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Safari at 10: lasting impact on Apple's success

Dan Moren | Jan. 11, 2013
I remember all too well the Browser Wars: Broken plugins on fire off the shoulder of Orion. CSS selectors glittering in the dark near the box model. The screams as people met their demi--OK, nobody met their demise.

That era of the Web was full of incompatibilities and quirks, and that burgeoning new world wasn't always hospitable to Mac users. Strange as it may seem from the vantage of 2013, there were websites that just didn't work on the Mac, even if you were using the "same" browser as your compatriots on Windows. (Of course, they weren't really the same browser, despite their names.)

Safari first emerged as a public beta on the same day as its announcement, and Apple continued revising it until its release in June 2003. (It's not unheard of for Apple to offer public betas of its software, but my favorite feature of those initial betas was the prominent Report a Bug button.) Later that year, Safari was bundled in with Mac OS X, where it's remained until this day; Internet Explorer 5.2 was relegated to the backseat, never to be updated for the Mac again.

Apple's decision to create its own browser is illustrative of a if-you-need-it-done-right-do-it-yourself philosophy that's endemic to Apple and a key to its success. Just as the company decided to build its own hardware and software in the early days of the personal computer, Cupertino deemed the Web too valuable a battleground to leave at the mercy of third parties. These days, we're seeing the company employ the same tactic when it comes to mobile devices.

Lasting legacies

What's perhaps most surprising in going back to look at the earlier iterations of Apple's browser is, in many ways, just how little has changed between then and now. While the prominent competitors of the day Internet Explorer and Netscape were starting to become overrun by third-party toolbars and more and more bells and whistles, Apple eschewed complexity for its trademark simplicity and elegance.

That theme has only continued to the present day. If anything, Safari's gotten even more simple in recent years. No longer is there an independent Google search field; the reload button has been moved into the location bar; even the scrollbars are, by default, hidden. The focus is, as it has always been, the pages themselves.

Not to say there haven't been bizarre choices and rabbit holes along the way. Remember SnapBack? The odd RSS integration discontinued in Mountain Lion? The top tabs of the Safari 4 public beta? Lately, Safari updates seem to garner more attention for what they've left out than what they've added.

However, the biggest impact of Safari wasn't the browser itself, but its underlying technology. WebKit, the layout engine originally forked off the KHTML rendering engine, has become one of Apple's core technologies. On OS X, it powers not just Safari but features like Dashboard, and parts of applications like Mail and iTunes. For example, every time you browse the iTunes Store on your Mac, you're dealing with WebKit.


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