You have no idea how many times I’ve started writing this article intent on explaining why I’ll be using Firefox browser from now on, only to have Firefox, in an act of self-defeatism, do ‘something’ during the process of writing, which convinces me to give Apple’s Safari one last chance.
There’s no doubting that, on Windows, Firefox is a far superior browser to Internet Explorer. But that’s like saying nut sack removal by gardening sheers is better than total decapitation. It might be true that you can survive horticultural castration whereas having your head removed is fairly permanent, but that doesn’t mean to say you’d actually want to live without your trouser treasures just because you can.
Similarly, Firefox on Mac OS X is a good browser – but in comparison to Safari it just doesn’t ‘feel’ right. For example, the right click menu throughout almost all applications on the Mac, has the same useful short cuts to things like ‘Search on Google’ or ‘Look up in Dictionary’. In Firefox, these are additional extras you have to search for in ‘Add ons’ and manually include – even then in-line spell check doesn’t work on input boxes shorter than 1 line – i.e., blog titles or subject lines in e-mail forms and shopping carts.
It might sound like nitpicking – but these little things really add up to overall usability – for example – Firefox ‘tries’ to allow me to drag and drop between applications. The familiar line around the dimmed selection pretends it’s going to let me move a image or text selection from a web page to any other location I can navigate to on the desktop, like into an e-mail attachment or a text editor. This kind of system wide functionality is one of the cornerstones of the Mac operating system which has given it that air of superiority for desktop publishing applications since the early 1980’s – but which for some unknown reason, Firefox browser still seems reluctant to fully embrace.
Then there’s the constant updates which disable some add-on extensions and make others less stable. You want to use the latest version of something as soon as it comes along, but not if it’s going to actually remove functionality from things you actually use.
For all my griping about Firefox, you might say, “why not simply stick with Safari then?”, “If Apple are so good at writing browsers, why not shut up about it and leave us alone?”, you might add.
Well – therein lies the problem. Safari might be superior on paper; smooth integration with the rest of the OS, for example, which leaves images rendered sharper if re-sized via HTML tags and superior colour profile embedding – for clearer output of higher definition image files. But in practise Safari is too much of a memory hog to be practical to use day to day for such things and, if anything, it is getting worse.
I have to force restart Safari, on average, 5 times a day. It has been like this since Leopard was first released, right through numerous updates and so-called stability fixes issued by Apple – up to the current version 10.5.3. Each time I fill in the feedback bug report and each time I include as much information as possible about what I was doing at the time the application simply decided it didn’t want to work any more; the spinning beach ball cursor mocking me into waiting on the off-chance it’ll spring back to life without any data loss.
I’ve called product support and waited patiently to speak with second and third tier engineers, but because there is no-one behaviour you can re-create, no particular situation in which certain errors always occur, the intermittent nature of the problem makes it hard to explain just how frustrating the use of Safari can be – in day to day practical use; you simply can’t be sure the next time you want to switch back to it – having perhaps minimized it for a while to work on something else – that when you do, it’ll decide if it wants to play ball or simply hang for a while, until you have to force it to restart.
Now – don’t get me wrong. We’re not in Windows XP land here. When I say I have to force it to restart, everything which was in the browser window before the hanging isn’t lost forever. I’m not restarting the entire machine – only the one application and all the other applications behave themselves throughout this process without any qualms. A quick trip up to the menu bar, into the History and ‘Open all windows from previous session’, soon restores everything back as it was – but the point is, I am having to do this just about every hour – which when working on a large article and constantly switching between different sources of information, applications and tasks, can become the most annoying thing imaginable and not what I’ve come to expect from Apple as a loyal user of so many of their other applications for years.
I started this piece off by saying that, in the past, whenever I’ve attempted to permanently switch to Firefox, it invariably does something to put me off the idea – but so far I have to admit that, with the exception of the limited in-line spell check add-on, I am prepared to give Firefox a week to prove itself – if only because I’ve given Safari several months now and it has consistently let me down.
I’m sorry to say that I won’t be able to recommend Safari to my Windows using friends and family – which is perhaps the biggest shame. At least under Mac OS X we have a wide range of choices to use as a browser – but on Windows there are so few realistic alternatives to Internet Explorer, that I would have loved for one of those to be a gateway product from Apple. Sadly it seems that if Safari on their own operating system is anything to go by, I would doubt that on Windows it isn’t so much destined to do for browsing what iTunes did for music, but annoy and frustrate in the same way as Quicktime.
I’ll keep you posted on my week of living with Firefox and any feedback I get from Apple having finally gone public with my frustrations.