13 features that make each Web browser unique

Firefox, Safari, Chrome, Opera, IE -- innovative features set each browser apart

Many cynical users assume Web browsers do little more than dutifully render HTML. The content is the most important part, they say, so it makes little difference which browser you use.

This may be true for basic tasks, but for all their similarities, browsers differ in subtle and significant ways, thanks to the hard work of vendors looking to establish any edge that might attract more users to their stack of code. There are even some features that make each browser unique, and in the technology world, unique functionality often points the way forward.

[ Find out how to hack your browser in 7 easy steps | Also on InfoWorld: "HTML5 in the browser: Canvas, video, audio, and graphics" | "HTML5 in the browser: Local data storage | "HTML5 in the browser: HTML5 data communications" | "HTML5 in the browser: HTML5 forms" | "HTML in the browser: Geolocation, JavaScript, and HTML5 extras" ]

To get a better sense of the evolution of today's browsers, we compiled the following list of promising features unique to one browser. Don't think this was an easy task; many of the most important and competitive areas are hard to pin down. For instance, all browsers tap the power of multiple cores and make use of the video card, but each approaches this territory in a slightly different way.

Also note that while some of these features are found on only one browser, many can be imitated on other browsers by installing extra code. Some of these extensions even allow you to change the appearance of a browser so that it looks like another -- you get the guts of one and the face of the other.

Given the pace of browser updates these days, don't be surprised to find the best of the bunch being copied by competitors soon. After all, yesterday's browser bells and whistles are today's must-have features. Grab quickly.

Chrome: SPDYWhen the HTTP protocol was designed, Web pages consisted of text and a few images. Today's Web pages come packed with dozens of style sheets, JavaScript files, and an untold number of images. HTTP forces browsers to request each item individually, adding to the overhead.

Enter SPDY, an entirely new protocol Google has created to fight this sluggishness. Not many websites speak SPDY yet, but Google claims those that do can deliver their information about twice as quickly. Chrome is the only browser currently working with SPDY-enabled websites, many of which happen to sit in Google server farms.

Firefox: Deep extensionsAll of the major browsers have plug-in architectures, but only Firefox offers a deep, sophisticated API. While other browsers allow you to write plug-ins in JavaScript, CSS, and HTML, essentially creating a Web page that wraps around the Web page, Firefox goes one level deeper, giving you access to an API that allows you to build full desktop applications out of browser parts. This is largely an accident of history because Firefox was one of the first with extensions, and the other browsers that came along afterward decided the world didn't need these extra features.

FireFTP, for instance, is one of the deeper extensions that's hard to spin up from the classic three languages: HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. It takes advantage of the access to the file system and the low-level access to the TCP/IP stack. Some people may feel the thinner APIs from the other browsers act like a better sandbox and thus offer more security -- and they're right. But many of the most sophisticated extensions for Firefox require the flexibility of dipping into native code and interfacing directly with the operating system. 

Internet Explorer 9: Emphasis on energy efficiencyEveryone may be talking about JavaScript compilation engines and hardware integration, but the idea of measuring browser energy consumption is a new one. Here, Microsoft is leading the way, claiming that IE9 is the most energy-efficient browser.

Of course, there's no easy way to test this assertion, even with an electrical meter because the computer could be burning electricity on some background task. However, the idea is meaningful, in large part because handheld devices need to be very careful with power consumption. While no one really notices if their video card on the game machine requires a separate pipeline from the Middle East to keep it running, everyone squawks when the phone dies halfway through the afternoon.

IE9 does not yet run on phones, but it may affect laptop energy conservation. Furthermore, simply paying attention to browser energy consumption may put Microsoft ahead of what could soon become a very important game.

Chrome: A separate process for each tabFor the past few years, interest in multiprocess architectures has been growing among browser developers. Here, Google has taken the lead, splitting the work of Chrome tabs into different processes. This approach relies on the operating system to isolate crashes, thereby making the browser more stable. In other words, if one plug-in or Web page goes south, the OS isolates the danger, usually ensuring that the other tabs sail on unaware.

Of course, all browser makers are rolling out multiprocess technology in different ways and at different speeds. Open your PC's process display window and start cracking apart the tabs -- you'll see that the browsers spawn a few processes, but only Google Chrome keeps opening them up. Chrome is the browser most committed to separating the workload and letting the operating system act as a referee.

Some argue that this belts-and-suspenders approach is overkill and not worth the overhead, claiming that the browser makers should not fall back on the operating system for support. Others suggest the browser experience can end up being slower if related windows are split into different processes. To combat this, Chrome sometimes puts pages from the same domain in the same process, but you can expect arguments over the best way to handle multiprocessing to continue for the foreseeable future.

Internet Explorer 9: Jump lists and site pinningJump lists began as little menus attached to icons in Windows 7. Right-click an application's icon and you'll find shortcuts to app-specific tasks and recently accessed files as determined by the app's developer. Now these jump lists are part of IE9, and every Web designer can specify a quick list of important pages for users to access quickly with a right-click. IE9 takes the jump-list concept one step further by allowing you to "pin" websites to the bar at the top of each window where they can be easier to reach. The jump list adds a pull-down menu for these pinned websites. It's a good solution for common destinations, like email or shopping sites.

Opera 11: querySelectorAll cachingAs JavaScript programmers know, manipulating information on a Web page can quickly become resource-intensive, with most of this activity including calls to the function querySelectorAll to change an item's color or to update the data in a section on a page. Opera 11 includes a superfast version of this function that depends upon a cache for some of its speed, thereby increasing the velocity of all of the visual activity on your Web page.

Songbird: Purpose-built packagingIt's tempting to not classify Songbird as a browser because it's more focused on music than Web pages. However, it does suck down information from the Web, and for that reason, we'll include it.

More of a Web-enabled tool for organizing MP3s, Songbird illustrates how we don't need to package everything as a Web page. The tool tracks local concerts and lets you know about upcoming gigs when you listen to a song. There's no need to go to a separate page to get this information.

The feature set seems to expand as more and more companies offer plug-ins that integrate their services with Songbird. The plug-in architecture offers a nice foundation for growth.

Opera 11: EmailThere was a time when Mozilla combined the email program with the browser, but it stopped this integration long ago. That era is back again, this time on Opera.

Opera 11 offers its users the ability to monitor email while browsing. The client stores email on your hard disk, giving you offline access to your messages, and will suck down mail from multiple accounts and sort them in one list. The feature is part of Opera's push beyond the browser to become a "complete communication tool."

Firefox 4: SyncWas it only a few years ago that a cellphone was primarily a phone? Now everyone is wondering when they'll replace desktops and laptops. Firefox is ready for that day by offering cross-browser sync. The Android version of Firefox on your phone can suck down all of the bookmarks, history, passwords, and even open tabs. Then when you're back at your desk, you can push back the changes you've made while you're typing on your phone. The other browsers offer syncing in only one direction.

Opera Turbo: Proxy cachingBefore the Internet, there was a collection of nets, like Compuserve, Minitel, MSN, and AOL. Then the "Inter" prefix was added by linking these nets altogether, and everyone was given the freedom to request information from any computer out there.

Opera Turbo is sort of a return to the "net era" without any of the compromises. Your browser talks to Opera's collection of servers, which are tuned to deliver the data faster and in a form customized for Opera. This isn't a true return to past architectures because Opera's servers are merely proxies that fetch data from the Web. They don't host original content; they just rebundle what's available.

Safari 5: Easy user agent alterationsEvery page request includes the name of the browser, which in this context is called the "user agent." If you want to pretend you're using a different browser, all you need to do is change this string. This can be particularly helpful when testing mobile software that must appear differently on the small screen of a smartphone.

The user agent string can always be changed by digging deep into the files on your desktop. Chrome lets you change it with a command-line parameter. Safari, however, simplified alteration of your user agent by providing a submenu that offers a wide range of user agent strings, including those for the various iPads and iPhones. In the process, Safari transforms into the ideal platform for testing iPhone- or iPad-tuned websites or for anyone who likes the simplicity of a mobile Web page in a desktop environment.

Flock: Social browsingFlock is technically a separate browser with an emphasis on Facebook, Twitter, and other social functions on the Web. Or at least it was -- as I was writing this, the company stopped supporting the tool. You're free to continue using Flock, but the company decided it would rather work with Zynga on building games.

The idea of Flock was to encourage users to share what they consume on the Web and watch what others are doing. Some may dispute the claim that Flock qualifies as a separate browser because its core is Chrome, but its purpose-built nature offers unique functionality.

There are rumors that Firefox 5 will inherit some of these social features. RockMelt is distributing a similar social browser that works on both the desktop and the iOS platform. The space won't stay empty for long.

Chrome: "Hands-free transparency"Being unique is not always a sign of leadership. Google's Chrome, for instance, is the last of the big browsers to resist the "do not track" framework that asks websites to avoid tracking users. Google says it is following the development and may choose to implement it in some form in the future. Cynics will note that Google, more than any other browser maker, has a stake in tracking users on the Web because its business model depends on crunching this information to serve up relevant advertisements. 

Think of Google's foot dragging on this effort as a form of anti-shyness. It's like your friend telling you to quit moping around, go to the party, open up, and share a bit about yourself. From this perspective -- namely, Google's -- it's easy to see eschewing the "do not track" framework as a kind of feature offering on Chrome's part, not a limitation.

Tags operaFirefoxweb browsersapplicationsGoogle ChromesoftwareInternet Explorer (IE)safari

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Peter Wayner

InfoWorld

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