THE INCREASINGLY UN-MAC-FRIENDLY WEB. Not that today is an entirely slow news day (although I've had about enough of Reagan's funeral), but the words at the top of the screen say that Media Log is at least occasionally supposed to be about technology. So today, for you handful of fellow Macintosh users, I'd like to call attention to a dirty little secret: the pathetic state of Web-browsing software for those of us who "think different."
If you're a Windows user, you probably browse with Microsoft's Internet Explorer. There are other options, but IE is the standard by a considerable margin. If a site doesn't work properly with IE for Windows, then you can be reasonably sure that there's something wrong with the site. If only it were that simple in the Mac universe.
It was just about a year ago that Microsoft announced it would no longer work on new Mac versions of Internet Explorer. Bill Gates and company have been true to their word. Though the company has released occasional maintenance upgrades to Mac IE 5.x, there will be no significant new features coming out of Redmond.
Mac IE is still probably the most compatible with the widest range of websites. For instance, there are certain graphics on BostonPhoenix.com that work only with IE. But IE is bulky and slow, and there's just no reason to use it all or even most of the time when there are faster alternatives available. (And in an unforgivable act, Microsoft has even rendered streaming video on its own MSNBC.com site unworkable except with the Windows version of IE.) The problem is that those alternatives have their own shortcomings.
If there's a Mac standard today, it's Apple's free Web browser, Safari, which comes pre-installed with OS X. Safari is a fine program in many ways. It's fast and reliable. But, again, it's not suitable to all-the-time use. For instance, the cascading menus on Newsweek's site don't even show up with Safari, making it difficult to navigate. Some sites render horribly with Safari (such as Boston Herald columnist Cosmo Macero Jr.'s site, for some odd reason), yet fine with other programs. Also, I tend to print out a fair amount of stuff, and Safari has no way of letting you embed headers and page numbers - a real problem if your printouts go flying before you can staple everything together.
A final complaint: Safari is now up to version 1.2, but that's only for users who've upgraded to Panther (OS X 10.3). Those of us still using Jaguar (OS X 10.2) are stuck with 1.0.2.
My favorite browser these days - though, again, it ain't perfect - is Firefox, a lightning-fast, stripped-down version of Mozilla Navigator, the free, open-source program on which Netscape (remember?) is based. Mozilla has its own adherents, and I use it occasionally for some Web-design work. But Firefox is so much faster that there's no comparison. Nearly every site I visit renders cleanly. For certain forms-filling tasks, though, Firefox chokes, forcing me to switch to Safari. In addition, Firefox refuses to hand off streaming-media tasks to RealOne and the Mac version of Windows Media Player, forcing me to save an icon on my desktop and start it up separately. Not a big deal, but a pain nevertheless.
Firefox is in beta - I'm using 0.8, although a 0.9 test version recently became available. So the program should continue to improve. Unless Apple intends to start putting some serious development resources into Safari, I'd guess that Firefox is going to be the browser to watch.
I've also played briefly with Mozilla's Camino and with Opera, the latter of which features a truly loathsome innovation: you actually have to pay for it. In neither case have I seen any evidence that I should explore further, though I could be wrong.
The larger issue, of course, is what this means for those of us who use and love Macintosh computers. I have resisted switching to Windows for years. Yet if there's a reliable standard for browsing in Windows, but not on a Mac, then Apple's vaunted ease-of-use claim begins to look pretty silly. Besides, Apple is finally beginning to make its coolest new products, such as the iPod and the iTunes Music Store, compatible with both Mac and Windows.
I want to keep using Macs for as long as possible. At some point, though, that choice is going to start looking more like a fetish (not that there's anything wrong with that!) than a wise decision. If Steve Jobs is retooling Apple for a post-Macintosh future, I wish he would tell us.