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Safari, so good: browser and Bluetooth boost OS X

Whither Mozilla?

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Analysis Something funny happened on the way back from the Forum.

About a week before MacWorld a fellow Apple user asked me if Jagwyre had been enough to lure me to OS X full time.

"Pah!" I groused - "when it matches the speed of MacOS and that kind of tactile comfort I get with MacOS, then sure, I'll be right over." Because I've never used a computer UI - and I've used many on what have been much better computers - that match that tactile sense that makes the computer UI feel as natural as a pair of chopsticks should: an extension of your fingers.

About a week after MacWorld I noticed I hadn't rebooted back into MacOS 9 for quite a few days. This was almost entirely down to Safari, the new OS X-only browser Apple launched at the show. Now Safari isn't a metaphor-shattering breakthrough like the advent of the spreadsheet or the first consumer DTP applications. It isn't even a dramatically more of a "wow! have a look at this!" browser than any of its peers. And I personally haven't the great "innovations" Jobs enthused about in his keynote - "Snapback" for example, goes unused.

But that's not the point.

Safari cures the biggest drawback to OS X which we noted in our Jagwyre review: the utterly miserable browsing experience. So bad was this that I hesitated to recommend the Mac to first-time computer buying friends although in other respects, Apple's careful attention to design in both hardware and software, made it well worth considering.

Safari isn't quite the finished article yet - it struggles with some websites (I'm in rural France now and it couldn't handle the timetable enquiry for my return journey to Paris on the TGV, for example) - but the quality of the engineering is evident in many small details. Now Safari is also important because it shares a quality with my other reason for spending so much time hanging out in OS X, which I'll come to in a moment. But Safari has had a dramatic impact wider than the Mac, which deserves a brief detour.

Whither Mozilla?
Apple is caught between a rock and a hard place with its pricing policy for the bundled applications. The Mac market is so small - and alas, shrinking - that third party developers have to be a little insane to enter the market to begin with, in the knowledge that a free bundled competitor from Apple could wipe out any hope of making money. Opera has already indicated it might not continue development for Mac OS X. And Chimera developer Mike Pinkerton who had done more than anyone to make OS X browsing tolerable - with the Cocoa browser based on Mozilla code - 'fessed to wondering whether it was worth carrying on.

Jamie Zawinski put the knife in with some style. Citing David Baron, who wrote:-

"Why is Mozilla's layout engine so big and complex? Perhaps the simple answer is that there were too many people available to write it, and they wrote as much code as they could. After all, they didn't have any incentives to keep the code small."

JWZ translated Apple's Don Melton diplomatic reasoning for choosing Konqueror over Mozilla ("The size of your code and ease of development within that code made it a better choice for us than other open source projects ? clean design") thus:-

" 'Even though some of us used to work on Mozilla, we have to admit that the Mozilla code is a gigantic, bloated mess, not to mention slow, and with an internal API so flamboyantly baroque that frankly we can't even comprehend where to begin. Also did we mention big and slow and incomprehensible?'".

Well, perhaps Phoenix, which is a great browser on Linux and Windows, suggesting that all is not lost. But increasingly Mozilla looks like a salvage operation and its legacy might be a great bug-reporting tool and cross-platform UI toolkit rather than a browser that could have shook the world. (And how many cross-platform UI toolkits does the world need, do you Zinc? Someone AWT to count them.)

But we digress.

Bluetooth

The other reason for spending time in OS X is the excellent early Bluetooth code which is as promising as the Safari work. I've been very impressed with the contacts sync, file transfer between my T68i and Jagwyre, using the bog-standard D-Link USB dongle. I've happily been using it as a wireless modem on AT&T's GPRS network here (which in the Bay Area, is quite outstanding).

The similarity with Safari is that both are very first baby steps, but both appear to be very clean and well-designed and very focused engineering efforts. And that nurtures confidence. I've little doubt that by summer I'll be able to surf exclusively in Safari, and more importantly, I reckon Apple will have a Bluetooth engine second to none. With revolutionary devices like Nokia's 3650 and Sony Ericsson's P800 just around the corner, that matters a great deal.

(The former got a must-read early rave in InfoWorld this week: "The more we read, the more we thought "this isn?t a phone. Quite right; voice calls are almost tangential to its design? [it is] clearly a networked pocket computer, a portable mesh node," wrote Tom Yager.)

After Jagwyre debuted I still wasn't convinced the platform was moving forward. In some respects it seemed to moving sideways or even backwards.

It's still full of absurd UI hang-ups: yes, you have to smack the clock after reviving the Mac from sleep to get the right time, and cycling through an application's windows will not retrieve minimized windows, for example. Drive icons move around at random on the desktop, and you'll all know the sideways jig that moves all your desktop icons to the right if you place one too far to the left. That one's fun: it's like an amateur choir shuffling discreetly off stage after a particularly lousy recital.

But I think that with Safari and the Bluetooth work OS X has regained some real forward momentum. With some wrinkly ports regaining some of their former luster (I'm very impressed with the improvements in Connectix's Virtual PC 6.0) and intriguing new applications (Tinderbox, Spring, NetNewsWire) arriving and/or maturing fast, I see little reason to look back right now. ®

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