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Case In Point: Multi Browser Man, Editorial By Loyd Case
Date: Sep 09, 2009
Author: Loyd Case
The Need for Many Browsers
The current crop of web browsers are total crap.  Let me explain...

Today's web browsers seem to be still mired in the Internet of five years ago. Back then, the browser wars were in full swing, and different browsers tried to lock you into their view of the Internet universe. Today's web is a multifaceted content multiverse. Yet despite common features like tabbed browsing, today's browsers still try to lock you in. Some sites are only viewable in Internet Explorer. Firefox locks you in with the vast array of cool plugins. Google Chrome grabs you with its integration into the Googleverse, particularly Google Apps. Apple's Safari appeals to Mac and iPhone owners. It's a ridiculous, fragmented state of affairs.

As I write this, I have two different browsers open: Firefox 3.5 and the beta of Google Chrome 3.0. Occasionally, I even fire up Internet Explorer 8.0, whose user interface is arguably clunkier than either Firefox or Chrome. I’m thinking about installing Apple’s Safari as well.

So many browsers, so little time.  Needless...

One reason is that I need to have different instances of browsers for different purposes. For example, I have one set of tabs for normal, daily stuff. Those tabs include personal email, Facebook, the Quartertothree.com. I open up a second instance that has tools needed for my blog at improbableinsights.com. That includes WordPress admin dashboard, Google Analytics, WordPress help and more.

This is irritating on so many levels.

Let’s take Firefox 3.5.2 first. I like the user interface of Firefox the best. Plus, if it lacks some key feature I want, I can find a plugin that performs whatever task isn’t built into the standard Firefox build. For example, I think the Firefox downloader is pretty clunky, so I use Download Statusbar, a very cool plugin. Another useful plugin is Firebug, which allows me to easily edit or debug HTML and CSS code while remaining in the browser.

If it were up to me, I’d just use Firefox all the time. Alas, that’s not possible.

There are two reasons for this. First, I keep my WordPress admin and author accounts separate. If I opened two Firefox instances or tabs of the WordPress dashboard, the browser gets confused as to which login is the current one. I’ve written posts as admin, and been annoyed when I couldn’t approve comments as an author.

So I open up a set of tabs as author in Chrome. There’s no confusion between browsers, plus the title bars look different enough that it’s easy to pick the correct one.  You see where this is going.  There's more though...

Even More Browsers
But the real problem I don’t use Firefox exclusively is that it has now become unstable. As of 3.5.2, Firefox will mysteriously shut down, for no apparent reason. Sometimes I’m actually working in the browser. Sometimes I’m working on something else, only to watch in dismay as all Firefox instances and tabs disappear. (I’m using Windows 7 64-bit RTM as my production OS.)

FireFox and Windows 7 don't want to play nice together...

Note the little message above Windows 7 conveniently sent me about the 14 Firefox crashes.

Another annoying problem is that the Firefox kernel will “stick” in memory. Sometimes I’ll shut the browser down. When I restart it, I get an error:

"Firefox is already running, but is not responding. To open a new window, you must first close the existing Firefox process, or restart your system."

This often causes me to levitate out of my seat and alien languages emanate from my mouth.

Finally, Firefox seems to hammer system memory. It’s not as bad as Firefox 2 in terms of memory footprint, but when I load a bunch of tabs into Firefox, Windows comes to a grinding halt as it’s all loading. I look at my CPU meter, and not much is happening. I can’t figure out what’s going on, but the good news is that this seems to happen only when I first launch Firefox after booting up the system.  Memory leak perhaps, Mozilla?

The Perfect Browser?

I’d use Chrome exclusively, but even the 3.0 beta is so minimalist as to be annoyingly obtuse. Sometimes I think the Google engineers screw around with the user interface just because they can, not because the UI actually does something… useful. I still can’t make heads or tails out of the bookmark manager.

Then there’s Internet Explorer. Why on earth would I ever run IE? Even IE8, which is at least somewhat more modern?

You know the answer: there are web sites out there in Internet land that only work properly with IE. There have been numerous occasions where I’ll try to edit some form, or pull down some menu, only to find out that both Firefox and Chrome won’t allow me to actually do anything useful. Also, if you use Microsoft Exchange webmail, then you get a much smoother experience using IE.  Microsoft tuning one of their apps to work better than a competitor with other Microsoft apps? Really? Who would have thought?  Like Firefox (and unlike Chrome), Microsoft does allow for add-ons to the browser. Unfortunately, there are nowhere near the quantity add-ons for Microsoft as there are Firefox plugins, although the number seems to be growing. If only someone would make an add-on that makes IE look and behave like Firefox…

IE Tab embeds instances of Internet Explorer in Firefox tabs...

Actually, I have used a Firefox plugin called IETab. If you open a site using IETab, it uses the Internet Explorer rendering engine to render web pages. It’s very handy, except for that little instability problem I’ve been having with Firefox.

Oh, and one more thing: Why haven’t we seen a 64-bit version of Firefox for Windows?

Now I’m looking at running possibly a fourth browser: Apple’s Safari. Admittedly, this is more because I’m curious than because I have a serious need. But given that a version of Safari runs on the iPhone, and that Safari’s supposed to be pretty speedy, I may give it a whirl.

What about Opera?

Opera 10

To talk about Opera, I have to talk about sound cards. Stay with me for a moment.

Way back in the early days of Windows 95 gaming, where DOS was still a popular OS, there was this sound card called the Gravis Ultrasound. It offered a very cool feature set, but implemented them in its own unique way. The Ultrasound was the Frank Sinatra of sound cards: you had to do it their way.

Opera is like the Ultrasound. I’ve tried Opera many times, and uninstalled it many times. I can see why people like it, but I can’t bring myself to trudge up the learning curve. Maybe some day.

But running yet another browser isn’t the answer. I want a single browser that does everything right: be stable, render all web sites correctly, have a robust plugin architecture and even allow different instances to be skinned differently.  Imagine one browser to rule them all. One browser for all web sites. One browser that can work in multiple different operating systems. That would be, for me, browser nirvana but we are far from that today.  Maybe as the web evolves towards HTML 5, all the various browsers and browser rendering engines will converge on a standard. I hear you laugh, but I can dream.

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