June 23rd, 1997

OmniWeb Inside Look
Report by: Dan Hughes ([email protected])
June 23, 1997

OmniWeb Inside Look Banner

When Apple Computer made the decision to purchase NeXT in late December of last year, their obvious intentions for the acquisition were to jump start their ailing operating system division via the OpenStep environment. But along with the expectations of receiving a world-class, battle tested, cutting-edge product, Apple gained something that has gone largely unnoticed thus far -- a committed pool of seeded NeXT developers who have been building what Steve Jobs likes to call 'best of breed' applications over the past five years.

This is vitally important, if only for the sole fact that Rhapsody won't sing its song on either Intel or PowerPC without the aid of dozens of premiere applications. Revolutionary products are what will largely determine the success of Apple's mammoth endeavour and the importance of having a group of developers who are already experienced with developing for OpenStep (and are in fact shipping products) can't be stressed enough. Like the actual OS, there is a relatively large base of OpenStep applications available that have been through years of maturation which will lead to products for Rhapsody that don't feel like '1.0' applications, even though people will perceive them as such.

While it's a given that not every OpenStep developer will decide to make the incremental jump to Rhapsody (although faced with the fact that many software companies had their business' revolving entirely around OpenStep, we believe the migration percentage will be extremely large), several notable companies in the current crop have already pledged their support. One such firm is Seattle-based Omni Development, makers of the popular OpenStep Web browser, OmniWeb. We here at Webintosh wanted to get Macintosh users familiar with some OpenStep products which are destined for Rhapsody, and for many, this inside look at OmniWeb will be their first chance to see what OpenStep applications actually look like.

The Heart Of OmniWeb

OmniWeb Browser Window

Obviously, the heart and sole of any Web browser is the actual browsing window and this is where we'd like to begin our look at OmniWeb, partly because of the program's sometimes radical approach to surfing. Glancing beyond the Apple homepage, a look at the browser's user interface will certainly raise some eyebrows (and no, we're not talking about the OpenStep reversed scroll bars). Differing from every other Web browser in history (at least to our knowledge), OmniWeb actually has two URL fields at the top of the window. Omni feels that it's important to always have the user knowing where they're at and where they want to go, and judging by this explanation, we more or less agree with them.

Although a potentially confusing issue for new users, power users will love the capabilities provided by this feature. Basically, the bottom field indicates the current page (and doubles as a progress meter when content is being loaded) while the top field represents selected URLs -- users can choose locations through a number of different ways including: navigating links via the keyboard's arrow keys, selecting and then editing a link via a right-mouse click, or by dragging in URLs.

The remainder of the browser's front-end interface stays in line with the standard interface of other applications, although one might notice the lack of a stop button on the toolbar. Actually, as one would expect, there is a stop button, but in OmniWeb, the load icon does double duty, acting as the stop mechanism when pages are being downloaded.

Navigationally speaking, OmniWeb takes full advantage of key/click combinations. As mentioned above, a right-mouse click will select links and display them in the top URL field. Clicking on a link with the ALT key depressed results in the user being able to drag a window icon around. When you drop the link, a new browser window is cued, centered around the placement of the icon. A variety of other combinations execute other various useful commands.

Multi-Threaded Browser

OmniWeb Processes Panel

Much like the utility panel of OpenStep that allows you to kill mis-behaved or disruptive applications, OmniWeb's Processes panel allows users to digest the informational material that is being downloaded. Any ongoing process -- loading pages, images, animations, etc. -- can all be stopped individually, a handy feature the bodes well for anyone who occasionally needs to load straight text that might happen to be surrounded by large graphics.

Incidently, because of OmniWeb's heavy multi-threading capabilities, all ongoing processes can be executed at the same time, rather than the normal way of having a Web browser bringing in each item successively.

Much of OmniWeb's true innovation is behind the scenes, and the browser's dynamic pipeline architecture is no different. Basically, the application knows where it's starting (a given URL with some sort of protocol) and understands where it must end up (an image in the browser window, etc.). The context of the data will pass through the pipeline of plug-in processors and will be organized by their type. For instance, the two GIFs in the Processes panel screenshot have passed through the pipeline and have been recognized as images, thus the image icon. The other images are still loading, and therefore a generic document icon is displayed.

Error Message Collector

OmniWeb Console Panel

Though all errors messages are displayed in the Processes panel, the Console window keeps logs of all messages. While the company openly admits that many people rarely, if ever, use this feature, the Console can be useful for Web designers who are looking for the precise error string that can crop up.

Not Your Ordinary Source Viewer

OmniWeb Source Window

OmniWeb's Source viewer goes beyond the traditional implementation in most Web browsers by actually offering the ability to directly manipulate HTML code within the source window. It would be foolish to think that this feature is a full fledged text editor, but what it does provide quite nicely is a quick way to make small changes and view them immediately. The application is even 'intelligent' in that it tries to map the appropriate path and filenames of the Web directory specified when saving changes to the HTML document.

Monkey See, Monkey Do...

OmniWeb Bookmark Panel

Despite what some have gathered, OmniWeb has been at the forefront of providing the Web browser genre with innovative and superior features over the past few years. Omni's handling of bookmarks, for instance, was a part of OmniWeb long before Netscape started using a similar approach in Navigator. Evidence of this is clear by simply looking at the bookmarks features of early versions of Navigator (Mozilla). Some OpenStep supporters even suggest the functionality was entirely ripped off by Netscape, although we will leave the debating to zealots.

The screenshot of the bookmark window show its ability to sort items through a hierarchy of folders, something which the program puts no limitation upon. In other words, your folder can span basically expand forever. Also note the little 'zaps' next to some of the entries: any item with a zap next to it indicates that it has an associated URL. The 'zap in a book' next to Comics reveals something interesting -- OmniWeb allows users to string together different bookmark containers, a useful feature for anyone needing to sharing bookmark files.

Furthermore, OmniWeb also has what the company likes to call 'inspectors'. Much like the subscription capabilities of Microsoft's Internet Explorer 3.0.1 for the Mac, OmniWeb will periodically check user specified Web sites and determine whether or not their content has updated. If it has, a bright yellow alert if placed in the bookmark window. However, Omni openly admits that this feature isn't panacea for tracking sites. A wide variety of Web sites don't support this feature (including Webintosh) and even when a site does, it's possible that the inspector can be looking at a never-changing frame inset.

Direct Web Searching

OmniWeb Search Panel

Most of the latest Web browser support Internet searches directly in their URL field, but OmniWeb goes even further by allowing users to search dozens of popular engines directly from the browser's interface. By calling up the Search Panel, clicking on the engine of your choice, and entering the phrase of interest, OmniWeb will query the specified engine and relay all relavant matches directly back to the Panel.

The impressive feature is accomplished by some clever work on Omni's behalf. The company uses a specifically-formatted HTML page that defines the search engines and how to operate with them. Users can actually create their own search pages (albeit not as easily as Omni does), which can be useful if Omni is experiencing any network problems.

A Rhapsodic Future

Although Omni doesn't expect to make widespread changes to OmniWeb in the course of moving it over to Rhapsody, they will be in fact updating the product, as evident from the numbering scheme (the Rhapsody version will be christened OmniWeb 3.0). One of the major hurdles in their way is the necessary removal of the browser's dependencies on the old NeXT Text object. Although a great object for smaller work, Omni will need to transplant the OpenStep Text Suite in place of the old engine. In the process, the company expects that the use of the newer engine will yield better performance for the product.

As far as support for industry standards -- the current incarnation of OmniWeb on OpenStep doesn't have built-in support for Java, but the decision not to support the language was, according to the company, mainly a business related issue. However, since Apple will providing full Java integration in Rhapsody, OmniWeb 3.0 will take advantage of that. In stark opposition, Omni has made it clear that they have no intentions of support for JavaScript.

Whether or not Apple realized that they would be gaining a large part of the NeXT development community when they purchased the company isn't known, but the fact is that dozens of mature, battle-tested, and robust applications will be making their way to Rhapsody, and that will surely make them smile. Omni Development is just one of those companies making the charge to the upcoming platform and we'll be sure to keep you up-to-date with their latest happenings.