Apple’s Safari: Lingers on as Second-Rate Browser

“I can make more generals, but horses cost money.” — Abraham Lincoln

An essential part of our modern life is to browse the Internet, and the single most important tool for that is the Internet browser. However the Internet can be a dangerous place, and so we want the very best browser. Regrettably, the largest, most successful company in the world, Apple, has flubbed with Safari. What’s with that?

Apple has continuously improved Safari over the years. Its improvements to Webkit and Javascript execution have steadily improved. Version 5.1 added the much needed sandboxing for better security, but only for the OS X version. And yet, Safari has failed to gain customer traction while the glitzy Chrome from Google has continued its stellar ascendance. The numbers show it.

Is Apple going to settle for this?

Apple may have been able to rationalize that Safari, primarily focused on Apple customers, would never achieve a large market share because the Mac only has about 10 percent of it. But whoa. The reason Apple ported Safari to Windows was to show the PC world what a better life could be like using Apple products.

That hasn’t worked out. Instead, Google has stolen the hearts of PC and Mac users, even carving a chunk out of MS Internet Explorer and Firefox. Clearly Google is doing something right and Apple is, well, limping along with Safari.

Worse, Apple seems to have shot itself in the foot with Safari 5.1. It was an innocent enough upgrade, adding the Reading List, which got everyone wound up, some enhanced privacy settings, and the ability to drag items out of the downloads window. However, it also introduced some troublesome issues, notably a tendency to update the main window without a user request. I’ve seen an unusually large number of reader complaints, forum discussions, and even some of the TMO staff has been complaining. (I’ve personally switched to Firefox because I’ve come to the conclusion that an independent group like Mozilla, with no OS axe to grind, is in a better position to cater to customers.)

The chart below, derived from data collected by Stat Counter documents the customer reaction. Safari started a downward arc when version 5.1 was released. For Apple, growth and success is everything. Not here.

Safari Inflection point

Safari 5.1 Inflection Point (U.S. data, all platforms)

Looking at the small picture, many users are using Safari and are not having very many problems. PC Magazine liked it well enough back in July, but also noted that it isn’t a speed demon on Windows and concluded: “but our Editors’ Choice, Google Chrome, delivers a faster, cleaner browsing experience, has more HTML5 support, and offers sandboxed security on Windows.”

The Big Picture

Apple has let an enormous opportunity slip by. This tremendously successful company, worth more than any company on the planet, raking in US$100B a year, and famous for its ability to create user delight has been unable to conjure up the imagination, technical wizardry, design excellence and customer understanding necessary to climb the charts in the browser world. Mozilla’s Firefox has embarrassed Apple with better security focus, more rapid development, and keener customer focus. Google’s Chrome is faster, cleaner, more secure on Windows. While PC Magazine’s review, linked above, showed Safari to be pretty, uses Lion gestures, and utilizes “Cover flow and other beautiful interface elements,” it left readers flat, and they scored it only fair.

Oh, that Eternal Agenda

Part of the problem may be that Safari is loaded down with too much Apple agenda. It’s a showcase for all that’s Apple, and that means beauty, simplicity, OS integration and a happy-go-lucky web browsing experience — to make customers feel comfortable and happy with its products.

Some of that philosophy was revealed when Apple dumbed down the cookie display in version 5.1.

Modern users, especially all those switchers that Apple keeps talking about during the earnings calls, aren’t stupid. They know that the Internet is useful, but it’s also a dangerous place. They need to be able to do their banking and purchases with confidence and security. They want their browser to be the best on the planet, the fastest, most secure, most stable. They couldn’t care less less about Apple, say, forcing a Lion gesture down their throats.

The upshot is that Apple’s Safari is, today, a poor reflection on the traditional values of Apple. Here’s a company that lives and breathes excellence and customer satisfaction. And yet, one of the most important products they can deliver is, in my opinion, now second rate. Evidence for that surfaced recently when Glenn Fleishman documented how Safari 5.1 has an unfortunate glitch in certificate management.

How long will Apple suffer this indignity? How long will it take for Apple to decide that second best isn’t good enough? When will Apple get tired of Google kicking them around? The trends in the chart above tell the story. The customers have spoken. They want the best browser on the planet, and Apple isn’t delivering it.