Apple picks a fight it can't win

Safari on Windows will fail, argues Mike Elgan

This is Sparta

The insular Apple universe is a relatively gentle place, an Athenian utopia where Apple's occasional missteps are forgiven, all partake of the many blessings of citizenship, and everyone feels like they're part of an Apple-created golden age of lofty ideas and superior design.

But the Windows world isn't like that. It's a cold, unforgiving place where nothing is sacred, users turn like rabid wolves on any company that makes even the smallest error, and no prisoners are taken. Especially the Windows browser market.

This is no Athens. This is Sparta.

Apple sent its first emissary, the beta version of Safari for Windows, into the Windows world, and it was unceremoniously kicked into the well.

Hours after Jobs announced Safari for Windows (and despite Apple's claim that Safari is "designed to be secure from Day One") security experts published information about some 18 security holes found in the new browser. Bloggers and message board posters lunged at the news, and heaped vicious scorn and ridicule on Apple and Safari.

The browser is beta, and bugs are expected. Apple fixed the problems just three days after they surfaced.

Apple-fan bloggers are aghast at the rough treatment. But they'd better get used to it.

While security nerds were ripping Apple for a buggy beta, the UI enthusiasts started going after Apple for the look and feel. Here's a small sample. Apple can expect much more of this in the future. The problem? Safari for Windows just isn't Windows enough.

Windows can only be resized from the bottom-right corner. Safari uses Mac OS X font anti-aliasing instead of Windows' built-in ClearType, and fonts look blurry and all bold, all the time. Menus are hard to read. Safari uses its own, unalterable, nonstandard key combinations for things like flipping through tabs. The list goes on and on.

In Apple's Athenian utopia, the company's overwhelming superiority complex is a good thing. Its products are beautiful, Apple stores are breathtaking and the software user interfaces smack of sublime perfection.

But when Apple asserts its "superior" user interface conventions in a Windows context where everyone is used to and comfortable with the Microsoft way, bad things happen.

Windows users are forced to use iTunes if they want to play their iPods, which, like everyone else, they do. But it's a painful, time-consuming and irritating experience for many who are used to largely standardized Windows conventions of button, bar and menu placement and functionality.

Apple gets away with its our-way-or-the-highway UI design with QuickTime because controls beyond the standard VCR "Play," "Pause," "Stop," "Fast-forward," etc., are unnecessary and therefore absent.

But on a browser, Apple will need to do things the Windows way or get eaten alive.

Although Microsoft's Internet Explorer dominates browser market share, Apple's real competition is Firefox, which most active and advanced users love and which is the other major browser not bundled with Windows. Most people inclined to install a second or replacement browser on Windows have already done so, and most have installed Firefox.

Firefox fans are small in number compared with Internet Explorer users, but they're a passionate, enthusiastic and vocal crowd. It's these Firefox users that Apple will find at the entrance of the Windows browser market, with swords and shields at the ready.

Mozilla has taken a play out of Microsoft's own playbook by making Firefox almost fully compatible with a World Wide Web largely designed to work on IE. Rather than fighting and resisting these de facto standards, it has embraced and even improved upon them.

Will Apple follow this winning formula? The beta suggests it may not.

Apple will need to approach Windows UI with humility -- a rare commodity at Apple -- and do things the Microsoft way, or pay the price in market share.

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Mike Elgan

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