- The Washington Times - Monday, March 2, 2009

Internet Web browsers, we have seen lately, generate a lot of heat. Oslo-based Opera software is seeking the help of the European Commission in forcing Microsoft Corp. to distribute their Windows operating system with more browsers than Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.

Google, whose Chrome browser is a more recent contender in the marketplace, last week said it would join the Mozilla Foundation, which is behind the Firefox Web browser, in offering its expertise to the EC in building a case against Microsoft.

Other browsers, however, shed light as much as they do heat. That’s the case with Apple Inc.’s Safari Web browser, whose Beta 4 version, for Mac and Windows computers, was released for public testing Tuesday. In less than a day, I “fell” for Safari again.

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It had me at hello, to borrow a phrase. Actually, it had me at Welcome, the very nice opening animation that plays — with music on Macs when the browser is first launched (see it at www.apple.com/safari/welcome).

The greeting segues into a Top Sites screen display of your 12 most-visited Web sites, at least when Safari 4 is installed on top of older Safari versions, where there’s a browser history to glom onto. On computers lacking a previous installation, a representation of popular sites is displayed, with the promise that Safari will “learn” your favorites along the way.

But ambience isn’t at the heart of Web browsing; usability and speed are. Safari 4, in my early testing, fulfills on these goals. It’s usability is quite good: I could work with my usual daily Web sites and even the more esoteric ones such as Adobe Corp.’s Buzzword online word processor, although I had to bypass a “caution” warning from Adobe to do so.

Since I could go to my usual sites, I could work easily and quickly. Pages seem to load very quickly, and even with multiple windows open, things refreshed and loaded with ease. It seems basic, but these functions are important. Without quick and reliable operation, a browser isn’t worth all that much.

Along with the Top Sites view, available with one click on a browser window’s toolbar, there’s also an implementation of “cover flow,” the Apple-created system that lets you “flip” through images of, in this case, previously browsed Web sites. Now, this does take some time to load, even on a high-speed connection and even with a relatively fast computer.

There’s only so much RAM available, after all, and only so much bandwidth. My testing showed that not every page can be “cached,” thus redisplayed; this was, understandably, the case often with pages from sites where signing in was necessary, such as a corporate e-mail system. And, other pages would display, but with newer data. Overall, this is an interesting feature, although its promise is perhaps not always evident.

A more useful feature, at the start at least, is a revised zoom, which enlarges the entire page, rather than just the lettering. Those of us whose eyes squint and strain at some Web sites, however, appreciate such accommodation, especially when the zoom is smooth and displays the larger size easily.

Why does all this matter? As mentioned here before, the Web is becoming the gateway to much, much more, than just static information: when, on Tuesday, a late-afternoon traffic accident in Silver Spring threatened the evening commute of many, including this writer, I turned to the Web for information, and found it at the Web site of WTOP radio. With a quick installation of the Microsoft Silverlight plug-in, I could listen live to the radio station and stay updated on traffic conditions.

Clearly this is one of many areas where the Web is heading, and having a good browser is essential. Safari 4, in public Beta for now, might well be that essential for many people. Having worked with both Windows and Mac versions, I can say this is an impressive program worth checking out.

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