By Charles Haddad
The Web's two dominant browsers have become as bloated as a tick on a hog. Their obesity reflects a simple strategy: beat competitors with an ever-ballooning set of features. But as Microsoft Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator have swelled, they've lost agility, allowing several leaner, more nimble competitors to sneak into the market.
None of these new browsers, as of yet, poses any real threat to the giants. But that day may be coming, since the upstarts are faster, easier to use, and represent new approaches to Web surfing. While smaller, these browsers still manage to offer some useful new abilities, without the endless feature creep of the big boys.
And some of these new players are confident enough in their browsers that they're charging a small fee -- even though Explorer and Navigator remain free. And interestingly, two of the most popular new browsers are European imports, illustrating that American engineers by no means have a lock on either talent or ideas when it comes to the Net.
Best of all, three of them come in Mac versions -- and one is among the first new programs to be written specifically for OS X, Apple's new operating system.
Here's a quick look at each:
First up is Opera, which many mavens consider the fastest new browser for the Mac, even though it's still in beta testing. A product of Norwegian designers, the browser was initially released for the PC. Now, Opera is being ported to the Mac.
Designed from the ground up to be fast and simple, it's representative of an engineering revolt against the clunky motif set by Netscape and Microsoft. Shorn of the giants' pop-up side windows and other clutter, Opera offers more space to display a Web page. And as a downloadable file, it's only 2.2 megabytes and takes -- literally -- only a minute to install. That's amazing, when you consider the latest versions of Explorer and Navigator download as files about 10 times that size and can take up to a half-hour to install.
Despite its small size, Opera includes about 80% of its bigger rivals' notable features. And it includes some new ones, such as the ability to drag the URL (or Web-site address) field and the progress bar (which shows how quickly a Web page is loading) to wherever you want them on your screen. Both of these areas are anchored in Explorer and Navigator. Opera also has a button that stops pictures from downloading and immediately displays just a site's text. That can really speed up browsing.
Like Opera, iCab is small and speedy -- it occupies a mere 2 megabytes of your hard disk. This browser is the brainchild of 30-year-old German programmer Alexander Clauss. His design is based on a new concept called "structural navigation." That's engineering-speak for a greater ability to jump right to information a user is looking for on the Web.
Typically, the search functions in the two big browsers take you to the homepage of a site. In contrast, iCab drills down through a site right to the information you want. With structural navigation, users spend less time wandering lost and confused around the Net.
Opera and iCab are fine products, but I found OmniGroup's OmniWeb to be the most interesting of the bunch. It's the first browser written from the ground up in Cocoa, the programming language of OS X (see BW Online, 5/31/01, "A Piece of Cake With Cocoa"). As such, unlike many other programs, OmniWeb is not just mimicking the stunning new aqua interface of Apple's newest operating system -- it truly taps the enhanced powers of OS X, including the new Quartz graphic-rendering engine that produces photo-quality images.
But OmniWeb is much more than just a pretty face. Instead of adopting the current norm and using a TV metaphor, with channels and surfing, OmniGroup has revamped the whole idea of a browser. The company's engineers asked themselves how they could really tap the unique abilities of the Internet and OS X.
Such thinking led to several innovations. For one, OmniWeb is the first browser that lets you drag a Web page into a bookmark folder to save it, allowing you to easily arrange your list. OmniWeb's bookmarks also automatically update themselves with new content while you are online, so you can view them offline at your convenience.
Forms saved as bookmarks remember passwords, names, and addresses. And buttons throb to let you know what page or feature is active, while options, such as style sheets and bookmark folders, slide out as transparent drawers -- in true OS X style. Most impressive.
As with any new program, OmniWeb has its share of bugs. And, of course, you can't use it without OS X. But it's one of the best reasons I've seen to upgrade to the new Mac operating system. And for those who are waiting to take that plunge, Opera and iCab are credible alternatives.
Haddad, Atlanta-based correspondent for BusinessWeek, is a long-time Apple Computer buff. Follow his weekly Byte of the Apple column, only on BW Online
Edited by Thane Peterson