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Is Safari for Windows Part of the iPhone Strategy?

Steve Jobs gave the keynote for WWDC (World Wide Developers Conference) 2007 today, and as usual it was packed with announcements.

There are so many Apple magazines, websites, and blogs, it feels like a waste for me to repeat the “10 Features of Leopard” that Steve walked through.

If you want that walkthrough, here is a good one.  Apple is also hosting the video of the keynote, in case you want to watch it live.

However, judging by the pure volume of headlines, the press have decided to highlight the last announcement in the keynote as the big shocker of the day:  Safari 3.0 for Windows.

It’s not an obvious move.  Now, it’s not that I don’t understand the problem.  Believe me, the relatively small market share for Safari is a real issue.  For most of the time I was at eBay, Safari was not on the official list of supported browsers for eBay, largely because of its unusual implementation of Javascript and DHTML, and because of its minuscule market share.  It wasn’t until 2006 that Safari 2.0 made the list, and that had more to do with the growth of Firefox and the need to target “all modern browsers”.

What non-developers may not realize is that supporting additional platforms always requires more initial thought and a higher level of developer skill.  Originally, when HTML was dirt-simple, there was no real issue with browser complexity.  However, the browser wars of the late 1990s gave birth to incredible complexity in web programming, and that has only gained steam in the past few years as developers struggle to add richer interfaces to their web applications.

As a result, supporting additional platforms and web browsers is a big deal.  Internet Explorer is Windows-only (a move I have long questioned strategically).  Safari is Mac-only (until now).  Thank goodness for Mozilla Firefox, the only real hope of building code once and having it run on a large number of platforms.

Depending on whose numbers you believe, IE has about 80% marketshare, Firefox has 15%, and Safari has 5%.  Different sites have different numbers, because some sites attract different types of audiences.

As a web developer, you could decide to target only IE.  That gets you 80% of the market.  That might work, but it’s not as easy a decision as it was in 2003 when they had 90+% of the market.

Developing for IE & Firefox seems like the right answer, because it gets you 95% of the market, and the nature of developing for Firefox usually means good, clean, standards-compliant code that will also work on Safari.

As a result, Mac users owe a real debt to the growth and success of Mozilla Firefox.  Once developers decide to go “multi-browser”, they usually include Safari for good measure.

So, why does Apple choose to promote “a third option”?  They have no chance of catalyzing the anti-Microsoft, open-source community… they are behind Mozilla (and for good reason).  They have no chance of taking significant share from IE… everyone who can download a separate browser has largely downloaded Firefox.  And if they should take market share from Mozilla, then they have likely hurt the case for non-IE development by fragmenting the market further.

When Apple launched Safari, Firefox was not nearly as robust or successful as it is now.  But I really wondered why Safari 2.0 wasn’t just a Firefox variant… an extension of the Mozilla codebase, hand-tailored for the Mac by Apple (like an official Camino build).

So here is my theory… based on no real information.  I have seen this theory in exactly zero of the articles on the topic I browsed today.

It’s about the iPhone.

It takes a few assumptions to get there, but just ponder the following, and let me know if you think I’m crazy:

  • Let’s say that developing a full-featured web browser for mobile that is differentiated and supported the unique Apple-designed gestures and interfaces for the iPhone required so much customization that you really needed to own the code base.
  • Or, let’s assume that Apple doesn’t want to reveal the source code of some of its browser innovations for the iPhone as a form of proprietary advantage in the mobile space.
  • Let’s also assume that Apple wants a rich set of applications for the iPhone, but wants to bypass the current models for installing applications on cell phones, and WAP-based models for web-application development.  Apple wants rich applications without the strings that come from service providers or the limitations of WAP.

Apple has a bit of a problem now… they need a custom browser, but they want active developer support to build these rich applications.  They need market share… but not PC market share.  They need mobile market share.

Could the answer be a Safari for Windows that runs on Windows Mobile?  Is it possible that Apple would license Safari for Windows Mobile to a broad set of carriers?  It wouldn’t be the iPhone, but it would be a larger audience for web developers to target, and it would be a “stepping stone” for buyers of non-Apple, integrated mobile devices to get a “taste” of the Apple iPhone experience.  Safari for Windows then provides Windows-based developers with an easy target platform for development & testing.

Might be a stretch.  But I wonder if Safari for Windows has more to do with Apple’s non-PC device strategy than some bizarre attempt to take on Microsoft and Mozilla.

Daring Fireball thinks it’s all about the revenue from the search bar… I see that as a perk, but not a major reason to take on this challenge.  $75M in revenue per year is just not a big deal at Apple’s current size… unless they see their growth slowing and are scraping for every dollar.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Kev #

    Releasing Safari for Windows is just a general way of helping web developers test for Apple’s browser.

    Developing for iPhone would require plug-ins, simulated phone interfaces, etc. Not to mention limiting yourself to the size of its screen in order to look like the built-in apps.

    Handling gestures is easy if the browser returns keys for forward/back, zoom/not. Scrolling takes care of itself.

    The WORST thing about Jobs’ plan is this: you’d still want some kind of web SDK that helped people build apps with iPhone styling. Otherwise it’s going to be a hodge-podge like today.

    June 12, 2007
  2. Ray Hill #

    I agree that Safari for Windows is all about the iPhone. But I don’t think it has anything to do with putting Safari features on Windows mobile phones. It has everything to do with iPhone developers.

    Apple wants to get third party developers to create the richest apps they can for the iPhone. But most developers are Windows users. So the only way for them to be able to test their code on the same machine they’re developing on is for there to be a Windows version of Safari.

    Also, we have already determined that Safari on Windows and Safari on Mac are not identical. About an hour after the Windows version was released, I found an iframe bug that happens only on the Windows version and not on the Mac version. So unless the usage stats prove otherwise, I think it’s safe to say for now that Safari for Windows is merely an emulator for iPhone app developers.

    June 12, 2007

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