Jun 20

Browser Story

Category: internet,technology,web

I was sitting in Joomla! Bug Squad today chatting about browsers. Firefox 3.5 is almost ready (I’m typing on a release candidate with it, I’ve been using it since beta, I used 3.0 when it was still ‘Minefield’) and Safari 4 has been recently released (another one that I used throughout beta). Each offer improvements in speed over their predecessor which got me thinking about the progression of different browsers.

I’ll start with Safari because that’s where the discussion began with. Many years ago there were two major browsers for the Mac: Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer. Netscape on a Mac at primary school was my first exposure to the internet which dialed into the local University and used their connection. This was back when browsers still costed money to acquire, we’ve come a long way. At one stage Netscape was shipped by default but as we progressed with Mac’s, Internet Explorer became the default browser that shipped on Mac OS (along side Netscape). Microsoft really had no interest in continuing to develop for the platform that they started their life on (yes, Word was originally a Mac application, which is why it has quirks like Mac’s) and their browser stagnated on the platform. In 2003, Apple announced that they were effectively forking KHTML and building their own browser which ended up being included as the default browser in Mac OS X 10.3 (that same year) with Internet Explorer an alternative and then as the only browser in Mac OS X 10.4 (which was where I started my Mac journey).

It was a bumpy road for Safari but they came out the other end with the open source project “WebKit”. This is significant because today WebKit is used more places than Mozilla’s Gecko engine. WebKit forms the basis of Safari on Mac, Windows and iPhone/iPod Touch for Apple developed products but is now a part of Google’s Chrome browser and their Android mobile phone platform and Nokia are using it with their Symbian S60 phones. Apple, Google and Nokia. There are other browsers that are picking it up, like Epiphany on Linux (moved from Gecko to Gecko and WebKit to just WebKit), iCab and Omniweb. There were also those browsers who were built around it,  like Shiira and Google Chrome. Just recently Palm has joined the mix with their new “Pre” handled being heavily powered by WebKit (you know, the iPhone killer). Really quite scary when I think how out of nowhere really this rendering engine has appeared and taken market dominance away from Gecko.

And Gecko, the engine that powers Firefox that came from the Netscape line. Gecko at one stage was the engine of choice for GUI based browsers for Linux. Sure there were other browsers out there that did their own thing but nothing really compared to Gecko. Gecko powered Mozilla’s Navigator line as well as Firefox but it also held a lot of sway amongst the GNOME guys as well. Gecko was the engine that powered Galeon. Galeon was perhaps for the longest time my most favourite web browser for Linux. It was lighter than Firefox and in some respects has some features that Firefox is only just getting. Unfortunately the Galeon people had a falling out and some moved to Epiphany. Epiphany has never been the browser that Galeon was which is disappointing to see.

Next on the list is Opera. Opera has never really been my favourite browser though it does have some nice features, I just never picked up on it. I continue to have a copy of Opera laying around my Mac but the last time I seriously used it was for testing websites when I wandered complete cookie isolation when both Safari and Firefox were busy being useful. The time prior to that was before Firefox 3 was in beta (Minefield!) and I wanted to test some CSS that Safari 3 rendered fine but Firefox 2 refused to display properly. Firefox 3 didn’t render the page perfectly (still) but it did go a long way to getting it right and Opera got a bit further but not quite there. Opera has some really cool features such as tab previews and their ‘quick dial’ page as well as the ability to embed ‘widgets’ into the application as well which seem to be able to work at a higher level than the Firefox extensions appear to work within normally.

Last on my list is Internet Explorer. IE is these days predominantly a Windows only web browser though in its history there were ports to both Mac OS (8, 9, X) and UNIX. IE also makes an appearance for Microsoft’s Windows Mobile operating systems as well. It is most revered perhaps for its lack of ability to follow standards and interesting flaws such as the PNG transparency issue. Interestingly since the Mac version 5 diverged using the Tasman layout engine not the Trident engine (Trident being the engine behind the Windows versions which is still used to this day). Tasman aimed to follow the standards and did so quite well and as such it didn’t feature IE’s Box Model bug and had better XHTML, CSS and PNG support (with full transparency and colour correction). The Tasman layout engine lives on today within Microsoft TV Mediaroom Edition with rumours it’d be used in IE7 which turned out not to happen. IE has been known to introduce a few features that have lived on however. The favourite icon support was first seen in IE an the AJAX revolution was started by Microsoft’s XMLHTTPRequest object. IE is also well known for the things it has introduced that have caused issues, such as ActiveX controls, insecurity with various security flaws and inappropriate designed trust models in addition to the fact that each version introduces new quirks and bugs for rendering inventing the need for browser specific hacks to get a page to render the same. Yes, I’m sure every web designer in the world loathes this browser but with Microsoft’s monopoly it is unfortunately not going to disappear overnight. Shame really.

At the end of the day I use Firefox the most on Windows (gaming PC, others PC if possible), Mac (main desktop) and Linux (work desktop). When I was using Windows for my work machine I had IE, Safari, Firefox and Chrome. Most of my browsing lived in Firefox but I used Chrome for my GMail accounts to keep them in their own little play pen away from where I was working. My gaming machine has a similar set up but since I usually only search to work out why games aren’t working (you’d be surprised by how much old games stop working when you change their preferred DirectX version), that usually just means Firefox. My Mac at the moment is a battle ground between Firefox and Safari. Safari at one stage in the last week was the only browser I had open after I got annoyed with Firefox eating CPU and memory. Safari is a might lighter browser and I do enjoy it over Firefox at times. It has features like the ability to save all of the tabs in a window into a bookmark folder and then to open bookmark folders as new tabs. It allows me to save a window full of ‘research’ easily and close that browser window off until I need to work on it again and then immediately everything is back. Until Firefox 3.5, Safari also had a “reopen  last closed window” option which was unique and similar to the “reopen last closed tab” that has been around in Firefox for a while. Safari doesn’t have the last closed tab yet (annoyingly) however Firefox 3.5 nicely introduces the window option along side the tab option (I’ve already used it once since I switched to the beta). Firefox 3.5 also adds the ability to drag tabs out of a window into another window or their own fully fledged window, something that Safari has had for a while and that Google implemented within Chrome. It isn’t as smooth or slick as the WebKit browser’s implementation but it is a start and is useful for those times when you want to break a window out into its own, or join it to another window, but since it has a form in it that you’ve entered details in or something that you can’t easily get to (YouTube video, shopping cart submission, etc) with a direct link. Safari’s version is very smooth and neat whilst Firefox still has a lot of rough edges to sort out but it is a start that it is at least there. The Safari 4 beta had some interesting features that they took out, the fact that the tab bar was merged into the window title was one I liked personally as it gave me even more screen real estate for my web pages, so I’m sad to see it gone in the final. Firefox has the nicer developer tools and I feel at home with Firebug however Safari also has some quite capable tools available. The latest release of Firebug annoys me that they make it more complicated to enable a panel, instead of landing on a panel and having the option to enable it, it tells you to click on a few places to enable it. Frustrating that I can’t click a big button that just says “make it so” to enable it but that is life – since I have the old Firebug at work I still prefer it over the newer one my home FF3.5 instance has. Opera has a small place on my Mac and is really an incidental browser and comes fourth to Shiira, a WebKit powered browser. Shiira has some interesting concepts such as the ability to put a page into a sidebar (with tabs) that you can then use to power the main page. It turns out especially useful for those long link list pages where you click on them to go down into a content page but they provide no easy option to navigating to the related links unless you hit the back button. Shiira also has some other interesting UI changes which makes it my third place browser on the Mac (especially when I am navigating a complex web page with a link structure as noted before).

All in all it is interesting to sit down and look around to see what the world still looks like with HTML5 around the corner it will be interesting to see how the browsers adapt to the future.

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