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How much do you love tabbed browsing really?

June 2, 2003

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It never rains but it pours in the world of browser releases. No sooner had I done my analysis of rendering differences between OmniWeb 4.5 and Safari Beta 1, than Safari Beta 2 was released. There’s also promises of a new Mac version of Opera built from the Version 7 codebase, if anyone still cares. Then recently, we saw the release of the MSN browser from Microsoft, incorporating a new version of the Tasman rendering engine that will go into a future version of IE (hopefully after fixing some annoying bugs). And of course, there’s the goings-on at the Mozilla project, with Camino going to newer versions of the Mozilla codebase, and Phoenix, uh, rising from the ashes to become the project’s core browser implementation.

It’s getting hard to keep up.

The good news about all this is the trend to consolidation on a smaller number of rendering engines than browsers. This means more choice for users and fewer headaches for authors. With a small number of good, largely standards-compliant engines driving virtually all current Mac browsers (let’s leave iCab and Windows IE aside for now), users don’t have to trade off speed, standards compliance and the particular user interface features they like. Now, they can have them all. (Again, unless the must-have feature is iCab’s smilie face checker, compatibility with the browser used by the majority of Windows users or compatibility with older hardware and OSes.)

This is where revealed preferences can be, well, revealing. If you have a choice between two browsers with different rendering engines and speeds, where only one has tabbed browsing, it’s a bit hard to say why someone picks the one with tabbed browsing. Is it the tabbed browsing or some other reason? If it’s the tabbed browsing, then if the other browser adds it, we should observe some users switching to that other browser – the ones who valued tabbed browsing more than that other browser’s positive qualities.

You see, when Safari was first announced, it seemed like all we heard on the various discussion boards was tabbed browsing, tabbed browsing, tabbed browsing. My recollection is that Opera introduced something like it on Windows, and then in its Mac version, and not many people cared.

But the introduction of a more successful implementation by the Mozilla family of browsers has won a lot of converts. Some of those converts have strong enough preferences for this approach to user interfaces to make its absence a deal-breaker.

Browser shares amongst OS X users reading MacEdition. Safari is winning by a country mile. Just how many of these people are there? Sure, there was rumbling on a lot of discussion boards by people who said that Safari had become their default browser once Beta 2 was released. But the proof is in the log files. If MacEdition’s readership is any guide, the answer is one in ten.

With the release of Safari Beta 2, Safari’s share of our identifiable OS X user pageviews jumped almost immediately from two-thirds to just over three-quarters, almost entirely at Camino’s expense. If it had been any other browser that had lost share to the new Safari version, I might have attributed it to people becoming more comfortable with using a beta browser on its second release. If the increase in Safari usage had been more gradual, maybe it could have been attributed to new OS X users being more likely to adopt it than longtime OS X users. But this was a sharp step-up, visible in the first complete week following the new beta’s release, and its increase in share was, as I said before, almost entirely at Camino’s expense. That says to me that there were a bunch of people who wanted to switch to Safari, but didn’t want to give up tabbed browsing. As soon as it offered that feature, switch they did.

Now, one in ten might not seem like many, but in a large field of browser engines and browsers, it can shift relative shares between the minor players. Internet Explorer and Camino are now running neck-and-neck for the number two spot, with remaining Mozilla-based browsers combining to make a distant fourth. Despite the inclusion of the WebCore framework as OmniWeb 4.5’s new rendering engine, it doesn’t seem to have won any new converts. That said, most existing OmniWeb users have already switched to the new, standards-compliant version. If nothing else, that tells me that most of the people still using OmniWeb have been willing to pay for it. But the browser from the Omni Group remains in fifth place amongst OS X users, with iCab a long way further behind, hard to even pick up reliably. Maybe that will change with its own promised new version. (As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, it’s not even possible to tell the difference between Opera on OS 9 and OS X, but total Mac usage of Opera is so tiny that I just leave it out.)

In the meantime, the share of pageviews by browsers that are accounted for are browsers with pretty good standards support – more than 95 percent, including IE5/Windows. And a lot of them offer tabbed browsing, so users can have their tabs and their other preferred features, too. Sure, it’s worse now for the sites with mainly Windows-using readers: They have to build to the IE/Windows lowest common denominator. But all in all, it’s a much better time to be trying to conform to Web standards than three years ago when I started writing this column.

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

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