WWDC’s Big Announcement Was Not Leopard

By Timothy R. Butler | Posted at 7:34 PM

Apple did what every Mac user wondering if the company had lost its focus on the Mac wanted the company to do: it had the ever charismatic Steve Jobs focus on Mac OS X Leopard for almost all of his keynote in San Francisco, one of two major product launch events for the Cupertino-based company each year. But, when he did move off of the Mac, he unveiled Apple’s real offensive: the Safari web browser for Windows.

Most people have been chanting Web 2.0 for awhile now, and companies such as Google, Yahoo and Facebook have been doing their best at encouraging people to focus much of their computer time – for productivity and leisure – toward web based applications. With Web 2.0 generally being driven by standards based AJAX, the operating system is increasingly becoming what Microsoft feared it would become at the beginning of the first browser wars in the mid-1990’s: a bystander to the web browser.

Internet Explorer won that first browser war through some decent innovation, illegal bundling and the infamous “embrace and extend” approach that made it hard to enjoy the web with other browsers. A few years ago, with Internet Explorer appearing all but guaranteed a permanent place as the only generally accepted browser, Microsoft dropped its Mac version and pretty much ceased Windows development of Internet Explorer too. At that time, if Apple had announced a web browser for Windows, people would have called the company crazy. Then came Firefox, which answered some users discontent by eating up a fifteen percent share of the market, and igniting a second browser war. With Microsoft back on the offensive and it is now being considered “cool” to use an alternative browser, the idea of an Apple browser for Windows doesn’t seem so crazy in 2007.

More importantly, Apple realizes that establishment of Safari as a reputable cross-platform browser is a necessary part of its future success. If Web 2.0 continues to eat away at what applications remain solely desktop-based, it will be critical to the company’s future that Mac OS X’s primary browser works well with those Web 2.0 apps. Nothing will guarantee that as well as making sure that Safari is ubiquitous, and, for the moment, the only way to do that is to release a version for Windows. While Apple could potentially have chosen to instead toss its support behind Firefox and forget about Safari, Apple would be forced to give up it penchant for top-to-bottom design control over a key element of its operating system to do that. The alternative it has chosen avoids that hang up, and is probably better for the web anyway.

Because Apple, along with other developers working with WebKit and KHTML, have been working closely with the Mozilla Project, a win for either Firefox or Safari is a win for the future of web standards in general. But, while Apple and Mozilla’s respective target audiences overlap somewhat, they do not overlap completely, which means that Safari may reach some people that would never use Firefox, and vise versa. With the GNU/Linux and FreeBSD-oriented KDE Project as the source of WebKit’s design, Safari essentially already reaches other UNIX and Unix-like platforms beyond Mac OS X too; this launch is also a win for those using operating systems other than Mac OS X and Windows. While the attention will be on Safari, almost all adjustments to sites made for Safari, will also be to the benefit of KDE users.

This strategy has been shaping up for awhile. Apple has made significant strides in opening up development of WebKit and warming relationships with other KHTML and WebKit developers. These steps have already led to WebKit becoming the foundation of Nokia’s browser for its Symbian phones and Adobe’s upcoming Apollo product (which helps to create offline applications using its technologies, such as Flash); not to mention that progress has been made towards unifying KDE’s KHTML with the WebKit project that formed from it.

Safari for Windows’s launch ties in closely with another announcement Apple made today: Web 2.0-based, Safari powered applications for the iPhone. If the iPhone does as well as most people expect, thousands of developers are going to become use to the features and quirks of Safari in developing for that phone. If Apple plays its cards right, this means that it will, with very little effort, create a legion of developers who, when they go on to develop PC oriented Web 2.0 services, will already be use to making those applications work with Apple’s browser – and will likely do so out of habit.

The Mac OS X Leopard presentation looks impressive, and likely will keep Mac OS X as something that makes Windows users envious and Mac users confident in the future of their platform for years to come. But, make no mistake: the real future of Apple is not in Mac OS X, but in a little application named Safari.

Timothy R. Butler is Editor-in-Chief of Open for Business. He happily admits to using both KHTML and Safari, from the time that each was still in beta (that would be 2000 and 2003, respectively).