Browser Wars Enter a New Round
Apple released version 5.0.1 of its Safari browser last week. It fixes one major security vulnerability. More pleasantly, it turns on support for extensions, which Apple is now collecting in its new Extensions Gallery. The quantity of available add-ins is skimpy compared to Chrome or (especially) Firefox, but there's already some good stuff -- I like Gmail Counter, which adds a button indicating how many e-mails have arrived since you last checked your inbox, along with a banner that rotates through recent subject lines. And Safari extensions have the most seamless installation process I've seen to date -- one click, and you're good to go.
Until now, when folks have asked me how the major browsers stack up, I've mostly praised Safari but noted that the lack of extensions made for a less customizable working environment. Now it's got ‘em. One more reason to consider using Safari, one less major distinguishing characteristic for the competition.
Which got me to thinking: It's been a long time since the race for best browser was this close. Safari, Firefox, Chrome, and Opera are all really good -- and they're growing more and more similar. (Internet Explorer still lags behind, although everything we know so far about IE9 is promising.) The overarching goals are mostly industry-wide ones, such as more minimalist interfaces, zippier performance, cutting-edge HTML5 support, and slicker frameworks for extensions and other customizations.
An embarrassment of excellent browsers to choose from is great news, of course. But on some weird level, it leaves me blasé about the whole topic. A few years ago, I was practically going door-to-door urging strangers to use Firefox. Today, I'm more likely to explain that most of the major browsers are roughly comparable. And I can't always remember which browser I'm using at the moment. (At the moment, I have Safari, Chrome, and Firefox open -- I'm writing this post in Firefox, but I had to check.)
Okay, I'm not claiming that there's nothing unique in current browsers. A few examples of fresh ideas currently on display: Safari's easy-reading mode, Firefox's "Tab Candy," Opera's Turbo browsing, and all the social features in my favorite underdog browser, Flock. I'd love to see more stuff like this, and I'm keeping my fingers crossed that we're headed for a new era of browser inventiveness rather than an age of stasis...