PS: This has turned out to be a lot more long-winded than I thought it would, but I think it’s worth a read, especially since I’m using a brand-spankin’-new browser to compose this post.
I’ve switched Web browsers so many times it’s not even funny. Sometimes it’s because I’ve switched operating systems. Sometimes it’s because a new browser is released which offers me some feature I want that I didn’t already have. Most of the time it’s been because I want to surf more quickly. Stability factors in here — a browser that crashes won’t necessarily take my data with it (though that’s possible), but it will almost ceratinly slow me down.
I have to be compelled to switch. Like most users, I get a bit hooked on my apps because I know how they work. I know their quirks, their keyboard commands, and their feature-sets. There’s a lot of inertia in the use of a particular application, especially one which one uses all the time, as I use a web browser.
The first browser I ever used was Mosaic on Mac OS 6.[something] (or was it 5.[something]?), and it was a miserable experience. It crashed — a lot — and when it did, it often took the OS with it (as much an Apple problem as a Netscape one). When IE got into the game, I resisted. I wanted to stick with the good guys. I wanted Netscape to win.
But shortly after IE 4.0 for the Mac was released, I experimented a bit, and I decided that I had to switch — it could no longer be resisted. Auto-complete rocked, and Netscape didn’t have it yet. (I now consider this to be a required feature, and IE on the Mac has always done it better than any other browser, including IE on Windows.)
More important though was that IE was fast. Very fast. At least twice as fast as Netscape. I don’t care how much of this was due to perceived performance and how much was actual performance, but it felt enough different to me that I couldn’t use Netscape any more.
Microsoft won my vote in the 4.0 era because using their browser felt better.
Around this time the browser wars got into full-swing. Microsoft and Netscape were both implementing their own extensions to various standards in order to provide a “better browsing experience,” but in the process, they both missed one very important point:
The browser market was riding on the backs of content providers who depended on developers for their presentation. (Please let that sink in for a moment.)
Huh? Ok — let me explain: At the time, web developers (HTML coders, CMS consultants, production crews, etc) were the ones responsible for getting the content onto web sites where surfers could see it. It was a technical task, and required some expertise — it couldn’t be easily done by just anyone.
These folks knew the ins and outs of the various browsers, and they knew how to code around their limitations and build on their individual strengths. But something happened during the browser wars: The browser vendors forgot that the developers mattered, and they decided that it was OK (even desirable) to allow the browsers to diverge so much from each other that it became impossible for developers to make their web sites work equally well in both browsers.
As the competition heated up, the browser feature dichotomy was exploited more and more by the browser vendors, and also to some extent by the developers themselves. (Remember the “best viewed in” banners?). The resulting schism has yet to be resolved.
In the midst of this underhanded competition Netscape imploded, and never caught up, the reasons for which are too numerous to get into here…
Skip forward about four years. IE Mac went from version 4 to version 5, and then migrated from OS 9 to OS X. It’s still a really nice browser — full of features, some of which are still unique, it’s faster than Mozilla (especially on Mac OS Classic), and it’s still got the best Auto-complete implementation, but…
It’s gotten slow. On OS X, it takes a long time to launch. It’s a CPU hog when it’s waiting for data from a server (IMHO a sign of a poorly ported Classic app now living on OS X). There haven’t been any new features for at least a year, and Microsoft has now discontinued updates altogether.
So when Mozilla released Chimera (now Camino), I was all over it. It was fast. It had auto-complete (though not as good as IE’s). It had spell-checking through Apple’s built-in text services. It blocked pop-up ads. It had tabbed browsing. (If IE had had tabs I may not have switched at all.)
A few months ago Apple released Safari, and because of instabilities in Chimera (it crashed a lot), and because Safari had better bookmark and address book integration, and a nicer tabs implementation, I switched again. Until a couple of days ago I’d been using Safari ever since, and had no intention of changing my browser.
But Chimera and Safari still didn’t give me what I really wanted: rich text editing on the Mac, something which IE had offered on Windows for years, but which nobody had matched on the Mac yet. Mozilla/Midas showed up and threatened to make me switch again to get a decent editor…
But there was a major problem. I use a 500MHz PowerBook G3, which is a few years old, and not the fastest machine on the market. Mozilla, while it has Midas (the text editor) is slow. It takes even longer to lauch than IE, and renders more slowly as well. For someone like me who lives in a web browser every day, Mozilla’s performance was just not acceptible. It felt like switching from a stick-shift BMW roadster to an automatic Dodge Omni. It only goes about 50 MPH, and that’s on a down-grade.
Enter Firebird — Mozilla’s slimmed-down browser offering. It’s got tabs. It’s got auto-complete. It’s standards-compliant. It’s fast. And it’s got Midas. I didn’t even have to change my software to get the rich text editor to work.
I’m so totally psyched. Markup be gone! I’m writing in my browser, and loving it all over again. Writing this post feels a lot like writing in Manila for the first time, and that feels really good.