Browser Watch 2008 – June Roundup

Big things are happening in the browser world these days. We haven’t seen this much action in browser development since the Netscape 4 / IE4 browser wars of the dot.com bubble, and back then it was only two browsers! Today, we have (arguably) no less than 4 major browsers, each with increasingly good levels of standards compliance. Even Internet Explorer’s latest offering looks to be reasonably standards compliant, and may finally remove that painful thorn called “Internet Explorer Compatibility” from our collective sides. Let’s take a look at what’s coming down the pike:

Firefox 3.0

We’ve got a release date! Mark your calendars for this Tuesday, June 17 to download the final release of Firefox 3.0! This is an important major release for the Mozilla organization that keeps Firefox at the front of the pack for both performance and standards compliance! Check out some of these new features:

  • One-click site info
  • Better malware protection
  • Better and clearer ssl error pages
  • Better zooming
  • Improved Mac, Windows and Linux (gtk) integration!
  • Tab saving!
  • Resumable downloads
  • Improved SVG and CSS rendering
  • Better memory management
  • Massive speed boosts in javascript!

And so much more! By the way, did I mention the massive speed boosts in Javascript processing? It’s true! Just run any Javascript-intensive application in FF2 and FF3 to compare. G-Mail, Google Documents, TeamSite, Toyota Dealer Locator, whatever. You’ll be blown away.

Internet Explorer 8.0 beta

IE8 is starting to shape up into a decent offering from Microsoft! With an emphasis on performance and standards compliance (wait, this is a Microsoft browser, right), IE8 is definitely looking to be the most developer-friendly browser from Microsoft to date. We were all worried when it was first announced that standards-compliance would have to be opted-in on a per-page basis. But they’ve since backed off of that after listening to the developer community and the new standards-compliance mode will be the default. In addition to their new-found love of internet standards, IE8 also introduces “WebSlices”; a new widget format for the browser. A new beta version of IE8 is expected in August, but you can check out Beta 1 at the IE8 Developer Preview page.

http://www.microsoft.com/windows/products/winfamily/ie/ie8/default.mspx

Safari

It’s been a pretty big year for Apple’s flagship browser, Safari. Based on the open-source WebKit project, it’s come a long way from it’s humble beginnings as the popular Linux web browser, Konqueror. Now up to 3.1, Safari has been leading the pack in both performance and standards compliance. They released a Windows version (though not without some controversy). Safari was the first browser that users could download (albeit as a nightly beta) that passed the new Acid 3 browser compatibility test, beating Opera to the punch by only a few days. (See the Opera post below for more details.) At the WWDC conference this week, Apple introduced the first developer version of Safari 4.0 which, in addition to Acid 3 compatibility, includes a new and faster Javascript engine named SquirrelFish. That’s right, SquirrelFish. You got a problem with that? I didn’t think so. I haven’t found any direct comparisons on the web yet, but it will be interesting to see how SquirrelFish measures up to SpiderMonkey (the current Javascript engine for Firefox) as well as Tamarin, which is speculated to be the engine for Firefox 4.

Safari is also one of the first browsers to begin supporting HTML 5, which, among other things, includes <video> and <audio> tags for inline media. Also on Safari’s slate is CSS special effects. All those cool effects that you get from Javascript libraries like Script.aculo.us, jQuery UI, dojo and others are supported in the browser using css and styles. This makes for some smooth effects that even the fastest rendering engine can’t beat.

And lest we forget, Apple’s Safari is the default browser in the iPhone and iPod touch! Apple has raised the mobile browsing bar so high that most “mobile browsers” can’t even be considered web browsers any more.

While security is pretty tight with Safari and Apple is usually pretty quick to patch things up, Safari is not without it’s problems. The so-called “carpet-bomb” attack allows a malicious web site push potentially thousands of unwanted files to the desktop. While the user still needs to execute files that have been pushed, it can still be a hassle to have to clean up the mess, and some experts have speculated that a dual-pronged attack against Windows Safari users could have Safari downloading files and IE executing them, all without user interaction beyond visiting a web site. While scary, this hasn’t yet been seen in the wild and definitely shouldn’t overshadow the other accomplishments that Apple has achieved with Safari.

Opera

Last but certainly not least, we have Opera which released version 9.5 today. Opera has been a long-time flag-bearer for the web standards cause. They’ve also been a huge player in the mobile browsing market, bringing “real” web browsing to mobile devices long before the iPhone stole the thunder with Mobile Safari. (I personally use Opera Mini 4.1 on my BlackJack smartphone.) Opera was also the first browser to pass the previously mentioned Acid 3 test. WebKit followed a few days later, but Opera’s version wasn’t available for public download. The new 9.5 release achieves an 83/100 on Acid 3, the best score to date for a final release browser. Opera 9.5 includes the following new features:

  • Really fast rendering of HTML, CSS and Javascript (hmmm… I see a pattern forming here)
  • Improved malware and phishing detection and prevention tools
  • Improved bookmarking tools
  • Skinnable interface

Opera has also released Dragonfly, a debugging and development tool for Opera. I haven’t tried it yet, but it’s great to see other browsers starting to include development tools on par with Firefox’s FireBug and Developer Tools extensions, which still set the bar for in-browser developer tools.

And let’s not forget that it was Opera that pioneered tabbed web browsing, which forever changed the way we (or at least I) surf the web!

*Whew*! That’s a lot of browsing! And we have to support them all! Luckily, with a trend towards standards compliance and performance, browser makers are making things a little easier on us Rich Media Technologists.

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