Remember the browser wars? They ended a few years ago when Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE) left Netscape for dead. Netscape is still languishing in a forgotten corner of the troubled AOL Time Warner (AOL ) empire, with Netscape's browser accounting for less than 5% of the market. Despite the seeming Microsoft (MSFT ) triumph, Apple Computer (AAPL ) and Norway's Opera Software have just come out with interesting and--in Apple's case--revolutionary, new browsers.
While Microsoft abused its monopoly power to beat the pants off Netscape, IE became a superior product by its third iteration. Unfortunately, Microsoft hasn't done much since to improve its bloated and buggy browser. Without competition, as critics feared, it has had little incentive to better the breed. Features added to recent IE updates are aimed more at promoting other Microsoft products, such as Windows Media Player and MSN Search, than enhancing browsing.
Apple's new Safari (test version available for download from www.apple.com/software/) returns the focus of the browser to displaying Web pages. While I can pick nits with Safari, the worst thing I can say about it is that it's only available to those who use Mac OS X--which happens to be less than 5% of computer users.
The two most striking things about Safari are its clean design and its speed. Apple based the browser on software developed by the KDE project, a cooperative closely aligned with the Linux open-source effort. It displays Web pages faster than any browser I have seen on any type of computer, a difference most noticeable on a swift Internet connection.
Safari's appearance is distinctly minimalist. There are just four buttons: forward, back, reload, and add bookmark. It also has windows to enter a Web address or a Google search on the control bar. Lesser-used functions, such as view history, are relegated to menus--which on Macs appear only at the top of the display, not in each window. So, no instant messaging, no links to media players, no other distractions.
Safari has a couple of nifty, unique features. One is the bookmark bar, just below the control bar at the top of the screen. Just drag the logo from a page that is displayed to the bar and a dialog box pops up suggesting a name. Most of the time, if the Webmaster has designed the page correctly, the suggested name will be perfect. Click O.K., and a button for that site appears on the bar. As soon as you leave the first page of any site, a little orange "SnapBack" button appears in the address window. One click and you go back instantly to the first page, no matter how many levels you have gone through.
Safari is still a work-in-progress, and not everything performs perfectly. I kept getting mysterious "servlet exception" errors on the Safari home page, and some sites that use Macromedia Flash animation heavily, such as nike.com, don't work correctly. Apple, which has recently begun charging for some software that used to be free, such as iMovie, has not yet decided whether to charge for the finished version of Safari.
The new Opera browser, which runs on a variety of platforms, from Windows handhelds to Sun Microsystems (SUNW ) workstations, is not revolutionary like Safari, but it does offer some improvements over IE. The most significant is a design that lets you open multiple Web pages and switch among them by clicking tabs at the bottom of the window. IE will scatter multiple windows all over your screen, making it hard to find something. It seems somewhat faster than IE, though not as fast as Safari. And it offers a choice of default search tools, while IE tries to make you use Microsoft's lame MSN Search. You can download Opera from www.opera.com. A premium version, without ads and with enhanced mail and support, costs $39.
Opera and Safari aren't the only alternative browsers around. Mozilla (www.mozilla.org) looks like Netscape 7 without all the AOL junk, but the do-it-yourself installation will appeal mainly to techies. The important thing is that there are still choices out there. I just hope these competitors get enough traction to keep Microsoft on its toes.