New browsers spice up Mac OS X

In a world that many see on the verge of dividing between Microsoft and AOL/Time-Warner, the so-called "browser wars" may appear to be over. But now, alternative Web browsers have sparked to life.

In a world that many see on the verge of dividing between Microsoft and AOL/Time-Warner, the so-called "browser wars" may appear to be over. But in the interstices formed by Linux and other operating systems, alternative Web browsers have sparked to life.

Now, with Apple Computer's wholesale conversion to the Unix-based Mac OS X, the terrain has changed once again, causing developers such as Microsoft to scramble to re-establish their niche while allowing others, such as Norway's Opera Software and the Seattle-based Omni Group, the opportunity to grow.

This week, Opera upgraded its eponymous Web browser from Technology Preview 3 to Beta 1 status, pulling out Java support (which had proved unstable in earlier versions) but fixing other bugs in rendering and in Opera's JavaScript implementation. Befitting its beta status, this version also does not include support for Unicode, cache preferences, file uploads, browsing local files, full-screen display, and drag and drop for images. Though this version, which has long been in development, is written to the "classic" set of Mac OS APIs, the company said that Opera 5.0 Beta 1 fully supports Mac OS X's Classic mode, which allows the running of legacy Mac OS applications.

The company maintains that despite its status as a Classic application, the product still offers a faster Web browsing experience than the competition (although Opera's CEO, Jon von Tetzchner, admitted that this is based on user and tester feedback rather than lab tests).

Still, echoing Apple CEO Steve Jobs' refrain that Mac OS X is the future for the platform, von Tetzchner confirmed that Opera is developing a Carbon version of the browser--that is, one coded to run natively in Mac OS X and that takes advantage of the operating system's preemptive multitasking, memory protection and more.

"There's not much difference" in writing for Classic or Carbon, von Tetzchner said, adding that modifying the existing code was "not too bothersome". Still, he said, the Carbon version of Opera 5.0 is not yet ready for release, even as a preview. "There are some compiler issues and such," he said, adding that "it shouldn't take many months" to cook up a public release of a Carbonized Opera.

According to tester feedback, the Carbon version running on Mac OS X is faster than on Mac OS 9, von Tetzchner said. "These are subjective feelings, but we're getting good reviews on speed" on Mac OS X, he said.

Though Opera is currently also working on a version of Opera for pre-PowerPC Macs, von Tetzchner said that the company is not currently working on a version built in Cocoa, Apple's object-oriented set of APIs inherited from Mac OS X's progenitor, NextStep.

"Making a Cocoa version is a lot more work," he said, likening it to having to learn an entirely new platform. This reluctance may not sit well with Jobs, who pushed Cocoa at Apple's recent World Wide Developers' Conference. That "new platform" problem is, conversely, a benefit for the Omni Group, which originated as an informal group of NextStep developers.

In early May the company released the final version of OmniWeb 4.0, a full-featured browser built for Mac OS X (and modestly dubbed "the future of Web browsing").

Instead of being built for the classic Mac OS and ported to Mac OS X, OmniWeb was targeted for Mac OS X's Cocoa environment. One result is that Mac users who haven't migrated to Mac OS X cannot use OmniWeb (though the browser's target market has mushroomed from its NextStep days), and this allows it to take full advantage of the Unix-based underpinnings of the operating system. The release notes for Version 4.0 mention that the browser sports a multithreaded architecture and supports symmetric multiprocessing (on multiple-processor Mac systems).

However, there are drawbacks. OmniWeb's notes also explain that some Web plug-ins, such as ones not Carbonized themselves, will not work with the browser. And the company has said that some JavaScript-intensive pages remain problematic in OmniWeb 4.0, but the company promises to continue to update the product.

Both OmniWeb and Opera, as well as the German iCab (the current preview is available Carbonized for Mac OS X), have gained fans among early adopters and those tired of Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Explorer. Contributing to the uphill nature of the battle are the pricing schemes: The Mac release of Opera is free in beta form, but with the final version the company plans to release a free and "sponsored" (with ads) copy aside a US$39, ad-free version, while OmniWeb is priced at US$29.95. But both companies have reported strong demand for downloads, enough to spur continued development.