Four years after Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Explorer trounced Netscape in the Web browser wars, two new offerings for Macintosh computers offer the best evidence yet that market domination doesn't always make for the most nimble or innovative products.
Apple Computer Inc.'s Safari and the Mozilla Organization's Camino are still in beta testing. But they leave Internet Explorer in the dust, rendering pages noticeably faster, dumping rarely used features and adding others not available in the Microsoft browser.
Both browsers have simple interfaces that match the elegance of Apple's Mac OS X operating system. And unlike other alternative browsers, particularly for the Mac, they are very quick and accurately draw even complex Web pages.
The software rarely crashed during my tests over the past month, though both occasionally choked on pages, usually positioning elements incorrectly or showing a weird text size.
Even in beta, the features outweigh the flaws. Don't most Web surfers prefer speed over any bells and whistles that ultimately get in the way of pulling up a Web site?
Apart from speed, the most impressive feature of Safari and Camino is their ability to block pop-up ads, perhaps the biggest Internet annoyance since the invention of bulk e-mail. During my tests, not a single pop-up popped up after I enabled the blocking feature. (We'll see how long it takes for advertisers to find a workaround.)
Of the new entrants, Safari seems better poised to take on Microsoft. It has a few more features than Camino -- not to mention the marketing muscle of Apple.
Apple says its browser has been downloaded 2 million times since it was made publicly available in January. It runs only on Mac OS X 10.2 and higher versions, and with its brushed-metal style, meshes well with the operating system and other Apple programs such as iTunes.
Apple might be faulted for trying to out-Microsoft Microsoft, which was widely criticized for making the browser -- its browser -- an essential element of its Windows operating system.
Fortunately, at least in early release, Safari doesn't push other Apple products and doesn't try to act like anything more than just a browser.
Like Camino, Safari's biggest draw is the speed. It doesn't make a dial-up connection seem like broadband, but it does shave fractions of seconds off the time it takes each element to display on a Web site. The gains do add up.
Both Safari and Camino are native Mac OS X applications, while Internet Explorer 5.2 for the Mac was ported from earlier versions of the operating system.
Also, Safari doesn't suffer from "code bloat," at least at this early stage. It takes up just 10.5 megabytes on the hard drive compared with nearly 24 megabytes for Internet Explorer. Camino takes up about 20 megabytes.
The latest version of Safari includes a tool for automatically filling out forms, a simple option to erase the browsing trail -- a big privacy booster -- and support for tabbed browsing, which makes each open window accessible by clicking a tab just below the main toolbar. Multiple sites can be lumped together in a single tab, and they can be opened all at once, a real timesaver.
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