Apple's new beta of Safari for Mac OS X and Windows is fast, beautiful, tuned to the latest Web standards, and finally even with the remarkable WebKit project
You already know Safari. It's the only browser that ships with OS X, in the same manner that Internet Explorer is the de facto browser for Windows. Safari rose to greater recognition as the iPhone's touchy-feely Web 2.0 client. You might be aware that OS X and Windows editions of Safari are released in parity, function identically, and are updated automatically through Apple Software Update in response to security and stability issues.
You likely also know that Safari is implemented using WebKit, an open source framework for embedded HTML clients. It's at that point that the relationship between Safari and WebKit becomes hazy. The common belief is that Safari is effectively a front-end wrapper for WebKit.
[ Safari is ahead of the curve in speed, standards, and good looks, but not in security -- find out why in the Test Center guide to browser security. ]
I'll set that record straight. The default browser on all of my Macs is named WebKit.app. There is another program in the Applications folder named Safari.app. When I launch WebKit.app, the menu bar shows the name "Safari." WebKit is Safari, plus everything the independent WebKit project folds into its nightly builds. Those builds are released as source and as Windows and OS X executables that users are not warned away from, but encouraged to use.
In my runs of the SunSpider benchmark, Safari 4 beta skunked Firefox, which is the primary browser for POSIX platforms. (See the Lab Notes blog for my results.) With Apple's backing and a quick chain for distributing updates, Safari is a browser you need to have. You can download Safari 4 beta, and browse features and screen images, at Apple's Safari site.
Other features make Safari 4 flat irresistible. It's the first desktop release to support the local database features of HTML 5. The information and Web apps traditionally only available when you're linked to the network can be accessed locally. WebKit, nee Safari 4 beta, has a facility for examining and structuring tables and fields.
Field fill-in for URLs and keyword searches are attempted with each keystroke, for both the URL and search fields. The most likely matches show in a drop-down list populated by Google. URL matches are taken from Safari's history. The sites you visit most often can be displayed as a matrix of thumbnails when Safari 4 launches, and pages in your history can be leafed through in Cover Flow. When the RSS for a page is updated, an indicator lights up for that thumbnail.
I wish that these features were available to scan bookmarks as well. That's a facility that needs work overall.
The acid test
A fast and pretty browser won't cut it for me. A browser -- and, indeed, any application that incorporates the linkable framework of that browser -- must place an equal emphasis on standards promotion and adoption, as well as accessibility. OS X's integrated Voice Assist and Universal Access preferences stand apart as mechanisms for inclusion for the visual and motor impaired. New to Safari 4 is support for ARIA (Accessible Rich Internet Applications), which takes screen reading and modalities for atypical navigation to the next level, to Web 2.0/AJAX Web apps and sites.
I'm relieved to see full-page zoom, a sort of experimental WebKit feature, included in Safari 4 beta. The typical text-only zoom command persists, but is augmented by a zoom that enlarges (or shrinks) the entire page, as a mobile browser would. Safari users can also create a non-defeatable style sheet and set a minimum font size. That anyone should be denied access to the Internet because of disabilities makes me see red. That the disabled can be held up for usurious sums for specialized devices that are no more capable than a MacBook is a message I struggle to get out. Apple leads in accessibility as a standard feature.
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