Apple colonizes Windows through Safari

I have three web browsers installed on my system. One of them, obviously, is Internet Explorer, the browser I use the vast majority of the time.

I have three web browsers installed on my system. One of them, obviously, is Internet Explorer, the browser I use the vast majority of the time. The second is Firefox, a browser I downloaded originally for compatibility testing, but found myself using more than I expected on account of the integrated spell checker functionality. The third is Opera, a browser I never use except for testing.

Adding a fourth browser seemed to be no big deal, so being the inquisitive sort (in the "curiosity" sense, not a "tendency to scald unbelievers with hot irons" sense), I opted to download the recently released 3.1 version of Safari for Windows.  Safari, a browser based on code from the open source Konqueror project, was developed by Apple as a way to make itself less dependent on the whims of a certain third-party software company by whom I am employed. These days, it is as identifiable with Mac computers as Internet Explorer is with Windows.

Firefox and Opera never really kept my interest for long enough to become tools I used regularly. I don't find the Firefox UI all that exceptional, and I have always found the Opera interface downright ugly (tastes vary, clearly, so please take that as just my opinion). Therefore, I didn't have high expectations when I installed Safari Friday evening. I had seen Safari on a Mac platform and thought that it was nice enough, but I didn't expect them to try to bring the Mac UI experience to Windows.

I was clearly wrong. Safari looks exactly like Safari on the Mac, from the scrollbars to the check boxes that appear on web pages. Exceptions are made to accommodate certain Windows UI conventions, such as the fact that menus travel with applications rather than affixing themselves to the top of the computer screen once an application is activated (as is the case on a Mac).

Further, unlike my experience with Firefox or Opera, I find myself completely hooked by Safari for Windows, and used it in preference to IE every time I got on the web this weekend.

Apple claims that the Safari browser is the fastest HTML-rendering browser around, and based on my limited experience, it certainly feels zippy. Though that's certainly important, of greater note was the user interface. The UI has a certain Zen-like simplicity to it, and though I can't quite put my finger on it, text on menus seems considerably easier to read (probably something to do with fonts, but whatever the case, it looks very nice).

Animated user interfaces, when done properly, can make a program a lot more fun to use. I love the way warning messages swoosh away to the top of the screen after you respond to them. The Settings window, which in most browsers is rather boring and utilitarian, is notable for its clarity in Safari, and I really like how it animates the resize of the settings popup as you select different settings categories.

Another thing I really like about Safari for Windows is what I will call the "super focus" mode. The typical, easy-to-lose, slim "blinking cursor" common in most Windows applications is enhanced by a glow that surrounds the field that holds focus, which is all-but impossible to miss. This focus indicator is used by Safari UI elements, such as the address and search fields which exist along the top of the application, as well as form elements in a web page. I like the effect a lot, and consider it one of those small things that makes Safari on Windows fun to use.

All things considered, I think it serves as a great alternative browser. This begs the question: why would Apple go through the trouble of making an entree into the increasingly contested browser market on Windows?

Clearly, it is at least partly intended as a way to lure more users to an Apple computer. Safari copies Mac interface conventions, and the more Apple software using those conventions that they get their iPod-using public to consume, the easier it will be for them to consider shifting wholesale to a Mac computer. A browser is a rather important application in the Internet age, so getting users accustomed to the same browser they will find on a Mac is useful.

Further, Apple boosts Safari's market share by getting more people to use it, which is important in that it encourages more developers to test with it. Safari may tout its standards compliance, but as any web developer would tell you, you'd be crazy to release a web site without first testing it on the browsers your customers are most likely to use (I found Safari didn't work so well with some sites, one of them being the ZDNet blog entry screens). By making their browser a standard part of the pre-release test phase for web sites (which is usually a function of market share), Apple ensures more of the web is compatible with its browser.

The opportunity clearly exists for Safari market share gains. First, Apple already has leverage on Windows through the popularity of its iTunes software. This gives them a base from which to move into a new market, something that was a source of consternation for some people due to their use of their Software Update system to "encourage" users to install Safari. Second, Safari has already jumped in market share due to its use in an iPhone. Safari doesn't have to gain a huge market share on Windows to make a difference.

What I find particularly dissonant about all this - well, besides the fact that I found Safari so impressive in the first place - was that Apple is the one that is "colonizing" Windows. Back in 2002 in the early days of .NET, I advocated that Microsoft work to spread .NET beyond the confines of Windows as a fee-based product for non-Windows users that enabled other operating systems to achieve full compatibility with the .NET ecosystem. At the time, Microsoft was making Internet Explorer and Media Player for the Mac, so spreading an entire programming layer, an area that is one of Microsoft's competitive advantages, seemed a logical next step. Microsoft is, after all, a maker of platforms.

Clearly, that didn't happen (though Silverlight seems a step in that direction). How odd, instead, that it is Apple that is following at least part of that strategy.