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What has been and what is to come

January 6, 2003

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Don’t think browser development stopped with the introduction of the fifth-generation browsers like Mozilla. Behind the scenes, developers are readying new versions of their wares. Some of these new offerings are in a stage of development that is advanced enough that they are being tested on live sites. In recent weeks, I’ve seen new builds of iCab in small numbers, and the occasional sighting of another 4.x build of OmniWeb. The Opera 6 for Mac final has been posted, and I’m quite sure that work on version 7 is proceeding, even if it’s lagging behind the Windows and Linux versions. There is also plenty of activity in the Mozilla and Chimera projects, with new milestones being reached quite regularly.

All of these current and future developments are probably no surprise to anyone who pays attention to these things. Sure, it may be news to some that there appears to be another release of OmniWeb in testing, and it’s probably not the much-anticipated (and supposedly near) OmniWeb 5. I’d be very surprised if we see it before September, more’s the pity.

The future development that is perhaps less anticipated is the development of Internet Explorer 6 for the Mac. The fears that Microsoft had stopped active development of their Mac browser – spurred by reports of the IE team’s redeployment to work on WebTV and some FUD pushed by OmniGroup’s Wil Shipley – appear to have been unfounded.

How do I know? Well, log files do tell tales.

Presumably we will find out more about Microsoft’s Mac browser plans in the near future. Given past experience, though, it doesn’t take inside information to expect IE6/Mac (or whatever it’s called when released) to leapfrog its Windows counterpart once again in standards support. IE5/Mac was the first mainstream browser with really good CSS1 support. Even now, IE for Windows doesn’t get basic properties like background-attachment:fixed right, so effects like Eric Meyer’s translucent effects don’t work. By contrast, IE5/Mac gets this right, and it looks great. But IE6 for Windows adds support for a couple of CSS2 properties that its Mac counterpart doesn’t have, such as border-collapse and page-break-after. I anticipate that these will be added to IE6 for Mac, too, along with a few things like @media elements that aren’t currently supported.

I also expect that Microsoft will fix some of those bugs we’ve been documenting in recent months, while tightening up the strictness of its interpretation of standards even relative to its already fairly strict behavior. Expect more cries about “bugs” in this browser that, as with its version 5 predecessor, turn out not to be bugs at all.

To every browser, turn, turn, turn

All this change on the horizon is nothing new. At the end of 2001, I predicted the end of the one-browser web, the progressive disappearance of Netscape 4, and the increasing adoption of standards-compliant browsers on the desktop, even if not on non-standard devices.

These trends have turned out largely as I expected. Netscape 4 has dropped from about 10 percent of our human pageviews a year ago to about 3 percent now. IE6 has displaced much of IE5/Windows’ share, and most extraordinarily, Mozilla-based browsers have captured a staggering 30 percent of our human pageviews.

This seems almost entirely due to the popularity of Chimera amongst Mac OS X users. A few months ago, I noted that there was no easy way to tell Chimera from Mozilla itself. Wouldn’t you just know it: in response to that article, someone suggested to the Chimera team that they put an identifier into the string so it would be separately identifiable – and they did! Builds of Chimera since then, including some with a 0.5+ version number, and everything since the 0.6 milestone, now identify themselves at the end of the user agent string, like this: Mozilla/5.0 (Macintosh; U; PPC Mac OS X Mach-O; en-US; rv:1.0.1) Gecko/20021220 Chimera/0.6+ (don’t worry, I will use my new-found powers of influence for good, not evil). I now know that the vast majority of OS X users with Gecko-based browsers are Chimera users.

Browser market shares amongst
identifiable OS X users

In the three months since I characterized OS X browser usage as “a bit over half IE, a bit over one quarter Mozilla and friends (Chimera and Netscape), and a bit less than a quarter OmniWeb”, it’s changed a lot. In the last half of December, the numbers were about 40 percent each for IE and Chimera, 10–12 percent for other Gecko-based browsers like Mozilla and Netscape 7, and about 8 percent and falling for OmniWeb. That’s 8 percent of our identifiable OS X using readers, not of the total (before you ask about how I get these numbers, you may want to read my past articles on the subject, from March 26 2001, December 31, 2001, January 14, 2002, and September 23, 2002, and the comments attached to some of them).

You can see how the browsers’ relative popularity changed from the chart at right. The high percentage for non-Microsoft browsers, relative to what we see amongst Windows users, clearly shows that many Mac OS X users want an alternative to IE. They’re attracted to the text anti-aliasing that Cocoa applications – and since Mac OS X 10.1.5, Carbon applications as well – have, but they’d rather have standards support than not. Chimera gives them the attractive text and the standards support. Now that OmniWeb’s attractive text rendering is no longer its exclusive feature, fewer OS X users are finding reason to use it, or at least new OS X users aren’t seeing any reason to adopt it.

In that FUD exercise on NewsFactor last June, Wil Shipley’s claim that Microsoft would kill off IE for the Mac rested on the following argument:

“Now that Netscape is largely moribund, what the heck is Microsoft doing funding IE for Mac? How long do you think Microsoft will keep making a free browser for Mac? What do they gain by doing so? Once they’ve killed off the competition in the Mac market, their best move is to start ignoring or wounding IE for the Mac, so that Mac users have a reason to switch to Windows.”

Even if his analysis of Microsoft’s motivations was accurate, which I doubt, the premise turned out to be false. Internet Explorer does have competition in the Mac market, one that right now seems to be burning everything in its path. I expect this trend to Gecko-based kit will be even stronger once other products emerge (maybe sooner than you think) to bring the safari to the Jaguar. In coming months, I expect I’ll feel less constrained by the poor standards support of iCab and OmniWeb, and more able to bring new features to the users of standards-oriented browsers that support them.

— CodeBitch (codebitch@macedition.com) is the grumpy cow who does the HTML production for MacEdition. Read other articles by CodeBitch

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