SAN FRANCISCO, 19 OCTOBER 2010 - In the game of technological one-upmanship, the browser used to be an easy place to win. Most people used Internet Explorer, so it was simple to gain the edge by using Firefox. But now Firefox is common, and even Opera and Google Chrome are losing their cachet. Safari ships standard with every Mac, so everyone, the cool and the uncool, have it by default. They're all excellent browsers, but they're still the status quo. Is there anywhere else to turn for a bit of distinction?
Finding an even more obscure browser is surprisingly straightforward, and it may offer more than just the feeling of superiority that comes from beating the crowds. Many of the alternative browsers exist to solve particular problems, and the new and better features are useful to us. Sometimes it's because we're part of some niche like Facebook, but often it's because our boss wants us to do something with information on the Web and the specialized browser makes it simpler.
Some alternative browsers are just specialized versions of the common open source implementations. The rebels who feel that the world really needs another Web browser are also smart enough to know it doesn't make sense to reinvent the core technology. They just wrap their own features around Chrome or Firefox, Gecko or WebKit. This point is illustrated nicely in this family tree of Web browsers.
A purist might object that these hybrids are not much different from a standard browser with extra plug-ins. There's some truth to this, but not always -- some of the unique capabilities can only be done deep inside the software. In any case, the job of parsing the terms and creating an exact definition of the Web browser isn't as much fun as embracing the idea that there are dozens of alternatives.
So here's a list of 10 browsers that are not Firefox, Chrome, Opera, Safari, or IE, but that are all the more useful because they're not. They aren't different because they have a different name and some buttons in other spots, but because they offer something that can't be found in the traditional browsers: a more useful representation of Web pages or search results, integration with social networking sites or other services, a lower resource footprint, faster page rendering, or even easy scriptability.
Not everyone will need these extra features, but the list is valuable as an inspiration. We can build new browsers. We can change the parameters of our interaction with the distant websites by adding new features and reprogramming the code. There are some cases when it makes sense to package these changes as extensions, and there are others when it makes sense to call the pile of code a new browser even if the core is an old one -- sometimes because the code is truly revolutionary, and sometimes because we just want to enjoy giving it a new patina.
Specialty Web browsers: Browse Web tables into spreadsheets with Kirix Strata
There are few tools today that surprise me, but Strata from Kirix is one of them. It's a browser first and foremost, but the fun begins when you open a page that contains a table full of numbers. Then a click of the mouse turns the static HTML table into a dynamic spreadsheet.
Many people won't have any need for this. If your Internet connection is mainly a pipeline for cat videos from YouTube and updates from Facebook, you'll never be able to take advantage of any of its power. But if you work in a business where the bosses repeat mantras like, "You can't manage what you can't measure," then this is an ideal tool.
The sorting and reporting features aren't much better than any of the other related tools on the market, but the integration with the browser makes all of the difference. Suddenly you don't need to beg the back office to give you the numbers in the format that your boss requires. You can take any table and start manipulating it.
As soon as I popped open the Strata browser, I knew where I wanted to turn. One of my websites has a tool that digests all the log files and dumps out a table full of data. The table is adequate, but it's not grouped the way I want. So every day, I would think that I should just dig into the source code and reprogram it to sort the table better and group some of the columns. No more -- there's no need to reprogram because Strata sorts the table for me in a few clicks.
Many of us must deal with imperfect reports on Web pages all of the time. Reprogramming the reports or getting someone in the IT department to do it is often more time consuming than the data demands. Strata costs $250, but it's worth it if you're in such a situation.
The only downside to the Strata browser is that it's starting to age. The company blog posts are fewer and further between. The reporting tool is merely adequate, not fancy or impressive. The plug-ins are clever -- such as a tool for reading data directly from Digg -- but they're all dated in 2008. These are all warning signs, but not deal breakers. The tool is a real time saver, extremely handy if the boss wants those numbers right away.
Kirix Strata brings ad hoc reporting and spreadsheet-like functions to tables on Web pages. It can also draw data directly from back-end databases and other data sources.
Specialty Web browsers: Browse socially with Flock
Somewhere in a different universe created when Web history took a different turn, Facebook doesn't exist and Flock is the dominant browser that unites people with their friends, letting them share links and messages. The folks who built Flock recognized the importance of social browsing long ago and created a tool to help get this done.
For some reason, people joined Facebook instead of adopting a new browser. Today some estimates -- perhaps bogus -- suggest that 20 percent of Web traffic is devoted to Facebook updates. Some email services say that the real mail travels via Facebook, while the email spool files are mostly filled with spam and updates from Facebook about messages.
Flock adapted nicely to this change by adopting access to Facebook's API. While you're browsing the Web, Flock is pulling in the status updates from Facebook, Twitter, and other RSS feeds, then scrolling this information alongside the main page. You can point your browser anywhere you want to go and never leave Facebook or Twitter behind.
Flock is completely integrated with these services, an approach that makes more sense than offering many of the same services. Sure, you can always go to Facebook.com, but that requires switching from site to site whenever you see something worth sharing. Many of these features work better wrapped around the browser than set apart as a website, and Flock accomplishes that.
The Flock browser also offers a few enhancements that Facebook should have delivered long ago, such as classifying some people as better friends than others. Their news will pop up immediately in Flock's sidebar, while Aunt Judy's cat pictures can wait until later.
The core of the Flock browser is now Google Chrome, whereas Flock was originally built around Firefox. While it may be hard for some users to leave the Firefox ecosystem and its huge collection of add-ons, there are now few reasons not to use Flock instead of Chrome. You get all of Chrome's core strengths and available extensions, along with Flock's extra powers.
Flock shows regular Web pages in the main window and updates from Facebook, Twitter, and RSS feeds in the sidebar.
Specialty Web browsers: Browse leaner with Dillo
It's hard to use Dillo without a compiler, but that just makes it a bit more obscure and gives the user even more of a reason to adopt an air of superiority. Where mere mortals need to keep buying faster processors with more cores, you're able to live simply with the 486 that your grandfather passed along to your father who passed it along to you.
The Dillo Web browser takes you back to the early '90s when the words spoke to us, not the movement of the images.
Specialty Web browsers: Browse in text with Lynx
Lynx works with a command line, and that alone is a miracle. All of the text and the links are arranged in the ASCII terminal window in some reasonable approximation of what a real browser would do. The images are just marked with the alternative text if there is any. (Someday someone will pass the images through an ASCII art filter, but that would be more cool than useful.)
The main reason people use Lynx is to download software while logged in remotely to a computer. People maintaining servers remotely swear by it.
The Lynx browser is strictly ASCII, with no images, for command-line junkies who must use the Web.
Specialty Web browsers: Browse smarter on Mac OS X with Cruz, Fake, and Fluid
These three browsers from Todd Ditchendorf of Celestial Teapot Software are probably each worthy of an entry on their own, but they’re lumped together for simplicity. All of them work only on Mac OS X and use the same core rendering engine. The value comes in the way that they package the information.
Cruz, for instance, unpacks results from websites like Google and then fetches the links, renders the pages, and displays the results in a tab with the same basic CoverFlow that Apple uses in iTunes. The browser also tracks your Twitter account in a sidebar in much the same way that Flock does. There's no reason to have a separate window that gets lost in all of your other tabs and windows. That essential information drip of 140-character updates is always available.
Cruz will download all of the links from a Google search and display them in a Cover Flow window at the bottom.
Fake is an ideal tool for website programmers and managers. You can use AppleScripts to control the behavior of the browser -- perfect for testing. While Cruz and Fluid are free, Fake costs $29, but it's probably worth the price if you're worried about quality control.
Fake combines a Safari browser with an AppleScript scripting tool. It's easy to drag a series of browser actions together into workflows to automate testing or onerous tasks such as filling in Web forms.
Fluid builds "site-specific browsers," which are stand-alone browser applications that go to one site and one site only. They're like Safari but without most of the controls and buttons. Opera has a similar feature and calls them widgets. They're quite useful in computer labs and other public settings where people could use an open browser for reasons that aren't necessarily what the kiosk is supposed to be doing. Each time you run the program, it will suck down the Favicon from the URL bar and use it for the icon to the site-specific browser.
If you need a simple application that goes to one website, Fluid will produce it for you -- no extra buttons, just the website.
Specialty Web browsers: Browse in 3-D with SpaceTime
In Hollywood, some movie directors create fancy new user interfaces for science fiction movies just so we know we're in the future. After a tough day at the office staring at an inbox that is just a long list, we get to go to the movies that show the future heroes pointing and gesturing as the information floats and bounces across the screen. I'm sure that the future heroes will get the same mixture of spam and depressing credit card bills, but somehow it just looks so much more fun when these messages fly across the screen.
SpaceTime is a browser that brings some of this promise to us now by building an "unlimited 3D space" and floating the data around in these three dimensions. If tabbed browsing arranges your information in one axis along the tab bar, SpaceTime uses three axes.
Is this just eye candy? I suppose it can look like that from time to time, but it offers more than just three dimensions for some websites. The SpaceTime developers tuned the browser to unpack the search results from major sites like eBay, Flickr, and Google into constellations of floating windows. I'm not sure it's perfect, though, because the special feature didn't work with every website I tried.
This will probably be fixed in the future because I found the effect to be captivating, if a bit slicker than I need on a daily basis. But when I come back from the movies and feel like the future isn't arriving fast enough, I can always power up SpaceTime.
SpaceTime renders Web search results in a 3-D space, making it easy to flip through them. This window shows five images from Google's image search in response to the keyword "Baltimore."
Specialty Web browsers: Browse Wikipedia better with Gollum
Just as Facebook and Twitter are now big enough to justify Flock, a browser tuned to those data feeds, the Wikipedia's success begat Gollum, a browser that displays Wikipedia information and Wikipedia information alone.
I'm not sure if Gollum qualifies as a browser per se because it really just opens up a simpler pop-up window in whatever browser you're using. But people call it such, and I'll go along because it illustrates some of the possibilities of tuning a browser to a particular data feed. The heavy lifting of parsing and displaying continue to be done by your browser of choice, but Gollum gets the credit. Gollum merely passes the requests through a devoted proxy server and updates the page with AJAX.
This proxying will be most important to people who are blocked from reading Wikipedia, because the network traffic looks like URL calls to gollum.easycp.de. Your calls to read a page aren't going to the Wikipedia site, but to some innocuous place in Germany.
There aren't many features to Gollum, but that's sort of the point. All of the sidebars and extra information is stripped away to reveal just the pure text from Wikipedia. This simplicity ends, though, if you click on the edit button. Gollum opens a window in your browser that communicates directly with the Wikipedia server at edit.wikipedia.org.
Despite the thinness and the narrow focus, the project is worth noting because it shows how we can enhance many sites with post-processing. The Web designers think they're doing us all a favor when they add all of that AJAX goodness, but not every user agrees. So why not just scrape the data and reformat it in cleaner ways? It's worth noting that a number of other projects like Wikipedia Diver are adding information as plug-ins, a path that may be simpler and more efficient for everyone who doesn't need a proxy to hide from censors.
Gollum opens a pop-up window to show a stripped-down version of the Wikipedia page. Some basic buttons at the top handle the important chores.
Specialty Web browsers: Browse musically with Songbird
Sometimes you'll be browsing the Web and you'll want to listen to some music. On other days you'll be listening to music and you'll want to look up some information on the Web. In the distant past, our grandparents had to have two different applications and switch between them. We are luckier. We have Songbird, a hybrid application that both manages your music collection and lets you browse the Web.
This is not as arbitrary a combination as the refrigerator with a built-in Web browser so you can frighten yourself with paranoid ramblings about high fructose corn syrup or BPA while you stuff your face. The Web is filled with music, and consuming music today almost requires a connection to the Web. For instance, Songbird comes with a number of plug-ins like Songkick's concert list. Once you set your location, it lets you know when artists you like are performing near your house. There are dozens of similar features that integrate music consumption with information consumption from the Web.
An open platform like this has many advantages over iTunes. Individual companies can create their own plug-ins, and they survive or fail based on their merits, not the whims of the inscrutable executives at Apple. There are plenty of neat Songbird add-ons from companies like Last.fm, 7digital, and Amazon, all designed to integrate their offerings with the browser. Last.fm, for instance, makes suggestions based upon what you're listening to.
Developing for Songbird is similar to developing for Firefox, but it's different enough that Songbird wrote one Web page, Porting Firefox Extensions, devoted to explaining that while both Songbird and Firefox share the same core from the Mozilla project, they add features differently. That is, many pages will render in exactly the same way, but the extensions can be quite different, especially when you're using the multimedia features that distinguish Songbird. In essence, you feel like you're in Firefox until you switch over to play music, at which point you feel like you're in a much more open, Web-enabled version of iTunes.
Songbird has dozens of new features that mix browsing with listening to music -- in this case, the chance to purchase songs.
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