The browser wars have changed. During the last couple of years, the four or five leading browsers have all greatly improved -- to the point that the choice often comes down to taste or political conviction, as in "I hate Microsoft and I'll never use IE."
Apps may displace the browser as your working Web environment, in the future, but for now, the browser is still the most visible and critical piece of your day-to-day online experience. Indeed, as Google and its myriad line of tools become more every more pervasive, the distinction between online and offline is getting dimmer by the month.
So it's fortunate that 2010 was rich with browser improvements and innovations. Here's a look at five that stand out and deserve a round of thanks from users everywhere. If you're not taking advantage of some of them yet, you're missing out.
1. Tab Candy from Mozilla
Strictly speaking, this is a future innovation, but because a preview was rolled out in July, this innovative feature deserves recognition. Tab Candy is aimed at reducing the unwieldy clutter of tabs users generate every browsing session. Instead of a string of tabs across a bar, Tab Candy allows a user to organize tabs into logical groups that can be accessed with just a click.
Say you're shopping for a camera. That search could result in five or six tabs competing for attention with everything else you've got going. With Tab Candy, the user can click on a named tab and see a thumbnail view of all the relevant pages. It's not yet clear when we'll see Tab Candy, but it may well appear in Firefox 4 in 2011. Meanwhile, here's an explanatory video by a prominent developer that will whet your appetite for this digital treat.
2. Safari 5.x
The latest versions of Apple's Safari browser for Windows and Macs add a nifty new feature called Reader. Reader allows the user to see the text of an article, free from surrounding clutter. What's more, when the article opens in its own window, you can see all of it without clicking from page to page. I suppose some publishers will be upset because Reader obliterates ads, but users won't be. Safari 5 also supports extensions that Apple collects in its Extensions Gallery. Extensions enable you to customize your browser by changing color schemes or layouts.
3. Browsers Tuned for Social Networking
With Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and the like occupying more and more of our time online, it's no surprise that a number of new browsers are focused on social networking. I wrote about RockMelt a few weeks ago. It's a slick browser built on top of Chromium, the open source code base of Google's Chrome browser. Flock is built on Mozilla's Firefox code base, and it's more of a departure from the norm than RockMelt. Flock users store bookmarks in the cloud and can share them with trusted friends. Its built-in word processor makes it easier to submit blog entries to a number of services such as TypePad and Blogger.
4. The rise of HTML 5
Standards can be too geeky and boring to think about; but this one isn't. If you've been using the Web for more than the last few weeks, you know that different sites can look different in different browsers. And some content -- Flash being the most obvious example -- can only be viewed using a browser that supports it. With HTML 5, Web content becomes browser agnostic and the need for plug-ins disappears, or at the very least, will be greatly reduced. Getting rid of plug-ins does more than make the Web easier to use, it makes browsers more stable, since plug-ins are often responsible for crashes.
5. IE Gets Its Mojo Back
Like the company or not, Microsoft has finally decided to invigorate the IE franchise after years of stagnation. IE 9, which is still in preview, looks like it will be a great improvement over IE 8. (Download the beta here, but note you've got to have Vista SP2 or Windows 7 to run it.)
IE's cluttered face, with toolbars all over the place, has been replaced with a much cleaner look that reminds me of Chrome. Another Chrome-inspired feature is the pinned site. You can drag a tab down to the task bar and it will stay there as long as you want, looking much like an application.
San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. He welcomes your comments and suggestions. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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