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Safari at 10: lasting impact on Apple's success

I remember all too well the Browser Wars: Broken plugins on fire off the shoulder of Orion. CSS selectors glittering in the dark near the box model. The screams as people met their demi--OK, nobody met their demise.

Still, just as it seems like these days every electronics company in the world is making smartphones and tablets, the same thing was happening a decade ago with Web browsers. In the main arena, Microsoft and Netscape were going head-to-head for dominance; elsewhere, Opera was holding onto its niche territory, and a new challenger by the name of Phoenix had just emerged. (Though you may know it better by its eventual stage name: Firefox.)

So what did a crowded market like that need? Clearly, one more Web browser. On January 7, 2003--ten years ago this week--Steve Jobs took the stage at Macworld Expo in San Francisco and announced that Apple had built its own Web browser, Safari.

At the time, I was working in Web development, building sites for a non-profit humanitarian policy organization. Among my least favorite parts of the job--and there were more than a few--was wrestling with the differences between how different browsers rendered the same code. Every browser seemed to have its own interpretation of what I thought were pretty straightforward instructions on how to draw a webpage.

Much as I'd love to say that Safari came along and fixed all these woes overnight, my overriding thought at the time was more along the lines of: "Great. One more 'standard' to support." At the time, I was already switching between Netscape and Internet Explorer on my Windows PC at work; at home, I relied heavily on Camino, a Mac native browser based on Mozilla's layout engine.

While Safari may not have been a dream come true for a Web developer, it ended up being a key move for Apple and its users.

Websplosion

The late 1990s and early 2000s signaled the shift from the era of online services like AOL, CompuServe, and Apple's own eWorld to the Web. Given the popularity and increasing influence of the Internet and Apple's own status as a company trying to claw itself back from the deathbed, Cupertino desperately needed to have a browser that was under its own control.

At the time of Safari's release, the default browser on Macs was Internet Explorer, as it had been since Jobs's return to Apple in 1997. While Microsoft's commitment to developing Internet Explorer for the Mac ensured that the platform at least had some sort of modern browser, Microsoft never exactly broke its back to keep IE for Mac on the cutting edge.

That era of the Web was full of incompatibilities and quirks, and that burgeoning new world wasn't always hospitable to Mac users. Strange as it may seem from the vantage of 2013, there were websites that just didn't work on the Mac, even if you were using the "same" browser as your compatriots on Windows. (Of course, they weren't really the same browser, despite their names.)

Safari first emerged as a public beta on the same day as its announcement, and Apple continued revising it until its release in June 2003. (It's not unheard of for Apple to offer public betas of its software, but my favorite feature of those initial betas was the prominent Report a Bug button.) Later that year, Safari was bundled in with Mac OS X, where it's remained until this day; Internet Explorer 5.2 was relegated to the backseat, never to be updated for the Mac again.

Apple's decision to create its own browser is illustrative of a if-you-need-it-done-right-do-it-yourself philosophy that's endemic to Apple and a key to its success. Just as the company decided to build its own hardware and software in the early days of the personal computer, Cupertino deemed the Web too valuable a battleground to leave at the mercy of third parties. These days, we're seeing the company employ the same tactic when it comes to mobile devices.

Lasting legacies

What's perhaps most surprising in going back to look at the earlier iterations of Apple's browser is, in many ways, just how little has changed between then and now. While the prominent competitors of the day Internet Explorer and Netscape were starting to become overrun by third-party toolbars and more and more bells and whistles, Apple eschewed complexity for its trademark simplicity and elegance.

That theme has only continued to the present day. If anything, Safari's gotten even more simple in recent years. No longer is there an independent Google search field; the reload button has been moved into the location bar; even the scrollbars are, by default, hidden. The focus is, as it has always been, the pages themselves.

Not to say there haven't been bizarre choices and rabbit holes along the way. Remember SnapBack? The odd RSS integration discontinued in Mountain Lion? The top tabs of the Safari 4 public beta? Lately, Safari updates seem to garner more attention for what they've left out than what they've added.

However, the biggest impact of Safari wasn't the browser itself, but its underlying technology. WebKit, the layout engine originally forked off the KHTML rendering engine, has become one of Apple's core technologies. On OS X, it powers not just Safari but features like Dashboard, and parts of applications like Mail and iTunes. For example, every time you browse the iTunes Store on your Mac, you're dealing with WebKit.

Arguably more importantly, WebKit also made the jump to the mobile side of the fence with iOS, where it is the cornerstone of mobile Safari, as well as integral to many first- and third-party apps. In fact, WebKit is the only rendering engine that runs on iOS (without a jailbreak, anyway). Pretty much any time you've looked at a webpage on your iPhone or iPad device, you're using WebKit.

And that's just in Apple's neck of the woods. As open source software, WebKit's wended its way into browsers and software on a variety of popular (and less popular) platforms. Google Chrome is based on WebKit, as is Android's browser. Even the browsers on the PlayStation 3 and the Kindle e-reader use WebKit at their cores.

While Apple's mobile devices have become immensely popular among consumers, its Web browsing technologies have likewise found purchase from developers of all kinds, saving programmers from having to reinvent the wheel. And along the way, WebKit has become more and more standard--depending on which statistics you believe, browsers based on WebKit are either poised to overtake Internet Explorer as the market share leader or they already have.

Pax browsera

While I've long left my career as a Web developer behind, my day job still means I spend most of my time in a Web browser. Safari, for all its quirks and caveats, has remained my app of choice for a long while now. I've dallied with Chrome and--I just checked--apparently still have Firefox installed on my system, I guess just in case some catastrophic event disables both Google's and Apple's browsers. Should that day come, I assume I'll have bigger problems to worry about.

One's choice of Web browsers remains an issue of spirited debate to this day, but the surfeit of solid options and increasing cohesion in Web standards has reduced the fervor from days of yore, where disagreements often reached a pitch usually reserved for political discourse or sports team allegiances.

As for Apple, we all know how it's doing these days. Would it have reached the same heights were it not for Safari? Perhaps. But I think we can all agree we're glad not to still be on Internet Explorer 5.2


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