Design & Development

Apple’s Safari Browser: “A Weak Contender”

In the ongoing battle for browser supremacy Apple’s Safari is little more than humdrum, but like all things Apple it has a committed and loyal following and an opportunity to be important for mobile devices.

Mozilla’s Firefox and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE) are by far the most used web browsers around. But last month, search king Google shook the web browser world when it introduced Chrome. The Chrome browser was a clear attack on Google’s main rival, Microsoft. With the browser wars heating up, Practical eCommerce began a series of web browser reviews. So far we took a look at IE (declaring IE7 a good second browser) and Mozilla’s Firefox, which was the best browser of all, in our view.

This week we’re sure to cause some controversy as we look at Apple’s Safari browser. Apple fanatics huddle around Steve Jobs, sleek industrial design, and, yes, the Safari browser like acolytes clinging to a holy relic. Unfortunately for them, Safari isn’t even the best browser for the Mac.

All told, Safari’s iconic compass appears in the docks of just 2.6 percent of Internet users, according to W3Schools, a group that conducts browser statistics. Yet this browser black sheep retains its popularity with a large contingent of Mac users and powers the iPhone, offering perhaps the best mobile Internet surfing experience available today.

Usability: Can It Be Too Simple?

Most users agree that Safari is meant to be a browser and only a browser. Its user interface is the same as many other Apple applications—a simple top deck with the standard “File,” “Edit,” “View,” “History,” “Bookmarks,” “Window” and “Help” options. Its windows also have minimum intrusion, employing only a built-in (and unchangeable) Google search tool and a bookmarks bar. Bookmarks can either be accessed in the top deck menu or by using the bookmarks bar.

Near the location bar, users can choose the “add bookmark” icon to save URLs to their bookmark bar, menu, or a folder. This feature may be the only thing outstanding about Safari. Users can also use the screenshot icon to save copies of web pages to their widget dock.

Safari’s tabs are also harder to use than other tabbed browsers. (No easy new tab button.)

Usability: Limited Customization

Safari’s options in terms of customized user interface stops are mostly limited to its essential “Preferences” options. Other than the basic customizations of setting a home page, fonts, default encoding, bookmark hotkeys, optional AutoFill and security and proxy settings, Safari offers little (read nothing) like the many features and plug-ins that other browsers have. Its users can add Address Book and Bonjour applications to the bookmark bar. They can choose how often Safari’s RSS reader checks for updates, where these updates are saved, whether to mark articles as read and how often to remove them from the queue.

Apple included a few more features in its third version. The breadcrumb SnapBack option allows users to mark a page to return to at any time during their browsing. This makes it easy to return to an original page in a window or tab after following a convoluted link trail. Page load is significantly cut, users can reopen previous browsing sessions after quitting and text fields can be resized.

Security

Apple limits Safari’s security options by allowing users to choose only whether or not to enable plug-ins, Java, JavaScript, allow pop-up windows, or accept cookies. Users can also choose not to save cookies, passwords, browsing history or account information to their computers by entering private browsing mode.

Safari completely lacks a phishing filter, as well as support for Extended Validation (EV) certificates, which turns the location bar green when visiting a safe site. PayPal openly criticized Safari in February 2008 for relying only on Secure Sockets Layer encryption (SSL). Blogger Nitesh Dhanjani, a popular author, speaker and security researcher, wrote in May 2008 that it is possible for rogue websites to download malware to the user’s desktop without consent, since Safari has no configuration that requires the user’s permission to download a resource. Apple has dismissed this claim, saying they would consider adding a consent option but did not consider it a security issue. Did not consider it a security issue? These flaws make Safari one of the worst (least safe) ways to surf the Internet.

Compliance and Mobility

There are two things Safari does very well. First it is W3C compliant. The W3C consortium is an organization that develops standards for how web page programming languages HTML and CSS should be used and implemented. One of the major shortcomings of IE is that it doesn’t obey the mutually agreed upon standards. Safari doesn’t have that problem; it does a great job of rendering web pages as expected and according to the specifications. Ecommerce merchants won’t have to worry about how their site displays on Safari.

While this is a matter of taste, some believe that Safari also does a better job of handling text.

There is one other area where Safari really shines: mobile browsing. The mobile version of Safari is the browser installed on the extremely popular and game changing iPhone. Of the popular mobile web browsers available today, Safari is about as good as it gets.

Recommendation: Don’t Use Safari unless you have an iPhone

With its too-limited set of features, lack of customization, and security weaknesses, Safari remains the vanilla of the Mac browsing experience and a weak contender Instead, Mac users should have a look at Camino or Firefox.

Next week, Practical eCommerce will review Google’s Chrome browser. This powerful beta is a very close second behind Firefox and already has more users than Safari.

Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons

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