Build the Better Browser

OmniWeb 5With any luck, this post will remain relevant for just about three weeks, when, hopefully, it will be made obsolete by a concrete announcement at Macworld Expo of OmniWeb 6.0’s imminent release. As a loyal user of that Quixotic Web browser, I’ve been waiting seemingly forever for a long-promised upgrade that will move OmniWeb away from its clever but problematic customization of Apple’s WebCore foundation and over to the more stable, more easily built-upon WebKit framework available in Mac OS X. I’m crossing my fingers that this will put an end to the memory leaks, imperfect page renderings and random crashes from which OmniWeb suffers (though to be fair, the OmniGroup does an admirable and timely job of continually hunting down and sorting out bugs) — even for all of those problems, it’s still my favorite Web browser.

Frankenstein’s Feature List

Even with those problems sorted out, it still won’t be the perfect Web browser, at least not for me. What I want is really an amalgam of the three browsers I use regularly on my Mac: OmniWeb, Firefox and Safari. There’s at least a few things about each that I find indispensable, which keeps me enthusiastic about all of them. But in an ideal, crazy sci-fi, OpenDoc-style world where we’re all eating freeze-dried foods and having sex with robots while flying in jet packs through our space colonies, I’d be able to pick and choose from the features I like most about each, and assemble them together into a single super-browser suited to my particular tastes.

Here, ranked in order of importance to my browsing habits, are the features I’d choose:

  1. Safari’s General Stability
    In its early releases, I recall lots of crashes, but in the past year or more, Safari has become solid as a rock, and it’s the one browser I turn to when I need to accomplish tasks under deadline and without risk of the browser going haywire.

  2. Safari’s Fit and Finish
    As an Apple-authored application, it’s no coincidence that Safari is the most consistently and thoroughly Mac-like in its total user experience. Forgetting its controversial brushed-metal facade, I find it’s exceedingly well designed and comfortable to use. Those are intangible and unspecific factors, but they’re a crucial part of how much affection I can muster for any application.

  3. OmniWeb’s Visual Tabs
    Yes, there are extensions that bring this feature to both Safari and Firefox, but OmniWeb did it first, and they still do it best. It’s perhaps the showiest of all features, but I’ve become wedded to it.

  4. Firefox’s Cross-platform Consistency
    Nothing beats Firefox for ably rendering client-side code in a predictable fashion across operating systems. It’s not perfect, but this reliability has established a gold standard for Web developers looking to create a single experience across multiple operating systems.

  5. Safari’s Speed
    Browser responsiveness is a subjective metric, but in general use I find Safari the snappiest of the three browsers.

  6. Safari’s Private Browsing
    A dead simple feature that turns off the History feature and cookies. For those who occasionally visit less respectable corners of the Internet, this is a great reassurance of one’s privacy… so I’ve heard.

  7. Firefox’s Extensibility
    As much of a curse as it is a blessing, because any complaint I have about the core browser’s feature set is often immediately rebutted with the claim that “There’s an extension that does that.” I don’t want to have to install add-ons and modifications across every instance of Firefox I’m running. On the other hand, the fact that I can install an endless variety of add-ons and modifications also happens to be immensely cool.

  8. OmniWeb’s Text Entry Fields
    These are brilliant: clicking a little plus-icon at the top of each text entry field’s scroll shaft pops up a resizable, TextEdit-like scratch pad of sorts. Ideal for writing long paragraphs of text inside insufficiently sized weblog comment forms. Absolutely ingenious feature. Totally.

  9. OmniWeb’s Live Editing of Source Code
    Allows me to modify HTML from any Web page right in the View Source window, then hit update to see that change reflected immediately — all without having to manually save the code (and manually collected image and embedded files) to my hard drive. It has obvious benefits for Web developers, but has also proven unexpectedly helpful in many other instances. There’s an extension that brings this to Firefox too, I believe, but it comes standard with every installation of OmniWeb, which I like.

  10. OmniWeb’s Site-specific Preferences and Ad Blocking
    Firefox’s AdBlock is great, but OmniWeb’s built-in ad features are sufficient for my needs, at least for now. Plus, with impressive good sense, they’re integrated with other, consistently useful site-specific controls like browser spoofing and font-swapping — all built right in.

So, I won’t hold my breath.

  1. From “what I’ve heard”, when you turn off Private Browsing after only a few minutes, it “supposedly” takes 30-45 seconds for the beach ball to stop spinning. I’m sure it’s still worth it though 🙂

    One thing that Safari provides that I can’t live without is the text-shadow CSS property. I love using that super-proprietary CSS rule in my designs to make it just a little nicer for Safari users out there, and I don’t think I could live without it. If OmniWeb 6 uses WebKit, which would naturally support text-shadow, then maybe I’ll make the switcheroo.

  2. Yeah, I’m hooked on text-shadow, too. I use it regularly in my designs, and I just want to be able to see my designs in all their glory. OmniWeb is very, very nice, but right now the non-WebKit-ness of it is keeping my from jumping on board. If they switch to WebKit, then I will likely change.

  3. I don’t have high hopes for an Omniweb 6 announcement for a few months yet. They seem to be concentrating on bugfixing and localizations at the moment :o(

    Webkit will hopefully mean that Omniweb plays nice with Flickr – can’t wait for that!

    I agree with all your list – especially #2, but apart from #1. Maybe its because I have so many extensions, but OW is more stable than Safari for me.

    I would also add the ability to find as you type. Firefox has got this down to a tee, Camino can do it, Safari can do it with extensions, but OW can’t! I use this a lot, especially in source view when I’m debugging site designs.

    Regarding text-shadow, I wonder if that was based on the first release of Omniweb 5? That was based on Safari 1.0, but was updated to Safari 1.2’s webcore with the release of 5.1. Maybe that very first version didn’t support text-shadow? Anyway, it has for ages now, so get with it Croft & Rundle! 😉

  4. I’m hoping along with you, Khoi. For a surprisingly long amount of time, I was able to convince myself that the Next Big Release was just around the corner. But traffic on the mailing list has slowed to a crawl, and the only participation from Omni lately seems to be “We just fixed a minor, rarely occuring bug!” and “In this release, we’ve added a localization for the binary language of moisture evaporators!” (Yes, of course I recognize the value of localized software. But I’d wager that most of the localizing is done by people not employed by the Omni Group.)

    But oh, if that release were to come! Edit CSS inline just like HTML. Synched up with the latest version of WebKit. Fewer crashes, no graphical glitches. I’d buy another license.

  5. What separates the pros from the amateurs is a need to save tabs on quit, close, or crash. OmniWeb does that, as do Opera and Firefox with an extension. Safari doesn’t, hence cannot be trusted.

  6. Well, technically, only OmniWeb and Opera do that, Joe, at least by default. Firefox and Safari can both do that as well through extensions — I use Saft on my version of Safari for just that purpose. But neither the enhanced Safari nor Firefox are as cool as OmniWeb’s workspaces feature, which allow users to save sets of tabs and switch between them effortlessly. I completely forgot to mention that, but it’s another winning feature from OmniWeb.

  7. I’ve seen and heard of people using OmniWeb’s “page editing feature” to change the price on an item at, say,, print the page out, and have their local Best Buy or Target or whatever price match. Staples and Bed, Bath, & Beyond even do 10% below the price match. Merry Christmas to all, you too can thieve easily! 😛

  8. What great browsers we have to choose from! But here’s what limits me to using only one… I don’t want to have to build “bookmark bars” in every browser.

    Is there an application out there (I’ve tried bookit but that doesn’t seem to work or offers more features then there really needs to be) that acts as a central repository for bookmarks, which can then write them to all the bookmark files for all these great browsers? A sort of “light bookmark address book” if you will.

    That’s what I want for Christmas!

  9. Kiran: You might want to give BookIt another shot; the need that you describe is exactly the purpose for which I use it. Safari is my ‘master’ bookmarks file, and I use BookIt to duplicate those bookmarks in all of my other browsers; not just OmniWeb and Firefox, but Camino and Opera as well. I don’t use any of the other features, but at US$12, it’s still a bargain.

    Two warnings, though: in order to publish bookmarks from your master browser to a different browser, it’s necessary to save at least one bookmark (any bookmark) in the target browser first. This creates the appropriate preference file in your Home library, which is what BookIt looks for. The second point is that I have some JavaScript-loaded bookmarklets that don’t always work after BookIt publishes them to other browsers. That’s a drag,. but it’s still well worth it for everything it does right.

  10. I agree with Joe Clark, OmniWeb’s preservation of window state would be one of the top items on my list. It’s the main reason I don’t use Safari.

    I would also rate site-specific preferences much higher; it’s especially great for dealing with the variety of text sizes on the web.

  11. Firefox being it cross-platform and being based on the gecko engine which extends it to Mozilla and NN is a great feature itself. So guys frankly which browser would be the browser for x-browser testing for you? Having in mind that IE is the market dominant and most of our end users use it. So what’s your pick? I’d go with Firefox for sure! FF is lite, fast, and has the same rendering engine accross all the OSes which in brief makes it my choice.

  12. Safari without Saft isn’t much of a browser. But, as Khoi already said, Saft lets you save sets of tabs, and automatically saves the open tabs when you close the window or when Safari crashes. Best of all, after a crash Saft lets you decide which of the tabs you want to reopen. This is especially useful since many times you can figure out which site caused the crash, and choose not to reopen it.

  13. Feaverish: Good point; Saft is smart that way. That feature would be a welcome addition to OmniWeb, especially when a page that’s part of a given tab-set (OmniWeb calls them Workspaces) continually causes the broswer to crash on start up.

  14. Ahh, I love OmniWeb…right up until it crashes. I used the Sets & thumbnail tabs a lot, but the crashing finally got to me. It crashes consistently when using the Expression Engine backend (click on an admin tab…boom!) which is what I’m using for my CMS on sites.

    OmniWeb is one of the most polished pieces of software I’ve seen, anywhere. If it were just a little cheaper – and stable – I’d spring for it.

    Camino’s nice, but it’s basically Firefox without the extensions, so it’s used infrequently. I, too, am using Safari most of the time – esp. since the 2.0 release. Flash performance is great too (don’t cringe!). WebKit rocks.

    I do really like the View Source/Validator extension for Firefox – very useful.

  15. Back when Private Browsing was first announced for Safari, I remember testing it by turning it on and then going to porn sites, like any horny teen would.

    Then after my… session, I looked in the cookies, and there was every single porn site I’ve been on for the whole session… Not very private if you ask me. :/

  16. Unfortunately I’m just hoping for a 5.5 release in the next couple of months… but maybe their waiting to surprise us! : )

    I’m really looking forward to to move to WebKit, to fix the memory leaks and excruciating slow downs (yes, I have far too many tabs open.)

    Admittedly the performance is a lot better now I’ve moved to a G5; the multi-threading and DP support have always been theoretical, if not actual benefits, so maybe this coupled with WebKit might give OW a edge over the competition..?

    Like others have mentioned, it’s just becoming more and more of a quandary to look at the open extensibility of Firefox, esp. with the eventual integration of Cocoa widgets and Services support hopefully coming in via Camino.

    …but it’s still a very elegant browser, and I want to keep supporting it. : )

  17. Last night the Omni Group’s Ken Case sent this update to the OmniWeb discussion mailing list. The highlights:

    “…We’ve made quite a bit of progress on quite a few of the major features of OmniWeb, but there’s still a lot of work to do before 5.5 really feels like an upgrade to 5.1.

    ”It’s a bit early to say exactly when OmniWeb 5.5 will enter public beta.”

    More patience is required, I guess.

Thank you! Your remarks have been sent to Khoi.