder, compatibility for OGG and WMP files. Clearly, none of these features were the show stoppers that the power-users imagined.

The Apple TV was lambasted for not being able to function as a TiVo and for not having a built-in DVD player/ripper. Admittedly, the Apple TV got off to a weak start, but with the addition of a movie rental scheme, and a price cut, it seems to have found success.

The iPhone was supposedly doomed because of its puny camera, lack of physical keyboard, GPS, and 3G networking. Yet the iPhone was selling like hot cakes even before Apple announced an API would be made available for 3rd party development. Now after the announcement, the techno-elite are still complaining that the iPhone won’t support background processes.

It’s true that if Apple wanted to completely monopolize a market, they would have to address every niche desire, but Apple has shown that it is satisfied to produce products that meet the needs of normal users. There are diminishing returns for trying to be all things to all people.

Someday, we may yet see Apple release a plug-in scheme for Safari, and I don’t fault you for calling for it. But I’m sure it is way down on their priority list compared to fixing Safari’s rendering issues. In the mean time, people who love or need plug-ins will continue to use Firefox. So be it. My feeling is that even without plug-ins, Safari has the potential to be a major player in the browser market.

Wayne Smallman → Friday, 11 April 2008 @ 20:28 BDT

Hi Eytan, thanks for the follow-up!

“I disagree about Adobe, Nokia etc and why they went with Webkit. I think they went with it because it is smaller and cleaner code,…”

That was speculation on my part. However, I would caution against aligning compactness with being good, or better. That might have been their only reason for using WebKit. But that’s speculation, too.

“As for Firefox 3 rectifying the UI issues, I have found it does not.”

Firefox 3 is still in development, so it’s still very early to judge.

I remember using the Safari beta and how awful yet good it was at the time. A strange mixture, for sure. The reward was seeing it mature into a better application, albeit one with the aforementioned rendering and compatibility issues.

Seriously, I am hopeful that Apple will make Safari into a contender. I can’t tell you how galling it’s been to have Windows apologists laugh when Safari broke on yet another website while Internet Explorer 6 (of all things) sailed by, during testing!

If you’re keen on your Mac reading, have a search around the ‘blog for iPhone, Apple, Mac et cetera. Or choose the Apple category. I’ve written lots of stuff over the last 3 years…

Wayne Smallman → Friday, 11 April 2008 @ 20:32 BDT

Hi Don, the grammar’s been sorted.

Because companies like Apple are made up of more than one person, my logic gets in the way and registers them as plural.

If you think about it, how can many people be considered as “is” and not “are”?

Anyway, earlier today, Kate dealt with matters.

Thanks for the comment!

Wayne Smallman → Friday, 11 April 2008 @ 20:48 BDT

Hi Brett, thanks for coming back, fella!

“The reason I mentioned the iPod, Apple TV, and iPhone as examples of Apple’s continuation of simple products for “the rest of us”, is that each has been criticized by power users as missing features critical to its success, and yet each has proved its viability.”

Yes, and I agree with you entirely. As I said earlier, Apple’s approach is to give you just what’s required for the job at hand. The likes of Microsoft would have rolled back laughing, thinking to themselves that Apple had left the back door open, not realizing that people just want stuff that works, without having to read huge manuals, or have fingers like a new born to press the myriad buttons.

“Among other things, the iPod was initially bashed for its lack of a user-replaceable battery, FM tuner, voice memo recorder, compatibility for OGG and WMP files. Clearly, none of these features were the show stoppers that the power-users imagined.”

I can’t really comment on those ‘omissions’ over an above what I said previously — I don’t even listen to the radio, and I certainly don’t use WMP files.

“The Apple TV was lambasted for not being able to function as a TiVo and for not having a built-in DVD player/ripper. Admittedly, the Apple TV got off to a weak start, but with the addition of a movie rental scheme, and a price cut, it seems to have found success.”

I have to confess, I was one of those people criticizing Apple for not offering some DVR / PVR functionality for the Apple TV:

“I recently opined prior to Macworld 2008 about what new shape Apple TV might take. After all, it’s less than stellar performance necessitated some kind of update. But the question is, did Apple go far enough with the Apple TV?”

But then the Apple “less is more mantra” has to be revisited, which helps put things in some perspective:

“First of all — and as I mentioned earlier — such feature inclusions would increase the general clutter and complicatedness of using the Apple TV. So it’s a question of usability more than anything else.

Secondly, the Apple TV is a vehicle for Apple’s own ambitions and media deals first. Everything else is a very distant second.”

“The iPhone was supposedly doomed because of its puny camera, lack of physical keyboard, GPS, and 3G networking. Yet the iPhone was selling like hot cakes even before Apple announced an API would be made available for 3rd party development. Now after the announcement, the techno-elite are still complaining that the iPhone won’t support background processes.”

Yes, but there is a sound argument for a good quality camera; Apple have iPhoto, and it seems foolish to not join the very obvious dots between the two, doesn’t it? If nothing else, Apple are about end-to-end systems that leave few questions about the quality.

But I know where you’re coming from with the Apple iPhone naysayers, I had a go at them myself!

“It’s true that if Apple wanted to completely monopolize a market, they would have to address every niche desire, but Apple has shown that it is satisfied to produce products that meet the needs of normal users. There are diminishing returns for trying to be all things to all people.”

Agreed. I don’t see Apple chasing after the corporate dollar that hard. They’ll make an effort for sure, but they won’t bust their balls to get their.

Brett, thanks for the thoughtful comments.

As I mention to Eytan, there’s plenty of Mac-related stuff on Blah, should you have any more time to waste here!

Speak soon…

Heidi Cool → Tuesday, 15 April 2008 @ 7:13 BDT

Wow, this has evolved into quite a discussion. I like Safari, but like you Wayne, it has its drawbacks. Naturally it’s not as buggy as I.E., but I do get little surprises from time to time for which I have to go back and tweak my HTML. Of course, add-ons, are one of the main reasons I use Firefox as my primary browser rather than Safari.

Brett makes an interesting point suggesting that the average user doesn’t use add-ons, but there are so many available, for so many different purposes I think usage goes well beyond the confines of the Web developer community. Also Web developers, many of whom are Mac users, are also influential recommending Web browsers to friends, colleagues and associates. So I think it would help Apple to reach out to this market. I have no doubt that they are working to improve Safari, but your point is well taken, they have some room to grow in this field. That said, I didn’t take your article as a total slam of the product, merely a review that points out areas in which they can improve. Apple can only learn what people want if the people who want are talking/writing about it.

Wayne Smallman → Tuesday, 15 April 2008 @ 9:14 BDT

As I mentioned earlier, there’s many thousands of people out there who won’t see the seems. So for them, Safari is more than fine.

The latest version is a big improvement, but for me personally, it’s not enough because — as Brett pointed out — I fall into the power user camp, so I’m always going to be asking more of my web browsers…

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