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Safari vs. Firefox: Does Safari Measure Up?

By releasing Safari on Windows, Apple is doing more than providing a rich browser experience for Mac users -- it's making a land grab for the Internet, and may pose a threat to Firefox as it attempts to displace IE. Does Safari 4 measure up to Firefox 3.5, and should the Moz folks be worried?

Nearly lost in the shuffle of iPhone mania last week was the news that Apple had released Safari 4. Since Apple is expanding its horizons and trying to elbow its way onto Windows as well as the Mac, it’s worth taking a look at Safari and see if it poses a real threat in the browser market.

I know what you’re thinking: As a Linux user, what do I care about Safari? Well, certainly Apple doesn’t care about the Linux users in the audience — except as potential converts to the Mac. But Apple’s push onto the Windows desktop could blunt Firefox’s growing market share. Especially since Apple enjoys a pretty significant share of the Web developer market.

According to Net Applications’s data, Safari has been slowly grabbing market share from 6.14% of the market in July of 2008 to 8.43% in May of this year. (May is the most recent month with data available.) Firefox has continued to grow as well — showing that both browsers are currently munching IE’s market share.

So, while Safari isn’t an option for Linux users, it is an option for the majority of desktop users and worth looking at from the competitive standpoint.

The Safari Experience

The Mac isn’t my platform of choice, but my first attempt to run Safari — installing the Windows version under Wine — didn’t go so well. Apparently you can get Safari going on Linux under Wine by using a native XP dynamic link library (dll), but I opted to go ahead and try the native version on a Mac.

Since Apple has given Safari 4 a pretty hard sell, my expectations were a bit high, but not met. The “Top Sites” page that features thumbnails of your favorite Web sites is sleek-looking, but not terribly innovative (see Opera’s “Speed Dial”), nor is it a killer feature.

The browser also includes the “cover flow” effect for browsing history and bookmarks. I guess this is cool the first few times, but I didn’t find it particularly useful. A thumbnail of a Web site is not the most effective way to navigate bookmarks, at least not for this user. There’s also the small matter that you have to have browsed the site recently to have a cached thumbnail — so after importing my bookmarks from Xmarks, all I got was a bunch of grey Safari icons. If you’re using Safari for the first time, it’s going to be a while before everything falls into place for this feature.

Safari 4 has comparable privacy tools to Firefox. Safari includes a Private Browsing mode, and you can delete cache and history pretty easily — though it doesn’t have a one-click tool like Firefox 3.5′s “Clear Recent History” option.

Safari does have some particularly nifty features when compared to other browsers. For instance, the ability to create a “clipping service” from RSS feeds is pretty cool. And Safari’s RSS view is nicely designed, if you can figure it out. Safari doesn’t break out RSS feeds as a separate feature — you have to bookmark RSS feeds and create folders to start following more than one at a time. Apple really needs to improve feed management if they want people to use Safari as a full-blown feed reader — especially since there’s no obvious way to import an OPML file of feeds.

Overall, the Safari experience is pretty good. I wouldn’t be willing to drop Firefox for it, but if I was a Mac user, Safari would do the trick for day to day browsing and usage.

Developer Features

Safari does have some pretty handy developer tools, if you turn them on. By default, Safari doesn’t enable the Developer menu — it has to be turned on under “Advanced” in the preferences dialog.

Using the developer tools you can fake your user agent, use another browser to open your current page, debug JavaScript, and even break pages down into the component resources and view how long they take to download.

You can get many of the same features through Firefox add-ons, but Safari does have some unique tricks, too. Safari includes a “database” pane for managing sites with offline features. This may be a killer feature in the future, when more sites actually have an offline databse to work with.

Overall, it’s obvious that Apple is targeting Web developers with Safari 4, but Safari still lacks a few compelling features that Firefox has. First, since Safari isn’t open source, it hinders direct involvement in its development. Second, Safari lacks a compelling story for developers who want to extend the browser.

It’s the Extensions, Stupid

Simply put, Safari has nothing on Firefox when it comes to add-ons. If you browse Apple’s 150 Features page, you’ll see a lot of spiffy stuff that Apple has crammed into Safari. But you’re largely limited to whatever innovation Apple puts into the browser — which is hardly sufficient to keep up with the Firefox community of add-on developers.

Even when you can find apps to extend the functionality of Safari, they’re not quite as easy to install and manage as add-ons with Firefox.

A good example of this is the Xmarks add-on for Safari, which requires you to not only log out of the browser to complete the install — but to log out of your session entirely.

You can also find Greasemonkey equivalents for Safari, like Greasekit. However, Safari’s ecosystem is much smaller than Firefox’s. Apple’s browser may be a bit slicker than Firefox in a few areas, but it’s still just a browser and not yet a platform. On the other hand, Firefox keeps Microsoft looking over its shoulder because Firefox is a platform that developers can target to do all sorts of wonderful things (including brand new apps like Songbird and CeltX).

Safari 4 has come a long way, but it’s still no Firefox.

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