What looks like Apple's Safari Web browser for Mac OS X, works like Safari for the Mac, but isn't Safari for the Mac?

Answer: A beta version of Safari unveiled this week by Apple CEO Steve Jobs that's aimed squarely at Microsoft Windows users.

In what has become something of a hallmark of just about every Jobs keynote, the Apple chief used his talk at the Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) to announce yet another "one more thing" - that Apple would port its popular (on the Mac side of the world) Safari browser to Windows, with a beta version that was available shortly thereafter for downloading. More about how well Safari works, or doesn't, in a minute.

Why do it?


On the surface, it seems odd that Jobs would make hay out of introducing a Web browser to an already crowded market on a competitor's platform. But Apple's simultaneous release of Safari version 3 for Mac- and Windows-based systems marked a major step for Apple into the browser wars. While this may be the third version of Safari for Mac users, this is the first time Apple has released Safari for Windows. On the Mac side, Safari has seen some dramatic market share growth in recent months, even though Apple's computer market share remains small compared to Windows. (Even so, the Mac market share itself is also rising.)

During his speech, Jobs said that Apple simply wants to increase its browser market share, which seems logical: What better way to fluff one's numbers than releasing software on a platform with the largest installed base?

But why waste the resources developing a product meant to be given away? The answers weren't really detailed in Jobs' keynote, so I dug a little deeper, hoping to find answers within Safari's feature set and Apple's Windows software history.

But first, what does it do?

Safari on Windows looks pretty much like Safari on the Mac, save for the shape and positioning of the close, minimise and zoom buttons. Other than that, it's nearly identical. The feature sets are the same, as well, from bookmark organisation to the built-in RSS reader. Even the text renders the same, though there's debate over whether that's good or bad. And as you'd expect, the menus - which show up in the menu bar on Macs - are in their proper Windows location at the top of the Safari browser window.

I downloaded and installed Safari on both Windows XP and Vista, using Parallels' Desktop for Mac on an Intel-based MacBook and a Mac mini. All of Safari's new, 3.0 features are there, too: movable tabs (which allows dragging of tabs to form their own windows), real-time text searching featuring an intuitive interface dubbed "inline find," text fields that can be resized and an adjustable history.

Inline find will be extremely useful to a lot of users. This new feature can be activated by selecting Edit>Find>Find, or simply Crtl+F. Activating the find feature slides a search bar from underneath your bookmarks or tabs. Like Spotlight on the Mac, searches are instantaneous and search results are winnowed down with each successive keystroke. Visually, everything that isn't found with the search query is automatically dimmed, while the results spring forth in a burst of orange. To the left of the search window are two arrows and a results field, in inverse order. The arrows highlight search results throughout the Web page with a cute, bubble effect.

Another new feature is movable tabs. They do exactly what you'd expect: allow you to move tabs around when browsing just by dragging and dropping. As an added effect, pulling a tab from the tab bar actually causes the tab to shift from a tab to an icon-size preview of the Web page. Releasing the mouse at this point scales the window up to full size, similar to MacOS X's Dock effect, Scale.

That may be new to Safari fans, but people who use browsers like Firefox which is much more customisable, may be disappointed. At the very least, I'd like to see Safari save sites or tabs between browser sessions without having to rely on a third-party option like forgetmenot.

Other Safari mainstays such as the Google/Yahoo search bar remain. Because of this, some believe that one reason for Apple's sudden interest in Web browser market share may be ad-related revenue. According to John Gruber at daringfireball.net, Apple generates $2 million dollars a month through its Google integration, making more than $25 million a year. Maybe so, but I think there's more to it than that.

Look at Apple's other recent venture into Windows software: iTunes. Although iTunes had been around for many years, it wasn't finally released for Windows until version 4.1. The first Windows version introduced everyone else not on a Mac to organising music through iTunes and direct iPod for Windows syncing. Apple also introduced Windows users to the iTunes store, making iTunes something of a Trojan horse for Apple's music initiatives, with easy iPod integration thrown in for good measure. We know how that turned out: iTunes shook the music industry into the 21st century.

Granted, the iTunes ride hasn't been without its share of bumps, but that hasn't stopped hundreds of millions of copies from being downloaded. Similarly, there have been numerous Windows user reports that Safari is crash-prone and unpolished, some even saying it lacks some features found in other browsers, like the drag and drop bookmarks sidebar found in Firefox. Security has been an issue, too, as several security analysts found flaws in Apple's code. Considering the fact that the software is beta, flaws are not entirely unexpected. Apple responded by releasing an updated version of the Windows build. No need to wait 'til the first Tuesday of next month.

Interestingly, a division has opened up between those who like the way Safari renders text and those who don't. Safari's text rendering is noticeably softer than that used by other browsers, and some users have complained that the font appearance looks blurry. While this is a matter of personal preference, most of the rendered Web pages I looked at bear no difference to those rendered in Safari on the Mac platform. This reminds me of the original complaints about font rendering on Mac OS X. People said the same thing when comparing OS X's rendering engine to MacOS 9 - just as those accustomed to the way fonts are rendered on Windows are making comparisons.

Speed is of the essence

Despite some beta hiccups, various reviews have confirmed one consistent fact: Safari is fast. Very fast. Apple says this browser renders HTML twice as fast as Internet Explorer 7 and 1.6 times faster than Firefox 2. I didn't benchmark it, but I can say it is indeed faster than either one. Javascript also shows obvious speed increases. (To drive this point home, Jobs even displayed a demo of how quickly Safari opens pages at WWDC. Speed was a major emphasis when it came to Safari.)

So what do we have? A free, speedy Mac-developed browser for Windows users. That's the what. As for the why, step back, see the pieces and how they fit together.

And now - why

As I watched Jobs' speech again and tinkered with Safari, I realised Apple hadn't just ported over Safari willy-nilly; Apple had to port everything that makes it run, and that meant WebKit. For those who don't know, WebKit is the application framework that allows for any developer to quickly access the Web on their Mac OS X application. An obvious example would be Safari, but a slew of apps use WebKit, including Mail, BBEdit, Coda and the iTunes Music Store. A quick glance at webkit.org confirmed that a Windows version of the open source project was recently been seeded. Hmmmm.

Jobs at WWDC mentioned that there are three versions of Safari: one for Mac OS X, one for XP, and one for Vista. What he neglected to detail is the fourth version of Safari: the one for the iPhone. After the Safari-on-Windows announcement, Jobs moved to a demonstration of Web apps in the iPhone version of Safari.

For that demo, Jobs showed that the full Safari engine is in the iPhone, which enables Web applications written in the language of Web 2.0 with AJAX to integrate with iPhone's services (which may not be enough to satisfy developers).

Scott Forstall showed off an example of a Web-based contact application (which accessed an LDAP database on the backend) whose appearance and usability was nearly identical to the Contact application on the phone. From the demo Forstall showed, the iPhone Safari speed was very responsive, loading each page quickly.

Soon after the keynote ended, the first third-party application for the iPhone appeared: OneTrip. This simple shopping application - plus the Forstall demonstration - gives you an idea of how straight-forward using Web apps are with the iPhone - and why opening up WebKit and Safari to Windows users and developers is important. It makes it easy for developers to write apps using Safari as the platform. With Safari now ported to Windows, that means the same application could work on both Macs and PCs - nearly 100 percent of the market!

That's what's in it for developers. For more mainstream users, who care only about being able to surf to their favorite site, Safari represents another move by Apple to get its highly-touted software in front of people who may never have heard of Safari, much less tried out Apple's other apps or hardware. Woo them with a few well-crafted programs such as Safari or iTunes, and - Jobs no doubt hopes - you can win them to the OS itself.

And when Apple puts that same well-crafted app - Safari - on what may be the hottest must-have device of the year, the iPhone, it reinforces the big-picture message: Apple suddenly seems to be everywhere. Sure, you can buy a Mac and get the whole Apple experience. But now you can get an iPhone and get the same kind of experience. Or fire up your Apple TV and get the same experience on your TV. And now, with the release of the one application everyone online uses - a browser - you can fire up Windows and get the Apple experience.

Michael DeAgonia is a computer consultant and technologist who has been using Macintoshes for a decade and working on them professionally since 1996. His tech support background includes tenures at Computerworld, colleges, the biopharmaceutical industry, the graphics industry and Apple. Currently, he is working as an independent consultant at YourMacTek, specialising in all things Macintosh.

OUR VERDICT

With new patches out this week, this is not a beta to adopt wholesale, but you should look at it if you value the Macintosh GUI and/or need high speed Web browsing. It also cements Safari's role as a platform that developers and designers should be aware of - particularly with the imminent arrival of the iPhone.