I was about to leave the browser thing alone for once and for all, having come to the conclusion that they're all pretty much the same when it comes to being troublesome (albeit for different reasons, of course).
Having gone 15 rounds with Internet Explorer (6 and 7), Firefox and Safari (the default browser on Macs, but also available for Windows systems), and finding them all having pluses and minuses, I was pretty much resigned to leaving things as they were on my systems. That meant running Safari as the default on the Mac and IE 7 on the PC, with Firefox installed on both for Web site integrity checks and for when I was in a "non-conformist" mood.
It appears that America On-Line has thrown in the towel, too, announcing this week that they are giving up on the one-time star of the browser business, Netscape (http://tinyurl.com/2akd88). With only 1% of the overall browser market, AOL said, it wasn't making much of an impact on leader IE and second banana Firefox, and wasn't likely to in the future either. According to http://tinyurl.com/2nd7oo, AOL wasn't in it for the browser technology anyway. You would have thought, however, that AOL would have at least bundled Netscape as its default browser for customers of its Web service, but they didn't. Netscape couldn't beat IE, even after AOL won a lawsuit against Microsoft in 2003 (http://tinyurl.com/2gdaf5).
Eerily, another contender in the browser race last month filed a lawsuit against Microsoft over the monopolization of the browser market by IE (http://tinyurl.com/ysulpk). Norway-based Opera took its complaint to the European Commission, saying they were doing it for the "little guy," for "all consumers who are tired of having a monopolist make choices for them" when they install Windows and automatically get IE set up as their default browser. I certainly hope the Netscape precedent hasn't set a paradigm for companies that sue Microsoft. That would certainly be a shame, because I have taken a liking to Opera recently - surprising even myself, since, as I said, I was ready to call it a day with browsers. Firefox was alright, I guess, but I used to find it crashing a lot, especially when loaded up with plug-ins (add-ons). Of course, I could have considerably reduced the memory requirements for FF by dumping some plug-ins (the program is flexible that way), but not using plug-ins ruins a large part of the Firefox experience. It's a matter of relative deprivation, in the end - you're using a browser that is supposed to avail you of all sorts of wonderful extras in the form of the mini-programs you install as part of Firefox, but the more you install the more memory the program demands, slowing things down and generally mucking up the works. It was with sorrow I said goodbye to FF, because, as everyone knows, Mozilla, the organization responsible for developing FF, has been at the forefront of challenging "the dark side, AKA Microsoft" (I can't tell you how many times I've seen that quote in user forums, blogs etc.).
On the other hand, the impression that many people seem to have of the Mozilla crowd - that of a bunch of geeks tirelessly laboring away for the good of the open source program using public - is a bit inaccurate, according to this piece in the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/12/technology/12link.html). "Will Success Spoil Firefox?" the headline screams, while the article details Mozilla's very profitable deal with Google, which netted the Mozilla people tens of millions last year, and allowed the Mozilla Foundation's CEO to earn a half million dollars in 2006. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but if the difference between Microsoft and Mozilla is not the ideological one many of us were led to believe it was, but a matter of corporate profits, it just removes some of the anti-establishment cachet from Firefox.
But of course, my reason for dumping Firefox had nothing to do with Mozilla's corporate profits, just like my leaving IE had nothing to do with Microsoft's monopolist or non-monopolist marketing policies.
Neither of them was perfect. The advantages of Firefox over IE6 are well known and obvious to anyone who has worked with both of them, and IE7 tries to correct some of those parities, inserting tabbed browsing and native RSS reading into the new generation of Internet Explorer, but it's too little too late - and IE7 isn't that smooth a performer either. And, FF's memory tastes were too uptown for me.
What was left? Well, since I use a Macbook, I had another alternative - Safari, the built in Mac browser (now, as mentioned, available for Windows as well). The version I first used, Safari 2.x, was a simple browser with few extra tricks (sort of like a more stable IE6). It was a bit boring, but I have to admit it was nice to have something that knew its place and didn't overtax the system's memory.
But, of course, plain vanilla gets over-boring after awhile, and the urge to surf fancier pushed forth again. Around that time, Apple released a new, advanced version of Safari (version 3), which, after much soul-searching, I downloaded and installed. Safari 3 offered a surfing experience more like the one I knew from my Firefox days, but without the wide array of plug-ins available to FF users (there are a few, though). You would expect Safari 3 to work in perfect tandem with Mac OS, since, being made by Apple, "it just works" - but you'd be right only part of the time. Safari 3 doesn't perform all that well, taking up lots of memory when it is active, and crashing too many times (something FF and IE don't do that often).
Which leads me to Opera, the only contender left now that Netscape is out of the development picture. I had tried Opera a few years ago when it first came out, but it cost money. The registration fee was dropped in 2000, when it became ad-sponsored, but the ads were dropped in 2005, as well. Now it's as free as the others. Opera doesn't have much of a market share on desktops (http://tinyurl.com/2vmef9) but it dominates on cell phones and other non-traditional Internet setups (like the Wii).
Opera has a lot of nice features, some of which I haven't explored yet and may never use (like Speed Dial, where you see little images of Web pages you can click on in order to navigate to more quickly). It does have a nice collection of Widgets, the rough equivalent of Firefox plug-ins - so it's nice to have access to the local weather when I'm surfing, or be able to tune into Internet radio within a browser session. And, so far, it seems somewhat less memory-hungry than the alternatives.
Will the thrill last? Well, one thing I learned from making the rounds with browsers is that it probably won't; each browser Eden has its own snake, eventually coming to the surface. The trick in beating snakes is to stay two steps ahead - and wear boots.