Why Hasn’t Safari Skyrocketed Like Chrome Has?

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The past few days, there’s been a lot of talk about web browsers. The report that Google will be paying Mozilla close to one billion dollars over the next three years to ensure that their search engine remains the default for Firefox is fascinating for a few reasons. The biggest is that Google now makes a Firefox competitor, Chrome. And it got me thinking about Safari.

Remember Safari?

While Chrome has skyrocketed from 0 percent market share in August 2008 to over 25 percent last month, Apple’s web browser lingers somewhere between 5 and 8 percent, depending on what numbers you look at. While its growth seemed to stall out in late 2008/early 2009, Safari has been growing again since then. But it has been at a very slow, methodical pace compared to the Google browser.

Given the fact that both browsers are based on WebKit — a layout engine which was born out of Apple — why hasn’t it been Safari that has taken off, instead of Chrome?

The easy answer that most people jump to is Windows. Microsoft’s OS is still by far the dominant one even with record Mac sales quarter after quarter. But while Safari is usually associated with the Mac (since it’s baked into OS X), it has actually been available for Windows quite a bit longer than Chrome has been.

Safari for Windows was unveiled in beta in June 2007. It was formally released in March 2008. Chrome wasn’t unveiled until September of that year. Incidentally, it was Windows-only at the time. But it took Google’s browser just a year to surpass Safari in market share.

So if it wasn’t Windows, what else led to Chrome’s rise?

Another thing people often point to is speed. A number of benchmarks point to Chrome being the fastest browser available in terms of both page rendering and JavaScript performance.

But remember too that when Safari for Windows was announced, several of the same tests showed that it was the fastest browser available for both Macs and PCs (remember, Chrome didn’t exist yet). If this was just about speed, shouldn’t Safari have taken off starting in June 2007 similar to the way that Chrome did in September 2008?

On the flip side, most users throughout the years have complained that Safari for Windows more or less sucks. It’s been a long while since I’ve used it myself, but I recall it being somewhere between Firefox and Internet Explorer in terms of practical performance (that is, how fast it actually feels when using it, tests be damned). But Apple has continued to iterate on it and the latest version, 5.1, is still available on both platforms.

Others point to Google itself as the reason for Chrome’s rise compared to Safari. It’s true that Google does quite a bit of promotion for their browser, including on Google.com every once in a while. But it’s hard to imagine that being a bigger advantage then either IE or Safari which are both baked into Windows and OS X respectively. To get Chrome, a user still has to download something (unless they’re using Chrome OS — but if that’s the case, they’re already probably going to be using Chrome on their other machines). I would imagine that most IE and Safari users don’t download their browser, they use it because it’s the default that comes pre-installed on their machines.

Plus, Safari being bundled by default with iTunes for a time should have helped it gain massive Windows market share. But it would appear that many people downloading it simply weren’t using it.

Maybe it’s extensions that give Chrome the advantage? Maybe, but Safari has had them as well since mid-2010. Sure, Chrome’s extensions are better and much more plentiful, but if that is all that was holding Safari back, developers probably would have stepped up their game there. Plus, Firefox had extensions way before either Chrome or Safari and while they undoubtedly helped grow that browser, it’s also shrinking now in the face of Chrome.

With the launch of OS X Lion, it seemed as if Safari might be poised for a bit of a renaissance. Because the default controls were inverted, third-party software like Chrome was largely broken to begin with on the new OS. Safari also offered features like better multi-touch support and Reading List (which syncs between iOS and OS X Lion) which rivals didn’t match. But with a few months of data in, it looks like the Safari growth is still the same slow and methodical variety, likely rising simply as more Macs are sold.

Given the rise of mobile, it would seem that the massive usage mobile Safari is seeing might help Safari on desktops/laptops too. But again, the numbers don’t really suggest that. Safari is growing, but slowly. Meanwhile Chrome, which isn’t actually a part of Android — not yet, anyway — is skyrocketing without any sort of mobile presence.

Personally, I’m a Chrome user myself. I’ve tried a few times to use Safari as my primary browser (most recently with the OS X Lion upgrade), but I always end up switching back. To me, it’s still about practical performance. Things like: with a dozen or more tabs open, Chrome seems to perform in a way that Safari cannot.

Plus, I can’t live without the URL/Search Omnibox that Chrome offers. And I’m addicted to “pinned” tabs (browser tabs I always have open and are shoved to the left and shrunken down, out of the way from general tabbed web browsing).

It has been nearly 9 years since Safari was first formally introduced on stage by Steve Jobs at Macworld 2003. It has steadily improved and grown market share, but the rise of Chrome in less than half of that time has made Safari look a bit silly.

Of course, that could all change rather quickly if devices like the iPad really are the future of general purpose computing. On mobile devices in general, there’s no question in my mind right now that mobile Safari is ahead of what Google is doing. That’s why it’s odd that the opposite is true on more traditional computers.

And it’s not entirely clear why. Some point to Apple neglect — since the App Store has been such a phenomenon, they’re more inclined to throw resources at native work rather than web work, is the basic argument — but again, given the state of mobile Safari versus the other mobile web browsers, that doesn’t seem to be the case. It could simply be that Google’s Chrome team is really good at what they do, and nailed it from the get go. Good things happen to good products.