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Fat ladies singing from a plain-text libretto

February 24, 2003

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Some people might have noticed that my previous discussions of browser usage on Mac OS X have omitted any mention or Opera or Lynx for OS X, other than to say that I exclude them. The simple reason is that although it’s easy to pick out Opera (or Lynx) users in total and not too difficult to pick out Opera users on the Mac in total, there doesn’t seem to be any way to distinguish between Opera on OS 9 versus OS X. The user agent string seems to be the same for both operating systems. If I pretend that all Mac users of Opera were on OS X, it would account for about 1 percent and falling of all Mac OS X browsers.

Total Lynx usage on all platforms is generally less than half of one percent of human pageviews on MacEdition, and sometimes much less, thus I’ve never bothered to separately record Lynx, Links, w3m or Dillo in my data summaries, even though Analog can separately identify them – I’ve always just lumped them together. It’s never been worth my while to deal with them separately, let alone sort them by operating system as well. I suppose I could go back and reanalyze all those logs, but you’ll have to pay me to take all that time for such a small information gain. In any case, it wouldn’t make sense to talk about text browsers in a discussion of the relative popularity of (mainstream) OS X browsers. Text browsers serve very different purposes than browsers like IE, Mozilla and Safari; their users have very different needs. It doesn’t make sense to treat them as competing products.

It would, however, be desirable to be able to include Opera in such discussions, but I can’t do so while maintaining statistical integrity. Opera could clearly have been a contender on the Mac platform, as it is on Windows in the minor browser stakes. It’s a browser, not a Netscape-style behemoth suite. Opera is small, fast and has good standards support, especially in version 7. We were pretty impressed with the initial offering on the Mac. So why didn’t Opera for Mac take off? Why, when an Opera spokesperson indicated that Opera might drop the Mac version of its eponymous software, did so many people react along the lines of “you won’t be missed and don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out”? Maybe the vehemence was a result of the natural tendency of Internet denizens to use discussion boards and comment threads on Weblogs as bully pulpits, but it surprised me nonetheless.

The simple answer to the first question is that Opera is not as “Mac-like” as its competition, and as such just didn’t compare well with alternatives like Chimera, OmniWeb and now Safari. Mac users also don’t appreciate products that lag behind the Windows, and even Linux, versions. Even though IE’s absence makes Linux a reasonably fertile market for minor browsers, it’s still hard to imagine that Linux is a bigger desktop market than Mac OS, especially for a closed-source product that its publishers prefer you to pay for. Mac users understand this, and perhaps some feel slighted by Opera’s relative lack of attention to the Mac market. I’ve been surprised by this, myself. I’m only a minor ranter amongst the horde of Web columnists out there, but I still think that if I write an article revealing Opera 5’s px-unit mess in June (and send in bug reports), someone at Opera should have been aware of the problem in December, instead of having to be told about it on A List Apart.

The whole story about Opera possibly leaving the Mac market struck me as some Internet journalist’s beat-down. It’s entirely possible that Opera did try to persuade Apple to use their engine in Safari before its debut, and are now suffering a pique attack because Apple went with KHTML. Certainly, their “Bork” version that messes up MSN seems a particularly juvenile response to MSN’s foul-up of their pages’ presentation in Opera. Although the evidence suggests Microsoft’s actions were a deliberate targeting of Opera, I’m uncertain whether it was with the intention of sabotage, or just incompetent browser sniffing. Either way, Opera’s response looks a bit childish to me.

Regardless, Opera’s hissy fit over Apple’s decision doesn’t even make sense. If Apple brought out an Apple-branded browser with an Opera engine, why have Opera itself as well? Why undermine a product that can at least in principle generate revenue from registered copies, for a browser Apple will be giving away free? Sure, Opera probably expected Apple to pay for the licence; no wonder Steve Jobs says Apple likes open source.

The one feature unique to Opera that I find most useful is the easy substitution of author and user stylesheets. It’s brilliant for diagnosing people’s markup strategies. There’s nothing quite like seeing a huge red border around the fifth-deep nested table.

Of course, only Web authors would want such a feature, not end users; which is why I’m going to make the following proposal: even if Opera doesn’t want to stay in the end-user market for Mac browsers, Mac-based Web designers and authors – by some measures the majority – still need access to the Opera engine. Opera isn’t just for Windows and Linux users, though. It’s also found in mobile phones, Psions and a bunch of embedded applications. Web authors, including Mac-based ones, need to be able to test how their designs work on these browsers, and not everyone has full-time access to Windows boxes. Sure, there are differences between IE across the platforms, but all the other browsers in common use are Mac-only or cross-platform. We’ll always have to test for Windows IE, but do you think Mac-based designers will bother testing in the Opera browser if the Opera company makes it hard for them to do?

If Opera wants to remain on the radar of Mac-using Web authors, it needs a presence on the Mac platform. Since Macromedia has licensed their engine, many Dreamweaver users will get a de facto ability to test in Opera anyway. Opera can go one better by producing a commercial product pitched at medium-proficiency part-time Web authors – a combination browser-editor with better support for stylesheet linking and usage than Mozilla Composer and much, much better source code editing. Pitch it at $US30-50 with a 30-day preview and the independents will come running. Make it run fast, and so will I.

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

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