Mac OS X Web browser rundown 2007
Several years ago, when Mac OS X was still a very young operating system, it was hard to find a really good and stable web browser for the Mac. Pretty much the only viable option for the first release of Mac OS X in 2001 was Internet Explorer 5.
I wanted something better than IE, so as soon as it would run natively on Mac OS X I switched to Mozilla. I don’t remember exactly when and which version of Mozilla I used, but I think it was before Mozilla 1.0 was released, so in late 2001 or early 2002. It was a bit shaky, but it was still better and faster than IE. And IE and Mozilla were the only real options you had back then, unless you wanted to run a web browser in Classic mode (Mac OS 9 emulation).
Today, in late 2007, things are different. Very different. Mac OS X users have a large number of excellent, standards compliant browsers to choose from. And Internet Explorer is no longer an option, since it has been discontinued and is no longer available for download from Microsoft. Internet Explorer 5 for the Mac was once a great browser, but the rest have caught up and surpassed it years ago. I don’t think there are many who miss it.
Current Mac OS X Web browsers
Listed in this article are some of the Mac OS X browsers that are currently available and “alive”, meaning that they are actively developed. I am not attempting to list every single browser. I have picked the ones I happen to keep on my hard drive and that I think are relevant to some extent for Web professionals.
I have also chosen not to list any applications that are primarily something else and happen to be capable of rendering Web pages (RSS readers like NetNewsWire, e-mail applications like Apple Mail, and text editors like TextMate and BBEdit for instance).
If you’re looking for a complete list of all web browsers ever made for a Mac, take a look at Darrel E. Knutson’s massive compilation of Macintosh Web Browsers.
This is not intended to be an extensive review of each browser. I have settled for making a few general remarks such as which rendering engine each browser uses, how long it has been available, and if there is anything in particular I know about its history that could be of interest. It’s hard to remember the details of when a particular version of a particular browser was released, and even harder for an outsider to know the intimate details of which technology it uses and stuff like that. It isn’t always easy to find reliable information about those things, so if you spot any errors, please do correct me.
The browsers are listed alphabetically.
Often referred to as a “Macified version of Firefox”, Camino uses the Gecko rendering engine and does feel more Mac-like than its multi-platform sibling, much thanks to its polished interface and Aqua widgets. To me, that polish makes it feel somehow more solid and reliable than Firefox, though that may be just an illusion.
Camino was first called Navigator, a name that was later changed to Chimera, and then for legal reasons changed once again to Camino.
I have my occasional periods of using Camino. It’s a native Mac OS X application, it’s fast, it’s standards compliant. I should be using it more.
Based on the Mozilla project, Firefox is currently the browser with the second largest market share after Internet Explorer for Windows. This is the browser that broke IE’s total dominance, which we owe it many thanks for.
Like Camino, Firefox has had several names during its lifetime. It used to be called first Phoenix and then Firebird, before it was given the name Firefox in early 2004.
Firefox on the Mac is a good browser, no doubt about that. It does not use the Mac OS X Aqua interface though, so it lacks the full Mac OS X look and feel.
The large number of excellent web developer extensions available for Firefox make it a must have for web professionals though. I’d say I spend around half of my web time in Firefox, most of it being at work.
Flock is “the social web browser”, based on the Gecko rendering engine. It aims to make it easier to use social and web based applications by integrating them into the browser. A few examples of the services it supports are YouTube, Flickr, Blogger, and del.icio.us.
I’m not sure having Flock around is really relevant unless you use its specialised features (which I don’t). It uses the same rendering engine as Firefox, so there should be no difference. Still, it is in my Applications folder and it has a quite polished GUI compared to Firefox, so I’m mentioning it here.
More or less a one man show as far as I can tell, the German browser iCab has its own, standards compliant rendering engine, and actually works really well. Very impressive work by the developer, Alexander Clauss.
iCab has been around since before the Mac OS X days and is one of the few browsers (or is it the only one?) that still support OS 9. It will even run on something as ancient as Mac OS 8.5.
Good support for Web Standards aside, my favourite iCab feature is its error reporting. Load a page that validates, and you get a green, happy smiley next to the location bar. Load one that contains HTML or CSS errors and the smiley turns red and unhappy. Click the smiley and an error report window opens, listing all the errors iCab found. Very nice. This is something I would love to see other browser vendors pick up on.
Lynx is available for many different platforms from several sources. At the time of this writing the latest version is 2.8.6, and the easiest way to run it on Mac OS X is to download it in a compiled package from Apple: Lynx text web browser. By default it uses absolutely horrible colour combinations, and I’ve only been able to figure out how to turn the most garish stuff off, leaving me with white text on a black background.
One of the very first graphical web browsers in history, Netscape was wrestled from the marketplace by Microsoft, and fell into obscurity and disuse. It still exists, though, and the latest version (9) is actually pretty good.
Rendering-wise that is to be expected since it uses the Gecko engine, but I also get the feeling that Netscape 9 is faster and has less GUI overload than some of its previous versions.
When Mac OS X was still called Rhapsody, OmniWeb was, if I remember correctly, the only available web browser to run natively. This was due to it originally being developed for the NeXT platform, which Apple bought in 1997 and turned into Mac OS X.
Starting with version 5, OmniWeb now uses Apple WebKit to render Web pages, so these days it is yet another browser with top notch standards support. It also has some neat UI features, like tabs with thumbnails of the site they contain, workspaces, and a form editor for working with
As far as I know, OmniWeb is the only browser that is not available for free.
Available for almost any device that can connect to the Internet, Opera has been (unless I am mistaken) around on the Mac since version 5 was released in 2002.
In early 2003 there were rumours that Opera Software would stop developing the Mac version, but luckily that never happened.
I’ll admit that I’ve never really used Opera for anything but testing. I don’t know why actually, since I think it’s a good browser. I think it may be its slightly quirky UI that puts me off. Maybe “quirky” isn’t the right word. “Different” might be better.
Either way, it really deserves to be on your hard drive.
Currently in version 3 (beta), Safari is Apple’s web browser. Until earlier this year it was only available for Mac OS X, but on June 11th 2007 a Windows beta of Safari 3 was released, enabling Windows-based Web professionals to check their work in Safari without having access to a Mac.
Safari isn’t perfect (no browser is), but in my opinion it has the most polished and stable user interface of all Mac browsers. Until recently it also had the very good trait of ignoring most CSS targeted at form controls. With each release, Safari is accepting more and more form control styling, so I really hope users will soon have the option to disable that.
I’d also love to see developer tools on par with those available for Firefox.
What used to be the Mozilla web browser was renamed the “Mozilla Application Suite”, and quickly fell out of fashion as the more light-weight Firefox became popular. The Mozilla Application Suite is now known as SeaMonkey.
Seamonkey is much more than just a web browser – it includes e-mail, newsgroup, and IRC clients as well as an HTML editor. Some call it bloated, others like the integration of multiple applications.
To be fair I don’t really use SeaMonkey, but I keep a copy around nonetheless.
Shiira is a Japanese browser that uses the WebKit engine and is written in Cocoa. The goal of this open source project is to create a browser that is better and more useful than Safari.
Shiira’s UI is really nice and polished. Its PageDock feature includes previews of the content of each tab, much like in OmniWeb. If you don’t like it, you can switch it off and use normal tabs.
Since it uses the same rendering engine as Safari there isn’t much point in checking web pages in it. With extremely few exceptions, everything works as expected.
If you want to use the latest features added to Apple’s WebKit rendering engine, which is what Safari uses, there are WebKit nightly builds you can download. To always have the latest build automatically downloaded and installed you can use the NightShift application.
WebKit nightly is not officially recommended for everyday Web surfers, but is mainly intended for developers. I haven’t really noticed any problems with it though, so I think it’s stable enough for anyone to use.
So, those are the browsers I keep on my Mac. Some of them I use every day, others almost never. As for choosing which one to use, it isn’t easy. Is it even possible to choose just one? I don’t know about you, but I have two favourite browsers.
For day-to-day web surfing I prefer Safari. It’s fast, stable, has a polished UI, and features excellent standards support.
For web development though, Firefox rules thanks to incredibly useful extensions like Firebug, Web Developer Extension, and HTML Validator Extension. Safari is catching up a little with the latest version of its Web Inspector, but it’s still a long way from being as useful to a Web professional as a tricked out Firefox.