Not too long ago the job of a Web browser was simple: Get the text from the Internet and pour it into the window. If a tag like comes along, change the font. Now the challenges are greater because the browser is becoming the home for almost everything we do. Do you have documents to edit? There’s a Web site for that. Did you miss a television show? There’s a Web site for that. Do you want to announce your engagement? There’s a Web site for that too. The Web browser handles all of that and more.
Choosing a best browser is an impossible job. On one hand, the programs are as close to commodities as there are in the computer industry. The core standards are pretty solid and the job of rendering the document is well understood. Most differences can be smoothed over when the Web designers use cross-platform libraries like jQuery. Many Web sites look the same in all of the major browsers, a testament to the hard work of the developers and their desire to get their information out to the largest audience.
On the other hand, there’s a lot of competition, and some very smart people are working hard to produce very clever new innovations. Yes, some of the so-called innovations are trivial, but if you’re going so spend all day with a piece of software, it makes sense to be picky. While you may not care if someone moves a button from the left to the right, other users do — and the discussion forums are filled with debate.
It may be impossible to be rational about many of the cosmetic issues, like the placement of buttons or the location of the tabs. These are intensely personal decisions, and the look and feel can often be changed with add-ons. There’s not much point debating these issues.
The technical details can also be a bit personal and political, but they have bigger implications for developers and consumers everywhere. You may or may not like Adobe Flash, but the support or lack of support is important for all of us. Careers of Flash developers and the fate of projects they build will rise and fall on these issues. And Flash is just the beginning — all of the browsers are rolling out various combinations of new features, but developers can’t begin to use them until there’s a stable platform with wide enough adoption. The control of the living room screen is worth billions of dollars, and the success or failure of the browser’s video delivery mechanism will determine who may or may not have control over that shimmering rectangle and the zombie eyes glued to it.
Choosing a Web browser is made even harder because solid numbers are often preludes to debate. Some people complain when their browsers suck up every spare byte of memory. Others want their browsers to respond immediately. In many cases there’s a trade-off because the programmers gain speed by filling up the memory and precomputing and precompiling every part of the Web page. You can have small or you can have fast, but you can’t have both.
Often, the bloat isn’t the fault of the browsers themselves, but the Web designers who lard up the site with endless AJAX calls and slick morphing features. Some users may blame the browser when they have 80-odd tabs opened to pages that are issuing AJAX calls left and right. The poor browser has to try to keep them all ready in case someone wants to see any of those tabs immediately.
Choosing among Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, Opera, and Safari is not simple. All are perfectly good choices, but one may be slightly better for certain users than others. Sophisticated users, including developers, may want a browser that supports the latest standards, while casual users may want to avoid the cutting edge for simplicity and stability. Others may have a favorite plug-in they can’t live without. Some users may want to choose based on the location of the buttons. The choices are close enough that this could be fair if you really care about your interface.
The battle of the Web browsers: Google Chrome 5.0
It’s easy for a programmer to be enthusiastic about Google’s Chrome because Google has been emphasizing some of the things that programmers love. Chrome sticks each Web page in a completely separate process, which you can see by opening up Windows Task Manager. If some Web programmer creates an infinite loop or a bad AJAX call in a Web page, Chrome isolates the trouble. Your other pages can keep on running. This isolation isn’t perfect, though, because Chrome users have still experienced crashes.
There is some confusion afoot, though, because in addition to backing HTML5, Google is also embracing Adobe Flash. Google is supporting Flash by including it in the Android OS, and reports claim future versions of Chrome will sport their own, well-tuned version of the Flash plug-in, an approach that will probably do even more to fix crashes and annoying bugs. The developers won’t be able to point at each other across the moat and blame the other side.
If there’s one complaint about Chrome, it’s that it remains a relatively small presence; thus, Web developers usually get around to testing their work on Chrome only after trying IE, Firefox, and Safari first. Just the other day, one of Facebook’s AJAX calls failed on Chrome but worked when I tried the same button on IE. Chrome offers nice developer tools, though, and I suspect that the Web development gap will slowly disappear.
If that’s not enough for you, Chrome is also the one and only component of the Chromium OS. When the operating system boots, it starts up Chrome, then it’s nothing but HTML for your machine. It’s a very lightweight vision of the future.
Best for: People who want to juggle many windows filled with code that crashes every so often.
Worst for: People who get upset when a website breaks because the developer tested the site on IE only.
The battle of the Web browsers: Firefox 4.0 beta
The old Netscape died years ago, but somehow it begat the Firefox browser that gave us many of the innovations being copied by IE and others. The project found a nice source of revenue by routing search requests to Google, and this supported much of the work of the last few years.
No one knows how stable this source of revenue will be in the future. Google leapfrogged Firefox bybuilding a browser of its own, in part to fix the headaches caused by malfunctioning plug-ins like Flash. Firefox is now offering its own “crash protection,” which restarts plug-ins when they stop delivering. Firefox handles this internally, though, because the browser still runs most of the work in one process. Chrome relies more on the operating system by sticking each page in different OS processes, an approach that the Mozilla group will probably eventually come around to using.
Best for: People who enjoy the wide-open collection of extensions.
The battle of the Web browsers: Microsoft Internet Explorer 9.0 beta
The days when practically everyone used Internet Explorer are long gone, but the browser continues to dominate, thanks to the fact that it may or may not be integrated with the Windows operating system, depending upon the political winds. Microsoft noticed the erosion from total world domination several years ago and is now rapidly adopting some of the best features from the alternatives. Tabs were added some time ago, and Internet Explorer add-ons are now plentiful enough to form a gallery. Many of the innovations that began with Firefox and Opera are now available with IE8.
Some of Microsoft’s claims may strike you as a bit funny. The company notes on a checklist that IE8 supports “Web standards,” then points out it supports only CSS 2.1 because it’s more common than the newer CSS 3.0. Well, yes, and CSS 2.1 will remain more customary until IE officially adopts it because most Web developers will want to avoid heavy use of any feature that doesn’t work on one of the most ubiquitous browsers.
But if Microsoft isn’t on the cutting edge of the new standards collectively called HTML5, it’s pushing its own features. IE8 helps people “browse safely,” a worthy goal that it pursues by offering more and better ways to check the provenance of the information. I’m not sure whether it’s possible to actually attach a number to this protection — Microsoft claims that IE is “5 times better than Chrome” and “2.9 times better than Firefox in protecting against malicious malware.” The company claims IE can do a better job of catching fake URLs and URLs that lead to sites pretending to be something they’re not. Whether or not this can be quantified, it’s a promising path to take because the provenance of information is a big, big challenge for the Internet.
This focus, however, is coming after a long series of security holes in either IE or the add-ons given too much power by IE. Any search engine can help you find stories about hundreds of vulnerabilities found and patched. The root of all of these troubles seems to come when IE is a bit too generous to plug-in packages. This is almost certainly a deep failure of a strategy to let developers add many features that work very well with Windows and not other systems. ActiveX controls, for instance, offer nice performance through deep integration with the operating system, so they help cement IE and Windows’ position. The only problem is that this deep integration has produced many, many vulnerabilities over the years, and it’s not clear that Microsoft has finally stopped them all.
I’m personally torn about the approach Microsoft has taken. While this deep integration has opened up many opportunities, it has also created problems beyond the security dangers. Add-on developers have access to the registry and other weird corners of the operating system, a big difference from the simpler sandboxes used by the other browsers. I’m sure some Web-based game developers appreciate this speed, but I think a simpler model would have been easier on everyone.
In the end, IE’s greatest strength may continue to be its fading dominance. Web developers may skip testing on Safari or Opera, but they know that the boss or the boss’s boss is probably using the default browser shipped with the computer. Despite the prevalence of good cross-platform libraries, I continue to find Web pages that only work on IE. This is the kind of feedback loop that reinforces dominance.
Best for: People who don’t care or don’t want to care. IE is still the most likely to work with most websites.
Worst for: People who worry about browser-based attacks and those who want to try the latest HTML5.
The battle of the Web browsers: Opera 10.60
Opera the company, though, is not focused strictly on the browser. It continues to offer smart, out-of-the-box software that rethinks the current model. Opera Turbo, for instance, is a layer of proxy servers on fast Internet lines. Opera Turbo will fetch the pages for you, then compress them to save bandwidth. This may not be a big win for people with fast lines to their desk, but it should be valuable to mobile browsers with slower network connections and — this is important — tight limits on the amount of data that can be consumed each month.
Indeed, it’s almost unfair to focus too much on the desktop version of Opera browser because the company is tightly connected with the mobile market. It continues to innovate and surprise me more than any of the other teams.
Best for: Raw speed and innovation.
Worst for: People who can’t imagine straying from the pack.
The battle of the Web browsers: Apple Safari 5.0
Apple took the old Konqueror browser from the Linux world and injected a large amount of development talent to produce a very nice browser for Mac and Windows. Safari’s WebKit engine is also the heart of the browsers in the iPhone and the iPad.
Safari is a very good option. The speed is competitive, the controls are simple yet comprehensive, and the developer tools are nice. Apple is just opening up an extensions gallery to the general public, and some developers have already ported popular extensions from Chrome and Firefox. There’s nothing missing from Safari that a user might want, but on the other hand there’s little to make Safari unique or irresistible.
The biggest interest in Safari on the desktop may come from the Web developers who want to target the iOS world of the iPhone and iPad. Creating customized Web pages is simple to do with a few extra tags, and the result often runs like a native app developed for the platform. Plus, Safari isn’t the only browser built on WebKit. Google also uses the WebKit rendering engine for its Android phones, and the iOS and Android browsers behave similarly in many but not all cases. When RIM’s BlackBerry team releases its own WebKit browser, WebKit’s dominance of the mobile Web will be even greater.
Best for: Web developers who want to support WebKit phones.
Worst for: Lovers of extensions and add-ons.