Battle of the Web browsers

Stop. Don't look up. Don't look outside of the box, the rectangle holding this text. Can you tell me which browser you're using? Did you choose it yourself for all the right reasons? Can you explain why you're trusting your precious HTML-encoded content to this browser, the way a major league batter can explain why maple or ash and a thin or thick barrel is absolutely the right choice for sending that ball into the bleachers? Are you sure this browser is the best choice for the tags and the metadata hurling toward your computer?

If you can't answer the questions, get out of here. If you think that this highly optimized, just-in-time, infinitely customizable technology is another mere commodity, don't even bother finishing this sentence to look for the insult you know is coming. You're not good enough to read this text. You don't deserve the information.

[ InfoWorld's Enterprise Windows blogger says IE9 is better than Firefox 4 and Chrome 10. Also on InfoWorld: The top HTML5 features: Canvas, video, audio, and graphics | Local data storage | Data communications | HTML5 forms | Geolocation and other tidbits]

Now that the room is cleared of the drones who go through life happy to use whichever browser their fellow drones in the IT support staff installed in their computer, it's time to look once again at the browsers and think about what makes them better. What? You did that several months ago? You're thinking, "How much could they really have changed?" Do I need to go back to channeling David Mamet?

The browser world is taking Ezra Pound's command to make it new to extreme lengths, and much has changed since I started writing this sentence. Why, just a few moments ago, Firefox and Chrome both dropped their late morning builds, and the programmers at Microsoft are heading off to teatime, so they've pushed their latest versions. New versions are appearing every several weeks, and they often include substantial new features, such as better fonts, new video codecs, more sophisticated privacy switches, better local storage, and more. It's not a question of whether you're using your grandfather's browser or even your father's browser. Now you can come back from lunch and lock up your brain wondering whether you can make it through the afternoon with the browser you installed this morning.

Before the picture changes again, here's a survey of the five major browsers -- Opera, Safari, Chrome, Firefox, and IE -- and how they are performing right now. All of them are excellent tools written by driven programmers who see themselves locked in a battle for the future of humanity, which it is if you forget all of the physical objects that occupy those other moments when we're not checking our email or browsing a new site.

The list of changes and improvements is so long that this article can't begin to mention everything. I've tried to hit a few of the most important points.

Battle of the Web browsers: HTML5

All of the energy devoted to HTML5 has been one of the top drivers of the increased pace. While people have been talking about the new standard for 10 or so years, it only became an obsession in the last few. All of the press releases trumpeting new versions of browsers invariably mention the numerous new features from the HTML5 standard.

Does this matter to the average user? Not yet. Most websites don't use any of the new features today, but this is gradually changing as Web developers start to take note. Google is pushing Web apps through the Chrome Web store and clearly sees HTML5 apps as a big part of the software ecology.

A good place to begin comparing the browsers is to look at a checklist test like The HTML5 Test, a slick piece of JavaScript that grades your browser as it loads the page. The HTML5 Test gives out points for the availability of a long list of features, then totals up the score.

Although these scores vary widely, it's a big mistake to assume they mean Chrome is twice as good as IE at HTML5. The website checks for support of a feature by looking for objects in JavaScript. If the objects are there, the browser earns a point.

IE9, for instance, implements what I think are the most important parts: the local storage, as well as the canvas, video, and audio tags. It falls behind because it gets only 4 of the possible 90 points for the way it doesn't implement the new features for testing input to a form. Granted, these 86 points that IE didn't earn correspond to real features, but I don't think they're the most important features. Furthermore, while smarter forms sound like a good idea, their allocation of 90 points distorts their importance. Features like Web Workers get only 10 points, but they may be even more useful for writing client-based code.

There are more sophisticated trials like Philip Taylor's extensive collection of tests that push every part of the canvas specification. Because it creates a canvas object for you, Chrome gets a perfect score of 20 in that field from the HTML5 Test, but it passes only 636 of Taylor's tests and fails 141 of them. IE9 does better here, failing only 67, half as many as Chrome.

Is this gap important? Many of these missing capabilities may not be essential for creating great games. Many of Chrome's failures seem to involve parsing some of the numerical parameters. I'm not sure whether to chuckle about or salute the news that the browsers are supposed to be able to parse octal. In another test with a 2D transformation, Chrome left a pixel with an alpha blending value of 254 instead of 255. IE, on the other hand, also seemed to fail a random test here or there.

What's the overall message? The big new features like the canvas or the local storage are finding widespread adoption. Even the failures by Chrome aren't that serious. While certain individual features may not pass every test perfectly, the core is ready for JavaScript programmers to churn out more games and slick presentations that write directly to the canvas.

For all of the attention lavished on the canvas object, other features are getting little attention from the browser programmers. Microdata formats that provide a standard structure for dates and other common data aren't getting implemented. Local devices like video cameras and joysticks are also largely ignored -- not that this matters because they've just changed the standard to be more flexible.

My advice is to not think about this too much unless you plan on using an application that works with features like forms that are implemented by only some of the browsers. The days when there were many practical differences between the browsers are now behind us. IE has caught up nicely, and I expect Microsoft will continue to push compatibility because the company understands it doesn't have the domination it once enjoyed.

Battle of the Web browsers: Speed

The next big obsession for browser programmers is the speed of the JavaScript engine. Heck, I feel bad using the generic word "engine" because each of the browsers has its own special name. Firefox 3.6, for instance, relied upon TraceMonkey, but Firefox 4 uses JägerMonkey. Chrome has V8, and IE9 has Chakra. Opera's is called Carakan. All of the browser creators have been publicizing the names and bragging about their dramatic speed increases. Some of the browsers -- including IE -- are now seven times faster than they were just a year or so ago.

Below, you'll find a table I built up running the latest browsers on a quad-core Windows Vista PC with 3GB of RAM. Your mileage will vary, and performance will improve as the browsers get better at exploiting video cards and multiple cores.

It's important to regard these benchmarks with a certain amount of skepticism. Both the SunSpider and V8 benchmarks include computationally heavy tasks like encryption routines. These bit-banging operations can be a good test of raw performance, but they're not very common in real-world applications. Even when applications use encryption, they rarely do it thousands of times in a row. Your experience may be quite different unless you're constantly and repeatedly encrypting items.

The benchmark developers try to address this problem. Google's V8 designers, for instance, searched the Web for a number of common regular expressions like the ones used to trim white space off the end of strings, but again it's not clear how common these operations are in the wild. I'm sure the most important number for the user is how quickly getElementById is executed.

It's becoming more complicated to evaluate performance because raw JavaScript performance is no longer the only proxy for speed now that the browsers are off-loading some processing to the video cards. Microsoft circulates a benchmark test that calculates the frame rate at which bubbles can be drawn with vector graphics. Thanks to GPU hooks, IE9 runs dramatically faster than the other browsers with a frame rate that seems to be at least twice Chrome's on my machine. If you're playing games and enjoying slick presentations on your computer, you may want to trust this benchmark more than the computationally intense versions.

This game promises to get even more interesting because Microsoft recently brought up benchmarking the power consumed to load a page. This is sort of related to the speed, but it's increasingly important for laptops and tablets. We may turn to this soon.

Battle of the Web browsers: Video and audio

In theory, the browsers all do a great job of embracing the new video tag. In practice, issues of patents and perhaps even pride seem to be creating incompatibilities beneath the surface. Everyone supports a different subset of the four common standards, but no standard has become dominant yet. Safari and IE do not support Ogg Theora or WebM, for example; Chrome doesn't support MPEG-4. All of these details create news as people debate the right plan for the Web.

I'm not sure how much this matters to the average person. The Theora website, for instance, includes a list of sample videos, and I was able to play some of them with Safari or IE. Why? The video's host, Blip.tv, gracefully switched to a different format, and I sailed on unaware.

This may not be much of a problem for the average website developer either because many don't bother trying to stream video. If Microsoft is happy to plop videos on YouTube instead of hosting the bits themselves, then there may not be any reason for the rest of us to host the video either. Let's just upload it to a free video streaming site that covers the bandwidth costs. How long will Google continue to pay for everyone's video bandwidth? I can't be sure, but it also means that most people don't spend much time worrying about these standards. If these free hosts disappear, the landscape will change quickly.

Battle of the Web browsers: Plug-ins and extensions

The browsers' plug-ins and extensions continue to be important criteria for many of the serious users. People have their own favorites, and they often choose their browser for the plug-ins.

Firefox continues to have the most extreme API that allows a number of different types of extensions and plug-ins, and many of these come with their own sub-extensions. Firebug, for instance, has its own ecosystem complete with both browser and server-side plug-ins for debugging Web applications. Greasemonkey makes it simpler for people to write a bit of JavaScript to create a plug-in, and these Greasemonkey scripts trade online. Both remain reasons why I instinctively turn to Firefox.

The other browsers don't offer the same sophistication as Firefox, but they come through with what most people will want: a way to bundle together some JavaScript, CSS, and HTML to do the job. This formula handles most of what anyone would want to do, and it's why the majority of the major extensions are available for all of the high-profile browsers. Once you write the JavaScript, porting between browsers is relatively simple.

This has made it simpler for Chrome and Safari to catch up quickly with Firefox. Safari has a similar API to Chrome, which has helped clear the way for extension creators to port their work from Chrome to the Apple browser. Opera now is pushing a similar JavaScript-based plug-in framework, and I expect it will be an attractive target for extension developers too.

IE continues to be a challenge for JavaScript developers and an opportunity for those who know C++ and ActiveX. This may not matter much in the future because Microsoft is pushing pure HTML5 development more and more. IE9 has new ways to "pin" websites (that is, attach them to the Windows Taskbar or Start menu or wherever), and I expect these may begin to take the place of extensions in the future. In a way, they're almost like plug-ins.

Battle of the Web browsers: Developer tools

In the beginning, there were a few proprietary JavaScript debuggers for IE, then Firebug came along and changed the game for everyone. Google bundled a great debugger with Chrome when it launched, and Apple did the same with Safari. Now Microsoft is calling its version F12.

For most intents and purposes, the tools are pretty much the same now. Most of them make it easy to insert break points and track network traffic. Exceptions are reported and it's possible to dig into the data structures to figure out what is going wrong with the site. My favorite feature is the "inspect element" that lets you point to a segment of a page, then go to the part of the markup that generates it. This is fairly standard now.

There are still some differentiators. Opera offers a unique tool for remotely debugging websites on smartphones running Opera Mobile or Opera Mini. A number of cool Firebug extensions for Firefox also bring down even more information to help debugging. Drupal for Firebug, for instance, connects with the server to suck down additional data about the server.

Battle of the Web browsers: Security

The level of trust we can put in the information in our browser continues to ebb and flow as the weasels in the shadows come up with schemes to separate us from our money. Opera has enhanced the information in its URL field by deleting some of the data. The core domain is easier to understand, but the weasels have figured out ways to hide the domain in a sea of weird characters. Opera strips these out and adds extra information about reported security violations. Microsoft is following the same path to try to cut down on social engineering.

Firefox is taking the lead on implementing a "do not track" feature that sends a request to the Web server not to follow the behavior of the user. This is completely optional for the Web server, of course, but some companies, including the Associated Press, are pledging to honor the requests.

There's also some debate over how the browser should handle misconfigured or invalid certificates used for SSL encryption. Some websites don't want to pay the extra costs of renewing them. Others install them incorrectly. The problem is common enough that most people assume the website developer is incompetent, not malicious. Chrome is careful and alerts you to the problems with great urgency, but it can get tedious. Some people complain that Chrome is too doctrinaire and demanding because Firefox lets you get rid of the warnings with one click. Other users will like Chrome's attention to detail.

Website security is bound to grow more complicated. Recent reports showed how hackers could get valid certificates for domains like google.com from the apparently more casual services in countries like Iran. All of the assurances that these new browser features provide can't begin to deal with such weaknesses.

Battle of the Web browsers: Wacko features

The browser builders continue to look for new features to attract users; some of these are worth noting and perhaps even switching allegiances for. Opera has always been ahead of many of the trends, and it continues to innovate. The tabs for open Web pages at the top of the box are now a bit easier to organize because you can stack them together. Just as a city starts building up when it can't build out, you can start piling up similar Web pages and come back to them.

Opera is also building in mail, a feature that was once bundled with the browser in the Mozilla stack. I personally think that the death of email is an overblown story, and many users will like the fact that their browser is watching for new messages.

There are other more intriguing ideas. Microsoft, for instance, is pushing something it calls IE9 Enhanced, an edition of the browser that comes bundled with a slightly tighter connection to Bing and MSN. This isn't as revolutionary as it sounds. Netscape once made a big chunk of money from owning its start page, and Mozilla continues to pay the bills with hefty checks from Google for sending along searches. Microsoft's packaging, though, seems to suggest more bundling and more enhancements are to come.

These enhancements aren't limited to Microsoft sites. IE9 offers a way to "pin" a URL, which is like a bookmark but with a site menu attached that Microsoft calls a "jump list." Website operators can build this menu into their site's meta tags by adding the type "msapplication-task."

The worst new feature is Safari's reader function, a tool that strips out the ads from a page and presents the content in a box that floats above the regular page. What? You don't like the ads? Tough. As a writer who gets income from attaching ads to content provided free of charge, it's impossible for me to be unbiased about this terrible shiv stuck in the back of the free and open Web. The ad blockers are bad enough, but they're not included in each browser -- and arguably only the angriest ad-haters go out of their way to download them.

The best Web browser

Is there a best choice? No, and choosing is harder than ever. The teams are adept at copying each other's best features, and the competition must be brutal. For us users, though, the torture is like trying to pick one chocolate from a sampler. The browsers don't come with calories, so we can choose all five and use them for different tasks. It won't make you fat, but it may consume all of your RAM.

I routinely switch among all five browsers these days. Although Firefox seemed to slip behind Chrome for a bit, it is now faster and more able. IE9 is also rising, and I'm impressed by the ideas coming out of the IE team. It's thinking hard about new problems like video card integration and power consumption, not just how fast JavaScript runs through an endless loop.

Porting Safari to the PC was an odd move several years ago, but now I'm glad it's there. I routinely find myself using Safari on my PC just because it's a WebKit browser, close kin to the browsers that dominate the smartphone. That influence may be changing, though, because both Firefox and Opera are pushing into the domain, no doubt because they're certain that mobile browsing will end up ruling the Web.

As more and more of our work migrates to tablets and smartphones, and the differences among the browsers continue to narrow, choosing the best desktop browser may soon take a backseat to choosing the best mobile browser. We may even become content to use whichever desktop browser the IT drones have installed for us.

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Peter Wayner

InfoWorld
Topics: applications, browsers, software
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