First look: Apple's Safari beta -- what's new, what it means

CEO Steve Jobs' surprise at WWDC was announcing Safari for Windows

What looks like Apple Inc.'s Safari Web browser for Mac OS X, works like Safari for the Mac, but isn't Safari for the Mac?

Answer: A beta version of Safari unveiled this week by Apple CEO Steve Jobs that's aimed squarely at Microsoft Windows users.

In what has become something of a hallmark of just about every Jobs keynote address, the Apple chief used his talk at the Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) to announce yet another "one more thing" -- that Apple would port its popular (on the Mac side of the world) Safari browser to Windows, with a beta version that was available shortly thereafter for downloading. More about how well Safari works, or doesn't, in a minute.

On the surface, it seems odd that Jobs would make hay out of introducing a Web browser to an already crowded market on a competitor's platform. But Apple's simultaneous release of Safari Version 3 for Mac- and Windows-based systems marked a major step for Apple into the browser wars. While this may be the third version of Safari for Mac users, this is the first time Apple has released Safari for Windows. On the Mac side, Safari has seen some dramatic market share growth in recent months, even though Apple's computer market share remains small compared to Windows. (Even so, the Mac market share itself is also rising.)

During his speech, Jobs said that Apple simply wants to increase its browser market share, which seems logical. What better way to fluff one's numbers than releasing software on a platform with the largest installed base?

But why waste the resources developing a product meant to be given away? The answers weren't really detailed in Jobs' keynote speech, so I dug a little deeper, hoping to find answers within Safari's feature set and Apple's Windows software history.

Safari on Windows looks pretty much like Safari on the Mac, save for the shape and positioning of the close, minimize and zoom buttons. Other than that, it's nearly identical. The feature sets are the same as well, from bookmark organization to the built-in RSS reader. Even the text renders the same, though there's debate over whether that's good or bad. And as you'd expect, the menus -- which show up in the menu bar on Macs -- are in their proper Windows location at the top of the Safari browser window.

Two versions of Safari showing menus; in front, the browser in Mac OS X. Behind it, Safari for Windows running in Parallels Desktop for Mac.
Two versions of Safari showing menus; in front, the browser in Mac OS X. Behind it, Safari for Windows running in Parallels Desktop for Mac. (Click image for larger view.)
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