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Fast Forward by Rob Pegoraro
Apple Exploits Open Source to Produce an Outstanding Browser

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For instance, Safari's "forms auto-fill" shortcut, which pours your contact information into Web forms at the click of a button, doesn't require you to enter this data the first time. Instead, it copies it all from your own entry in Mac OS X's address book.

A related option stores Web-site passwords in the OS X Keychain, a master database that can itself be password-protected for extra security.

Safari can even use the system-wide spell checker to flag errors in Web forms, sparing you from riddling your Hotmail correspondence with typos.

In other words, bundling a Web browser with an operating system makes sense -- just as Microsoft said!

But unlike Microsoft's version of browser integration, Apple's preserves choice. Uninstalling Safari is as simple as dragging its icon to the Trash.

Furthermore, Safari's underlying Web-rendering code is free for everyone else to use -- even Windows developers.

That is because Apple used open-source code for that layer of the browser, which both allowed it to build on other people's work and required it to release its own improvements under the same "free software" terms.

The collaborative effort enables Safari to function on a Web in which many sites are written to work only in Internet Explorer. Nearly every site I tested in Safari functioned exactly as it should.

I found only two major exceptions: Text sometimes appeared garbled in the Web-mail interface of a Microsoft Outlook mail system, and I could not upload a picture to an eBay auction (a bug I saw in earlier versions of Safari that should have been fixed long ago, given that Safari offers a simple form to report bugs to Apple).

Windows and Linux users will have to borrow a Mac to appreciate all of Safari's elegance, but they can also try a new, non-Microsoft browser with some distinctly Safari-esque traits.

Mozilla Firebird, a browser-only offshoot of the Mozilla open-source Internet suite, features a similar focus on speed and simplicity and even looks like Safari, with its search-engine shortcut at the top right corner.

It came about when developers decided to ax Mozilla's non-browser components -- the e-mail client, address book, Web-page editor and Internet chat tools that many people never use -- and redo the browser core. An interface rewrite then wiped clean Mozilla's clutter; in particular, the grotesque preferences window is history.

But Firebird preserves Mozilla's Web-browsing utility, including pop-up blocking, tabbed browsing and the ability to save Web passwords.

Firebird is still in an early test stage (www.mozilla.org/projects/firebird), but I'm already considering making it my default browser. Mozilla's developers are thinking along the same lines; the next release of that software will be the last, after which they will focus their efforts on Firebird.

Web browsers are an interesting story for the first time in years. But when will Microsoft notice all this activity? When will Internet Explorer get the meaningful update it so desperately needs?

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at rob@twp.com.

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