The Stealth Platform

Apple has just just released the Safari web browser for Microsoft Windows. At my count, that makes this the third application (after Quicktime and iTunes) that Apple has ported from Mac-only into the greater world of Windows. The question becomes, “Why?” And better yet… “Why now?” I think I have an idea.

Back in the bad old days of the original Browser Wars, Netscape and Internet Explorer duked it out for prominence. One of the primary munitions in this conflict was introducing display features and custom code that the other browser didn’t have. The downside of this was that web developers had two choices — code for one browser or the other (and if you were on the Internet back then, you surely remember the ubiquitous “Best Viewed with XXX Browser” signs), or bend over backwards with multiple forking and buggy browser sniffing trying to get the damned thing to work on what amounted to two incompatible platforms. Then Microsoft came up with their cunning “Drive them out of business by giving ours away for free” strategy, and in one grand gesture, won the war. Internet Explorer, of course, has been dominant ever since.

The Netscape people didn’t rest, however, and to make a long story short: Firefox.

Even as IE dominated the browser market all those years, there were other browsers. The problem was that most web coders didn’t give a rat’s ass — they designed and tested their websites in the (buggy) Internet Explorer, and all those little pissant browsers that “nobody” uses be damned. The fact that the other browsers followed the official HTML and CSS standards better than IE made no difference; coders just coded for the bugs in IE — most likely not even realizing they were doing it.

But these days, Firefox has grown in popularity, and with that, coders are finally realizing that there’s another browser out there — and starting to write “standards compliant” web pages that work on both. Unfortunately, while an improvement, this is really a type of “more of the same”. There are still more than the two browsers.

Apple has had their own browser for a few years now, but it has been Mac OS X-only. This pretty much means that anybody not alrady running on a Mac is not going to be doing any testing for it. They can’t — at least not easily. Up until now, Apple has been happy to quietly improve their browser and give it out as just another advantage of using a Mac instead of one of The Other Guys.

Enter the iPhone.

One of the big touted features of the iPhone is that it has a full-fledged web browser built-in. For the first time, people who don’t necessarily have a Macintosh computer will be using the Safari web browser. Suddenly, Steve Jobs has a lot bigger reason to want web developers to test their sites on Safari — his big new product’s web ability depends on it. As web sites continue to morph into web apps, the increasingly complex code requires more testing to work properly. And Steve wants it to work on the iPhone.

Thus, Safari for Windows. Much as in the past several years he has encouraged Mac developers by giving away the XCode development environment, he is now giving away a Mac testing ground that works on 90% of the world’s computers. With a dash of luck and a bit of that Jobsian voodoo, Safari just might break out past its current 5% market share — and I’m sure that wouldn’t break his heart either — but I think his biggest motivation at this particular point was to make Safari a more universally tested browser, so that the iPhone can more easily attract the development community it deserves.

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