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Reality Check: The Great Safari for Windows Installation Scam

I suppose Mozilla CEO John Lilly had a point when he said that Apple’s stealth Safari install process for Windows was “wrong.” After all, Safari isn’t just being pushed to folks who had previously installed Apple’s browser, but to anyone who had previously installed iTunes or just QuickTime.

The question, of course, is just how Apple should have promoted its browser upgrade to Windows users. Right now, they are third-best as far as market share is concerned, way behind Mozilla’s Firefox, let alone Microsoft Internet Explorer.

When it comes to gaining market share, Firefox benefits from several years of viral marketing, where millions of users, looking for a safer, faster alternative to Internet Explorer, have embraced Firefox as their preferred alternative. Basically on the Windows platform, Microsoft’s home-brewed browser has the same structure as Safari on a Mac. It is generally installed along with any operating system update, as part of the process. You don’t have to seek it out online first.

So where does that place Apple? Certainly, their target isn’t Firefox so much as Internet Explorer, which is clearly vulnerable. Despite the fact that MSIE is part of Windows Vista, and is pushed out in the latest updates to XP, it’s still hemorrhaging market share. Well, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but clearly it’s seen better days. Maybe Internet Explorer 8 — which holds out the promise of superior fidelity with Web standards — will do better, but that is by no means a certainty.

Understand that nobody is being forced to download Safari, let alone install it. Although the Install box is checked, they just have to uncheck that option when they see Software Update’s window appear on a Windows PC. And if they do opt to accept Safari, it’s not as if the system will be bogged down with background daemons stealing CPU cycles or taking over their PCs. They can just ignore it, or run Safari a time or two and see if it’s quite as blazing fast as Apple claims. If so, they gain from having another first-class browser to choose from. If not, uninstall and be done with it.

Yes, I suppose Apple might be a tad too aggressive in pushing Safari downloads in this fashion, taking advantage of their presence on the Windows desktop because of iTunes and QuickTime. But I can see their point in invading Microsoft’s turf in this fashion. It’s not as if Microsoft isn’t up to pulling a few fast ones on its user base. Consider how they foisted the Windows Genuine Advantage update, which was nothing more than a scheme to have your PC phone home at regular interviews in a wrong-headed attempt to control software piracy.

Besides, does anyone really want to steal Windows anymore anyway? I thought power users these days were more inclined to want to induce Mac OS X to run on their white box PCs. But what do I know?

As far as I’m concerned, I’m not down on Apple for pulling this stunt. At best, they’ll gain a few points in market share for Safari, which is actually a good thing. Maybe they’ll get a few letters of complaint about what they did, from folks who believe they are taking advantage of the fact that most PC users simply accept what the download screens offer without using critical faculties to decide if it’s something they really need.

But what about Safari? Are Windows users really getting some value from it? Well, if you’re accustomed to Microsoft’s user interface, Safari might be a bit of a put-off, since it looks noticeably Mac-like even on another platform. Text display, preference panels and so forth and so on closely match the Mac version. Then again, how many Mac ports managed to look like Windows invaders so maybe they deserve something in return?

As far as the promise of greater performance is concerned, true Safari is incredibly swift. It launches faster than Internet Explorer, renders faster and more accurately (at least on sites that aren’t dependent on custom Internet Explorer hooks) and appears to be quite stable.

Any frequent Internet surfer ought to be overjoyed at having another browser alternative on the Windows platform. As MSIE’s share erodes, it will force more and more Webmasters to make their sites more compatible with industry standards. That way most everyone can get a good user experience and not be forced to conform to a Microsoft-driven proprietary standard.

I rather suspect that Apple’s attempts to boost Safari come at a great time. Safari for the iPhone, for example, has a majority share among mobile phone surfers, though in that category it’s also one of the very few usable browsers. For the most part, the Internet experience on a cell phone is miserable.

In the end, Apple clearly has more courage than Microsoft these days. I mean, when Apple came out with Safari, Microsoft abandoned the Mac version of IE and cut and run. If they think they have such a great browser, why not try to compete in Apple’s sandbox and see how they do? In fact, why not deliver a new Mac version of their media player, supporting their current DRM, if they think it’s so great? Of course, it hasn’t done so well on their native platform, so maybe Microsoft sees no sense in trying.