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The evolving browser ecosystem

January 27, 2003

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Internet Explorer, Safari, Mozilla/Netscape/Chimera, Opera, OmniWeb, iCab. That’s eight browsers for Mac OS X users to choose from and six rendering engines for Mac-oriented Web authors to worry about. More, if text browsers like Lynx and W3M are included, not to mention a few other Mozilla variants like Phoenix and the new AOL browser. But how much should we worry, really?

I’m starting to think the answer is, “Not a lot.” The first four rendering engines in that list have very good to excellent standards support, and are from developers committed to standards (although bear in mind I’m making a distinction between the Mac and Windows IE teams here). Sure, each of those four good engines have their quirks and not all of them support some useful standards like XML. But in the main, they’re all fine choices for end-user Web surfing, and collectively they offer a range of choices in terms of user interface, speed and add-ons like integrated mail clients and Web-page editors. If – as has been widely hinted by Omni Group staff – OmniWeb incorporates the KHTML-based framework in Safari, then all but a tiny fraction of OS X users will be surfing with browsers that Web authors can be happy with. The remainder – text browsers that don’t handle nested tables and font tags anyway, and iCab – will nonetheless appreciate pages built to Web standards. Moreover, the authors of iCab released Version 2.9 recently, with an indication in an included readme file that the CSS implementation in 3.0 will be much improved.

So, the message is clear – if you have a substantial fraction of Mac OS X users in your audience, then Web standards are the way to accommodate them.

At the time Safari’s first beta was released, Chimera Navigator was on its way to becoming the dominant OS X browser amongst MacEdition’s readers. The introduction of Safari provides a test of which features OS X users really want: the features and customisability of Mozilla; speed and tabbed browsing of Chimera; mainstream acceptance of IE; or speed of Safari. Was IE’s market share just because it was the default browser? If so, Safari will rapidly eat most of IE’s market share. Similarly, did Chimera eat most of OmniWeb’s market share because of tabbed browsing or because of its standards compliance? We’ll soon know which matters more by watching the adoption of Safari relative to Chimera. And if well-rendered text mattered more to the remaining rump of OmniWeb users than some of its interface features, we’ll see Safari eating chunks of OmniWeb’s late-2002 market share.

You can trawl discussion boards for people’s opinions all you like, and it seems everyone posting to discussion boards thinks that their choice reflects universal preferences. But there’s nothing like the preferences revealed in server logs to really show what’s happening. I’m loath to make too much of a few weeks’ figures, especially when we know that articles about particular browsers attracts extra readers who use those browsers. Still, here are the browser shares for the identifiable OS X users reading MacEdition since then. (Opera’s excluded since it’s not possible to separate OS 9 and OS X users, but given the total Opera/Mac usage, it wouldn’t be more than about 1-2%.) Safari’s user agent string is easy to check for, and you’re welcome to use my Analog config file if you’d like to make the same assessment for your site. I’d also recommend upgrading to the latest Analog if you can, since it identifies Chimera and Phoenix without having to add up all the individual browser tags like I used to do, which gets pretty laborious with all those nightly builds.

Week IE OW Moz/Net/
Phoenix
Chimera iCab Safari
22 Dec 2002 39.97% 7.57% 10.51% 40.86% 1.03% 0.07%
29 Dec 2002 33.71% 7.69% 10.64% 46.78% 1.10% 0.07%
05 Jan 2003 18.15% 5.21% 7.25% 26.54% 0.63% 42.22%
12 Jan 2003 10.17% 3.16% 5.66% 19.50% 0.27% 61.24%
19 Jan 2003 11.19% 2.61% 4.84% 18.32% 0.31% 62.73%

In a nutshell, the appearance of a hyped new browser from Apple, a new default browser, has clearly captured Mac users’ imagination, even if only for a transitory period. Safari has eaten market share of every other browser in the OS X ecosystem. It’s eaten around half the share of the Gecko-based browsers, and two-thirds of the shares of that of the others (IE, OmniWeb, iCab). Tabbed browsing clearly matters to some people – or maybe it’s that last few points of standards compliance – but speed matters to a lot of people, too. And we’ve also learned that more than 60 percent of Mac OS X users who read MacEdition are already using Jaguar, or they couldn’t use Safari. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to learn anything more about OS X version from browser information. It’s worth pointing out that most current versions of OS X browsers require at least 10.1, and the vast majority of users of these browsers have the latest version, whether that’s IE 5.2.2 or OmniWeb 4.1.1, but that’s the most one can learn from this data source.

Now, I wouldn’t be surprised if, after a few weeks of tryout, some people go back to the browser they used to use in December, so that Safari doesn’t become quite as dominant as IE is on Windows. I’m still expecting a new release of IE for Mac in the near future, which might win back some of its previous share. And if the Omni Group really does adopt the same rendering engine as Safari, then its user-interface niceties can go head-to-head with Safari’s without being hindered by the poor design decisions embedded in its existing rendering engine. Moreover, Chimera is an excellent browser, especially if you like tabbed interfaces, so I don’t think Mike Pinkerton should be despairing at the possibility of being number two or three in a vibrant market of eight or more browsers. Indeed, Mike already seems more chipper, which should relieve Chimera fans.

But right now, if you have Mac OS X-using readers, you need to care about Safari. You need to know that its CSS standards compliance is actually pretty good, despite the odd bug. You can see this in our own MacEdition Guide to CSS2 support in Mac-only browsers, or you can look at Peter-Paul Koch’s condensed set of features new in CSS2 – on his metric, Safari and Konqueror do better than IE or Opera before Version 7. That’s pretty cool, especially for a beta.

What’s even more cool is that Mac OS X users have more choice of browsers than users of any other platform (time to point and laugh at the Windows devotees, folks), and most of them have good standards support. There’s bound to be one you’ll like to use, and there are quite a few that I like you using.

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

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