And back again to OmniWeb...

Saturday, 2006-07-15; 20:45:00

Mmm... hot Cocoa...

I've had a love-hate relationship with OmniWeb. It was one of the first browsers to come out for Mac OS X, mainly because it was originally created for the OPENSTEP operating system, which was bought by Apple along with NeXT, Inc. to be used as the foundation for Mac OS X. It was immediately right at home on Mac OS X, since it was a Cocoa app, and used many of the native widgets (e.g.: drawers, customizable toolbar). It also went above and beyond any other browser on the platform in terms of the numbers of features it offered -- some of my favorites were the list that gave you all the links to the various resources (like images and movies) used on the page, and the very simple HTML editor that used tag colorization. The links list made it easy to extract and download embedded movie files from various webpages without having to manually scrape through the HTML, and the HTML editor was all I needed for the paltry web development that I did at the time.

OmniWeb, however, had it's own rendering engine, and as the web matured, OmniWeb's rendering engine did not. Understandably, it was hard for a small company like the OmniGroup to keep up with the evolving standards of the web. I kept up with the OmniWeb 4.1 sneaky peeks in earnest, but gradually my satisfaction with OmniWeb declined to the point that I eventually switched browsers.

That point came when Safari was released. It immediately became my browser of choice. Although it didn't offer any of the powerful features that OmniWeb did at the time, it did provide two of the most important features: good standards support, and speed. OmniWeb couldn't offer either of those. The way Safari offered to immediately name bookmarks as they are created was also a feature that I really liked, even if it was very simple. (If I remember correctly, I used Camino and Internet Explorer off and on while my satisfaction with OmniWeb was waning, but I don't think I could ever have really called either of those my default browser. My memory's a bit hazy here, though.)
I wasn't exactly sure when Safari came out, so I went to VersionTracker to find a release date. In doing so, I found out that the current version of my program Safari Bookmark Exporter is the most-downloaded Safari-related program on VersionTracker. Of course, this isn't total downloads, but downloads of the latest version, which would give me an advantage since I haven't updated it in a while. :P

Safari was released in January 2003. Then there were rumblings that the rendering engine behind Safari could, sometime later, be integrated into any app. And with that came the rumblings that the OmniGroup would switch from their custom rendering system to what would soon be called WebKit. OmniGroup delivered the first beta of OmniWeb 4.5 before Apple even released the WebKit API, in June of 2003.

I tried to switch back to OmniWeb at that time, and was successful for a month or two. But it immediately became clear that despite the "switch to WebKit", something was still wrong: speed and standards support were still not up to par. Part of this was due to the fact that some webpages were sniffing specifically for OmniWeb since its earlier custom rendering engine wasn't up to par. But I think the main part of this problem was that the OmniGroup wasn't using WebKit, they were using WebCore, which is only a part of WebKit. They were still using their own networking stack, as well as JavaScript runtime engine, I believe. Although I desperately wanted to move back to OmniWeb, I ended up sticking with Safari.

Soon, there were more rumblings coming from the OmniGroup, with rumors of a "tab killer" feature. This turned out to be the innovative tab-thumb-drawer-thingy that's present in OmniWeb 5. Not only that, but OmniWeb 5 delivered a sort of nirvana for web browsers: state saving. As you browse, OmniWeb 5 automatically saved the sites you were visiting, including the order of the tabs (yes you can reorder them in OmniWeb) and the positions of the windows. Note that this "saved state" is actively updated; i.e.: if OmniWeb 5 crashes, and you restart OmniWeb, it opens up all the windows/tabs to the sites that you were visiting immediately before the crash. This is a godsend. This feature might have been present in Safari InputManagers, but I try to stay away from those as much as I can, especially because the extensions often add way too many features that I don't ever need. OmniWeb was calling to me again.
The one thing that really ticked me off (and I know some are going to laugh at this) about OmniWeb is that the "Customize Toolbar..." menu item is in a place I had to search for. Instead of being named "Customize Toolbar..." and being located at the very end of the View menu, it's instead located inside the "Toolbars" submenu of the View menu, and it's named "Customize Navigation Bar...". I understand why OmniGroup chose to do this, but it's absolutely infuriating, because until you realize that OmniWeb has multiple "toolbars" (but only one true Mac OS X toolbar), you don't think to look at the Toolbars submenu -- you just glance over it. Arg.

I also have Command-Option-E for Empty Cache and Command-Option-U for View Source ingrained in me through Safari, but Mac OS X's keyboard preference pane made short work of that.

And again OmniWeb failed to deliver on the most important points: speed and rendering engine.

Firefox then started to become a major player on the Mac around this time, February 2004. I tried it out, but it never offered any significant advantage over Safari for me. I mean, it was (and is) good and all, but why should I use Firefox over Safari? I still don't see any reason, even if you factor in Firefox extensions, because Safari has had "extensions" (albeit unsupported) since virtually the time of its release (e.g.: PithHelmet, which I tried and couldn't get used to).

Sometime between 5.0 and 5.1.2, OmniWeb fixed its rendering problems by switching totally over to WebKit, instead of just using WebCore. (I may be mistaken here, though, so somebody correct me if I'm wrong.) The problem was: it still was pretty slow, even though it was using Apple's HTML-rendering framework. And back to Safari I stayed. [UPDATE: Version 5.1.2 still used WebCore, as pointed out in the comments. Also, the OmniGroup says that 5.5b1 is "now based off a slightly customized version of WebKit."]

And now we come to two days ago. Via John Gruber's Daring Fireball Linked List came a link that showed OmniWeb being much faster at HTML rendering than even Safari or Firefox. Although the test is obviously not representative of the browsing experience as a whole, it seems that the OmniWeb 5.5 sneaky peeks have rectified the last problem with OmniWeb. It seems impressively fast, at least compared to the perception it left with previous versions.

So I am again trying to switch back to OmniWeb as my default browser. The one problem is that I really liked Safari as an RSS-feed reader, and the feed-reader in OmniWeb is lackluster. While it does actively read feeds, it presents them in "bookmark-style" format: it simply allows you to view the headlines in the favorites bar or the bookmarks menu. I much prefer the way Safari does it: you can not only see the headlines but the summaries as well. The combined interface also allows you to either view just the entries of a single feed, the entries of a whole folder of feeds sorted together by date, or the entries of all your RSS feeds altogether. In contrast, OmniWeb only allows you to see one feed's entries at a time.
The one thing I hate about programs that convert files from one format to another is that they are often very finicky. Witness my previous dealings with SafariOPML. The Automator application is nice, but not only does it not preserve the folder organization that I had pristinely set up in Safari, but it also doesn't preserve the names of the feeds! Arg! Boo. I wish exporting programs would get it right from the start, rather than making users put up with such nonsense.

I'm not going to let that stop me, though: I've switched back to using NetNewsWire lite as my feed reader as well. I managed to export my RSS feeds from Safari to a form that NetNewsWire Lite could import. I may need to cough up the funds for the full version of NetNewsWire, however, because the Lite version doesn't allow me to see inline summaries, either, which is a shame. I suppose it's worth it, though -- NetNewsWire was my original default reader before Safari 2.0 came along.

Anyway, I'm going to try the OmniWeb/NetNewsWire Lite combo for a few weeks, or longer if I like it. I'll keep you updated on the experiment.

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