Operatic

At the end of January, CNet News.com ran this story about the Mac version of Opera possibly being cancelled. The reason, ostensibly, is because Opera isn’t happy that Apple is now producing its own web browser.

This article got a lot of attention when it first came out, including good responses from Apple employees Chuq Von Rospach and Eric Albert (links via Michael Tsai). The article, by CNet staff writer Paul Festa, tries to fit Opera’s plight into a larger story, that Apple is hurting small- and medium-sized third-party Mac developers by creating and bundling free applications with Mac OS X.

In the specific case of Safari, this argument is utterly specious. Safari is definitely new, but before Safari, Apple bundled IE with every copy of the Mac OS. In fact, every desktop OS on the planet — Windows, Mac, Linux, whatever — ships with a free web browser. You can make the argument that this is a shame, that it has crippled the market for commercial developers who might otherwise develop for-pay web browsers. In fact, this argument is probably correct. But that’s the way things are. But it’s not, in any sense, a situation unique to Apple.

Now it does certainly seem to be the case that Safari is already a better browser than is the Mac OS X version of IE. For one thing, it’s faster — and speed is the one area where Opera has always shined brightest. Opera’s claim to fame is as the “fastest web browser on earth”. But given that Apple must ship a default web browser with their OS, can anyone fault the company for wanting to ship a good one?

The truth is that Opera has been doing poorly on the Mac ever since its Mac version debuted. It was years late to the Mac market, and once there, never achieved any notable level of popularity. Yes, its rendering engine is very fast and very standards-compliant. That’s great. But the browser application — the wrapper around the rendering engine — isn’t very Mac-like at all. Ugly skins may be popular on Windows, but on the Mac, most people want their applications to look like normal Mac applications.

Safari matches Opera on speed, is quickly catching up on standards-compliance, and easily wins in terms of UI design and refinement.

A few quotes from the article deserve attention:

Opera, based in Oslo, Norway, on Tuesday released Opera 7, its first final version of a newly rewritten browser. As usual, the company released a browser for Windows before making available versions for other operating systems.

Is it any wonder why Opera for Mac isn’t popular, and Safari is? The Wintel technology press might think it is normal for Mac software to be a second thought, but Mac users have every right to be turned off by companies with Windows-first development priorities. Fuck me? No, fuck you, Opera.

Specifically, [Opera CEO Jon von] Tetzchner said that he had asked Apple whether it would be willing to license Opera either to replace KHTML, or to supplement the current Safari version, which Apple said is a stripped-down affair with a minimalist interface and limited feature set.

“We have contacted Apple and asked them if they want a third-party browser, and we’ll see what the answer is,” Tetzchner said. “They could say we want to use Opera as the core engine. If they want KHTML as a simple little browser, and also something more advanced, we would be happy to provide it. Obviously, if we don’t get any positive signs from Apple, then we have to think about it.”

This is laughable. It is obvious that Apple’s plans for KHTML are not for it to be “a simple little” rendering engine. It’s the real deal, and wrapped in WebCore, it’s optimized specifically for Mac OS X. Opera is lean and mean, but as a cross-platform engine, it is unlikely ever to be as good on the Mac as a Mac-specific rendering library. Safari is already, as a public beta, very competitive with any other browser in the world, including Opera.

Interestingly, Apple’s public response to Tetzchner’s comments is straightforward and aggressive, not namby-pamby let’s-all-be-friends PR-speak:

“We think Safari is one of the best and most innovative browsers in the world, and it seems our customers do too,” the Mac maker said in a statement. “No one is making Mac users choose Safari over Opera—they’re doing it of their own free will—and Opera’s trashing of Safari sounds like sour grapes to us.”

“Computer industry experts” (where by “computer industry” I mean “Wintel”, and by “experts” I mean tech journalists and industry analysts) seldom understand the reason for the Mac’s success. In fact, they don’t even see the Macintosh as a successful platform, because they approach it from a Microsoft/Intel perspective.

But it is successful. It’s been around for nearly 20 years, and it is going strong. Millions of happy, devoted customers. And Apple has been largely profitable. The only way to see the Mac as unsuccessful is to compare it to Windows on Microsoft’s terms — market share and raw profit. And that’s exactly how analysts and the PC press cover the Mac.

What they miss is that the Mac’s primary purpose is to be better. Windows’s primary purpose is to be ubiquitous. Both platforms have been successful in achieving these goals. That’s not to say they’re mutually exclusive. Apple would of course love to achieve higher market share. Love love love. And Microsoft doesn’t purposely make Windows uninintuitive. Well, maybe they do. But it’s not as bad as it used to be.

Apple’s problem is that it’s hard to be better. As it stands now, being “better” clearly means “better than Windows”. When the same software exists for both Mac and Windows, Apple has no advantage. When Photoshop was Mac-only, this was a huge advantage for Apple.

To be better requires Mac-only software that works better than its Windows counterparts. Thus, Mozilla offers no advantage whatsoever to Apple. Chimera offers some. But Safari offers quite a bit, and has the potential for even more.

And thus there is a difference between when Apple steps on the toes of cross-platform developers like Opera and Netscape, and when they do it to Mac-only developers like Karelia. Watson is exactly the sort of third-party software Apple needs for the Mac: original, useful, fun, and only for the Mac. Opera is exactly what Apple doesn’t need: exactly like the Windows version, but six months behind.

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