Thursday, April 07, 2005


I was reading Tim Bray's blog the other day titled "Unswitch", and the follow-up to that blog, where a number of people responded to Tim's dissatisfaction with Safari. I mentioned the blog to a colleague as we were installing Firefox on his laptop.

His reaction was quite interesting - he told me that he would be quite happy to only use Safari and didn't really want another browser on his laptop. (The reason we were installing Firefox is because one of our online applications, an important one in our organisation, doesn't play nicely with Safari.) Further to this, he is happy to confine himself to using Apple's Addressbook, and iCal, and has changed over from MS Word and Powerpoint to iWorks. He likes this arrangement because it's all so seamless.

Now, I can understand that... up to a point. It's nice when applications work well together, and Apple's applications do play very nicely together. But does that mean that Mac users ought to look disdainfully upon software that doesn't play nicely with Apple's own offerings? And why does my colleague want to restrict himself to a single browser? Having another browser doesn't stop him from using Safari for his general surfing. So what's behind his desire for one browser only?

At this point, I must confess that I am the sort of person who has multiple applications for all sorts of things. I like to try new applications, and if I like them, I keep them, and use them. The browser I mainly use is Camino, but I know that there are some things that Camino doesn't work well with, such as those wysiwyg editors you find included in many web applications. So I have Firefox as well, which handles those things that Camino objects to. I also have Opera, which handles certain java applets that even Firefox finds hard to digest (such as the searchable database at ChessLab). I also have other browsers, for other reasons.

Does it matter that I have several browsers? Not as far as I can tell. It's not like email clients, where having more than one client on an email account could be a recipe for disaster. For me, it's like having a set of tools where I can pick the one that best fits my need at the time. The same goes for text editors. For more heavy-duty crunching, I have TextWrangler, and I use jEdit for working with Lilypond files, but I've taken to using TextForge for the simple stuff.

And yet my colleague is clearly not alone in his "one browser to rule them all" way of thinking. It's not just Safari advocates - I'm aware of Firefox supporters who would happily see all other browsers (and certain operating systems) go the way of the dinosaur. What's behind this way of thinking? Honestly, no one browser is that good, and having more than one browser is no real strain. Is it a desire for simplicity? I could understand that. But I don't think that's it.

My suspicion is that, for some people, it's akin to politics and football teams and racing cars, e.g. "I'm a BrandX man." You know, that "draw a line in the sand" thing that leaves some of us walking away shaking our heads.

For others, like my colleague, I think it's something even worse - a desire to not have to think. "I don't want to have to remember which browser to use where, I just want to click on it and go." "I don't want to have to decide." They want the decision already made, no choices, a straight line to follow. So, one browser, one word processor, and so on.

Why is this worse? Because it leads into something else Tim Bray mentioned in his "Unswitch" article - infofascism.

I used to think that it was the Dark Side who were the main perpetrators of this (and I still gnash my teeth whenever I find myself using a certain Word processor that thinks it knows better how to format my document than I do - and yes, I do have the autoformatting turned off, and the preferences set to suit my way of doing things, and the #$%&! thing still finds ways to annoy and frustrate me.) But I've come to realise that others, including Apple, also try to impose their desires on their users.

For example, my colleague, conceding that Safari was not sufficient because of that web app he must be able to use, asked me to transfer his bookmarks from Safari to Firefox. (One browser, remember - if he has to use Firefox, he'll use it for everything.) I asked him why he couldn't do this himself, and he pointed out that Safari didn't have a menu option to export its bookmarks. What the...?

A quick look at Safari and, sure enough, there's an option to import bookmarks, but no export. I tell him (and myself), there must be a way. A quick search on the web shows how to reveal a hidden menu in Safari called "Debug". It includes the option to export bookmarks. Problem solved.

But why is that menu hidden by default? Why does Apple assume that you will not want to export your bookmarks from Safari? Even if Safari was the best browser on the planet, isn't it presumptuous of Apple to conceal options in the software you may want to use, and to make it that little bit harder to switch to something else?

Don't get me wrong - I'd rather have my Mac than a Windows box any day. OS X has opened up a whole new arena to me via X11. I'm now able to work with stuff that previously would have required setting up a separate machine to run Linux. Which gets at the very point I'm trying to make. Computers allow us to expand and explore our thinking. When software starts channelling us into certain ways of working that lead us to not think, that narrow our options, something's gone wrong.

Or maybe I'm overstating the case. Maybe there's plenty of people out there who prefer to have the software developers do a lot of the thinking for them, making their lives a bit simpler. Maybe.