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Apple ‘iBrowser’ insurgency denied by AOL techs

Skunkworks gambit

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The most tantalising net rumour burning up the wires this week is the one about the Apple iBrowser. Heard it? It goes like this.

Apple co-opts the Mozilla code base for a skunkworks native OS X browser that's both super fast and grannie-friendly. A Galeon for OS X. "iBrowser" thus completes the set of consumer software apps gradually introduced with iTunes, iPhoto and iMovie, which are being advertised under the slogan "everything's easier on a Mac".

In this scenario, Jobs flips Microsoft the bird- indicating that Redmond is just another component supplier - and slackness won't be tolerated! - so restoring some of the pride lost by having to butter up Bill in 1997 to keep Mac Office alive.

Absurd, isn't it?

Well, yes, but the evidence has tickled conspiracy theorists. First, up pops Chimera: a native OSX browser that's based on Mozilla, but one that's fast and lean and suffers none of the bloat that's associated with the sprawling lizard, and majors on end-user features such as organizing bookmarks, tabs, and blocking cookies and pop-ups. (That's the goal, but it's early days yet). It's led by David Hyatt, a member of the Netscape/AOL project and long-time Mac nut, whose blog attacks both the creeping featurism of the Mozilla process, and the portalitis of his employer. He waxes evangelical about the value of giving the end-user a good experience, and describes Netscape 7.0 as "full of annoying marketing-driven nonsense" Which of course, it is. That's a fine line to take, but we're glad someone's taking it.

Coincidentally, Apple annoints Chimera as the browser of choice for the WWDC developer conference keynote demos, which is a stunning endorsement of a product that is barely a month old. All eyes are on Chimera. Then David goes on a sabbatical.

So what's going on here?

Not being able to track David down himself (mail us, David), we rang Mike Pinkerton, another leading light behind both the Macintosh Mozilla project and Chimera, at AOL's Virginia office.

Mike said yes, he'd heard the rumors but no, nothing was going on with Apple.

Oh, really?

"It's way too early," he said.

"I think Apple is just so happy it's got a browser people can use [on X]," he told us.

From now on the team will focus on X, rather than MacOS. 1.0 was touted as a definitive break, but Mike but it more tactfully: "we're trying to put it to bed," he said.

So there's nothing behind this sudden endorsement, and sabbatical?

"We've reached a milestone, developers have been working on this four years, so it's natural if you're a little burned out to take a break," he said.

And it's true - Mozilla post-mortems are going on all over the place. But none are so brave and coruscating as David's. They're a terrific read. Yes, he says, Mozilla is a great code base. But no, you don't need to weigh it down with vertically-integrated marketing crap. "Netscape will never make inroads into the market until it abandons its quest for revenue and focuses once again on making a browser that puts the end user first," he notes.

"Let's face it. The Mac is just plain slow. Anyone who has compared Gecko across platforms knows this. Wired even wrote an article about it recently..." he writes. "Even naked Mozilla... makes browsing a higher priority than Web properties... wouldn't it be ironic if, through your own efforts, you rendered your product obsolete?"

Does Apple hate IE so much?
Let's toss this theory around for a moment. First of all, it assumes that Apple sees "browsing" as a consumer experience on a par with making movies, playing music, and processing photos. Right now on Windows, you've got a fairly lame choice of applications to do each of these digital media processing applications, or more likely, none at all. There's no iPhoto, or iMovie. There's no integrated MP3 player or burner, and Microsoft's playback software Media Player is a bug-ridden piece of bloatware that embarrasses even The Beast's staunchest allies. It's supposed to do audio, and video, but does neither well.

And web browsing is capably served by Internet Explorer itself, which comfortably leads the pack and can boast a host of features (such as the Scrapbook, bookmark management, auctions) not shared by the Windows version. So from a consumer point of view, a Macintosh computer isn't really lacking a browser with weight.

So is this a problem that needs to be fixed? That leads us on to the next question, which is, if it isn't, why else should Apple pursue an alternative browser strategy, at the risk of antagonizing the biggest Macintosh software ISV?

Guilt, revenge and bargaining chips

For a start there's common decency. Having knifed Netscape in the back in 1997 by agreeing to make IE the default Mac browser, perhaps Steve feels he owes them one. With a press that looks to Jobs as both a tastemaker and visionary, he could give the open source browser an enormous filip by endorsing a Mozilla-derivative for the Mac. The heavy lifting's already been done, after all, and Steve knows a bargain when he sees one.

On the other hand, since this is Jobs and this is Apple Computer we're talking about, we shouldn't be entertaining such talk of common decency or ethics for too long. More likely, Apple can appreciate a bargaining chip when discussing IE ship dates, and in other negotiations, too. Both parties know that an Apple endorsement of say, Microsoft's DRM technology - which the Beast is desperate to push - or the confirmation of the Mac's status as a .NET client shines light on them both. Microsoft can't afford to be seen to be shafting the Mac platform, and Apple along with the rest of the industry, surely sees that Microsoft is trying to cut the ground from under the commodity CIFS clones such as SAMBA, NetApp or Apple itself.

Remember Apple is in a stronger position than it was in 1997. Back then smart money gave the company months, if not weeks to survive. Now, with the blessing of a healthy balance sheet, and the adoration of the press tastemakers - is it possible to loan a piece of Apple kit to the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg without the reviewer offering to sacrifice a child, or at least a limb, in sheer gratitude? - the company is in a position to stand its ground.

On balance however, we'd rate the likelihood of an Apple iBrowser as pretty outstandingly remote. Despite the sound technical and political advantages we've outlined above, it's a long-term commitment that only the brave would make. A temporary insurgency can turn into a full-scale Vietnam, if you're not careful.

And integration costs are the most underrated in the industry. Integration costs are why Microsoft won't win corner-stores over to make smartphones (see here for more detail) that overthrow Nokia, Ericsson and Sony, and why Dell can't make a huge SMP that challenges Sun, HP or IBM, even though they've got scale, and a hundred other reasons to succeed.

But the iBrowser rumor will run and run, and we'd love to be a fly on the wall during the next negotiations between Microsoft and Apple, that's for sure. ®

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