Browsers are critical software these days, not only for the benefits they provide but for the hidden perils and developer agenda. How we select a browser is important, but all too often, it’s the least informed choice we make on the Mac. In this first-of-its-kind review of reviewing, reader feedback is solicited.
The most important thing to appreciate about a browser is how it serves the user. If the user has never had a security snafu or a compromise, a browser is likely deemed “good enough” and then the browser choice is based on other factors, such as look-and-feel, features, loyalty to, say, Apple and so on. All browsers for the Mac are free, and it’s not a bad idea to ask ourselves why.
On the other hand, if one has had a browser betray them or if one has a heightened sense of security gained from the workplace, especially the government, then one may be willing to forego the niceties of browser design and features and pursue a browser that allows one to lock it down in a very formal, well understood way.
How a modern browser treats you, protects your privacy, your data, the security of your OS and your location (if desired) is ultimately about the agenda of the developer. That’s a change from the early days when browsers simply struggled to do what they do well. In that regard, over time, our browser choice has been that of a boiled frog. Let’s examine the boiling process.
From my experience as a tech columnist, most Mac users have never had a visible, quantified security problem with their browser. As a result, they use Safari because:
- It’s provided by Apple. Period. End of discussion
- They can’t figure out how to change the default browser
- Apple makes the OS, so Safari and security updates go hand-in-hand
- It’s free and good enough
The result is that Safari has a lot of momentum amongst Mac users. Getting a Mac user to change browsers is generally like pulling hair. There has to be a significant event (a software betrayal) or perhaps a special set of features essential to a job to be done — or certain Websites that require a specific browser — that will make a user change browsers — or routinely use two browsers.
Apple is a large, successful company. The company intends to say that way by keeping customers comfortable and happy. As a result, Apple’s philosophy with security is to keep it behind the scenes and not bother the user about it. Going overboard in touting the security of Safari is just an invitation to make the customer nervous.
On the other hand, there are customers who aren’t pleased with Apple’s happy-go-lucky approach to security and want a developer to have a formal, public approach to security and to back that up with identifiable features. As far as I’m concerned, there are the only two kinds of browsers out there today: those that secretly serve the developer and those that explicitly serve the user.
By that, I mean is that, today, there’s always a temptation to capture information about what the user is doing for financial gain. Various browsers have features to block tracking history and keep search information a bit more private, but ultimately it boils down to whether the developer either wants some information no matter what or whether the developer is steadfastly devoted to the user’s privacy.
Based on the discussion above, I don’t believe that most Mac users build a comparison chart and “check the boxes” when it comes to selecting a browser. Instead, they succumb to peer pressure, go with the flow, and use the Mac OS X built-in browser, Safari. It helps that their iOS device is also using (mobile) Safari, so there’s the familiarity thing.
On the Windows side, the legendary security snafus of Internet Explorer in Windows XP gained enough exposure that rank and file Windows users became aware of them and switched to Firefox in droves, driving IE’s market share way down. That’s what it takes to get people to switch browsers.
Browser Technology Details - Yawn
With all the above in mind, and the fact that I am getting ready to do a review of Opera 11, it’s a serious conceit that a list of features, along with a subjective evaluation of those features, is going to be informative and persuasive. I can imagine a review entitled, “Opera 11, the Best Browser Ever,” and the only result would be a long list of reader comments and complaints as to why Safari (or Firefox) is good enough — or even better in many ways.
One problem is that our browser experience is very superficial. Most of the time, it does the job, but when it fails, we shrug and move on. But developers don’t get to shrug. Only developers sweat the details of plug-in security, CSS compatibility, sandboxes, Acid3 tests, HTML5 support, and certificates. As a result, most users can’t really say that they have enough in-depth knowledge to strictly evaluate a browser, and if we did get into the nitty-gritty details of those features above in a review or the comments section, most readers would soon tire and tune out.
Essential Browser Features
Previously, I asked via Twitter what the most important features of a browser are. Despite what I’ve said above, I suspect that most Mac users, especially those who are more technical, flatter themselves that they’ve made their choice based on some objective criteria — whether or not they’ve done extensive testing.
The issue here is that browsers have been developed for almost 20 years now. (My first browser was the Mac browser by Tim Berners-Lee on a Mac IIci (Mac OS 6) in 1992 at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. It was was buggy in the extreme, and I switched to Mosaic in 1993.) Browsers are very mature and sophisticated today, so the basis for selection is buried by the fact that they’re all very good. All that’s left to differentiate browsers is the agenda of the developer, the specific features that appeal to certain users, and, if anything, a certain sense of rugged individualism or heightened awareness by the user.
Here’s the feedback I got on what the desirable features of a browser are combined with a few of my own.
- Passes standards tests, like Acid 3, with high scores.
- Launches fast and renders pages fast.
- Is intrinsically secure.
- Has terrific and detailed control over user privacy settings and alerts.
- Should facilitate the cataloging of articles of interest, and not just bookmarks.
- Should have superior, graphical, intuitive tab management
- Has a secure, stable plug-in architecture.
- Has facilities for parental controls.
Other secondary features, such as how links are opened, the e-mailing of links, autofill, RSS support, options for search sites like Bing and Google, HTML editing, the display of the HTML source, and so on, are really subject to the tastes and needs of the individual user. But how hungry and how knowledgeable are we?
The Internet is such a large and complex place, the features we need in a browser are often buried, under the hood, in ways we’re not always aware of but which are critical. Take a look at Safari’s list of features. It takes your breath away, and it’s a longer list than be critically analyzed in less than 25,000 words.
When I think about reviewing a web browser, like Opera 11, these are all the things I think about. I’m not inclined to fall down a rabbit hole of features and checkboxes. I am aware that Safari does the job for most casual, non-technical users, that is, 90 percent of Apple’s customer base. Tests I’ve seen show that Opera 11 is just about as fast at rendering as Safari, and it scores 100 on the Acid3 test.
So here’s what I propose: an interactive project. Let’s talk some more, in the comments, right here, about:
- What’s important in choosing a browser?
- What do you want to see in a browser review?
- Why are you still using Safari?
- What would it take to get you to change browsers?
- How happy are you with Apple’s security philosophy?
I’ll mull all this over before I start on the Opera 11 review. Anything less than the scope of all that I’ve described above would result in just another ho-hum review, that no one would read. I want more, and I suspect that you do too. Here’s your chance to become a part of this process. Shower me with comments.