The programs that I use most often in my daily activities are my word processor, a webpage editor, image editor (when I'm doing web design, mostly), and my browser. It is the latter that I wish to fume over today, and will leave the formers for another time.
I should note that my laptop is approaching its 8th birthday (it doesn't look a day over 7 and a half), and so it is with some disdain that I endure a bit of sluggish performance and some restrictions on the software it will run. The fact that I am currently in the writing-up stage of my doctorate should explain in itself why I cannot afford to replace it with a new computer at the moment. Still, the hardware is fine and I have no major complaints to speak of. For its age, it is surprisingly fast, versatile and resilient. I will spare the details of my pitiful specifications, as even schoolchildren have more processing power in their laptops (and probably mobile phones) than I have in my entire home-office.
But on to browsers. When selecting a browser, like with most any other program, I seek an intuitive user interface. This is fundamental and subconcious. No one likes fiddly programs that seem like a maze of menus and submenus designed to siphon away hours of computing potential. Alas in the world of web browsing, our "intuitions" have been colored by our exposure to the big browser of our time. For those who began with and continue to run Windows, at least for the time being, that means Internet Explorer (perhaps Netscape Navigator back in the day). So I would imagine that this has a considerably impact on the "alternative" browsers that average users are willing to accept. To me, they all look pretty much the same and don't really fill my intuitional void which begs for sleek minimalism (with the exception of Safari for Mac OS X. More on this later).
Firefox has been growing in popularity in recent months, particularly following global security flaw scares in IE, causing it to peak in December 2008 at 21.34% market penetration, second only to IE. It has cross-over appeal for mac, PC and linux users and does not considerably diverge from what we have come to expect in a simple and easy-to-use browser. Some nice features (tabbed browsing! yes!), a few add-ons here and there, and the ability to customize it even more if you have the technical know-how, make it an obvious choice to - above all - stick it to those [insert expletive here] over at Microsoft. It is fairly lightweight at 24MB, even if I find its performance a little clunky at times.
So why am I reverting to IE?! (And when I say IE, I am referring to IE6. I don't like 7, although I am hearing some okay things about IE8 Beta 2. Except that the embedded translator doesn't work. Why can't they hire an anthropologist to help design this stuff?)
I keep Firefox on my computer for one reason only - to open pages that IE6 struggles with. And in a sort of symbiotic way, my IE6 has become my oasis for flash- and java-based pages that FF just doesn't seem to want to open. Indeed, FF's pop-up "new plugin needed" notifications sound more and more like empty threats than helpful advice. They never get me anywhere and I resort back to IE6 for comfort and ease. But this is not what prompted this post.
I am railing against FF now because I believed the hype: That IE is the devil incarnate while FF is the most standards-compliant browser ever to exist in this space-time continuum. Finally, after years of asking 'is it really so hard to design all browsers to some universal standard so that pages appear the same and without errors across the board?', it appeared as if my dreams were being answered. Only FF came too little too late. Which is to say, all of my personal webpages which use CSS in combination with HTML and XHTML have some variety of structural damage when displayed in FF. The margins are off, the menu bars are askew or overlapping, the elements don't scroll as smoothly as I intended, etc.
Now I know this is because I designed the pages for IE, and I would need to adjust my code to meet the FF standards to fix a majority of these problems, but, in fact, I am having trouble rectifying them to appear in both browsers cohesively. At some point I imagine this will all become moot, but right now it is nagging and annoying. Especially when I am considering an expansion (but not complete rebuild) of my personal website. I'm not a professional web builder and I don't have the time or dedication to rebuild my sites to appear correctly in FF beyond playing with the existing code. As far as I can tell, FF simply doesn't like CSS, but I prefer coding in CSS and XHTML rather than XHTML on its own. So why can't all browsers support them equally and to a resonable degree? The pages were already displaying well in IE before FF came along in all its post hoc glory with its aficionado converts to tell me that FF is doing it right, IE has been wrong all along, so deal with it.
Even if I get the layout and scrolling fixed in FF, there are a multitude of other browsers out there ready to make my efforts futile. Right now they may not have that big a following, but in the future ...
A few years ago I had a brief fling with Opera, and it fulfilled my browser-related desires like I hadn't expected possible, far surpassing IE5/6. My recent attempt to download it to this machine met with some treacherous file extension mayhem, icon obliteration and page formatting nightmares on mhtml files. So I bid a teary farewell to Opera.
There is something about Chrome that makes my skin crawl. I don't know if it is that I see an intrinsic link between the "Commoditization" of the planet and the Googlification of the Internet, but every time the hand of Google reaches out to control something on my desktop, I want to slap it with a fly-swatter. I love the Google search engine and online tools, but I find their desktop clients to be so invasive.
Despite the many trials and tribulations, the one browser which has always made me happy has been Safari - on Mac OS X, that is. Its UI appearance has that sleek and minimalist feel that I have always hoped for, and for once I agree with a company's claims that their product is the world's fastest and easiest to use. I was overjoyed when, in 2007, it had been released for Windows and I could download it to my own laptop rather than drooling over it from a distance or only when I had access to a mac on campus. I actually downloaded version 3 for Windows a couple days ago. To my dismay, the CSS formatting problems were the same as with FF (this was to be expected though, as it conforms to higher standards ... blah blah ...). I didn't expect to have any complaints other than that one, which I had already resigned myself to, and was ready to remove FF from my hard disk once and for all. But when I tried to navigate to the Blogger home page to - incidentally - begin this rant, Safari crashed helplessly, its trademark speed relegated to a distant memory, and my OS locked up in momentary shock. My other problem was that the Windows version is so weighty - over 69MB or twice that of FF. Is that really necessary? Goodbye, Safari for Windows. I will miss what you could have been.
I hope much of this will be solved when I trade in my 8-year-old HP Pavilion for this:
Once I acquire a brand-new MacBook Pro, I'll be converting my current laptop to Ubuntu and seeing how many more years it has left in it.
Is it really worth all this trouble to ponder browsers over breakfast? Perhaps I would be better understood if more people saw the lowly browser in the light that I do - as a portal to the life-sustaining energy that is the Internet.
To try to somehow make this post anthropologically relevant, I would also like to add that a fully functioning and customizable browser which suits an individual's surfing needs presents a myriad of other potential uses. It is the bridge between your desktop and web-based content. Why not treat it as such? With web content becoming increasingly dynamic and open source programming expanding to the mainstream, creativity in UI design and niche marketplace demands can lead to tools and widgets which combine online and offline functionality to a degree we have only begun to think about in the social sciences. As anthropologists everywhere open up to the potentiality of programming as a methodological tool for research as well as analysis, I can forsee dynamic content specifically tailored to our ethnographic needs. I'd like to suggest a package of browser add-on tools for web-mining and web-trawling, for instance.
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