In the game of technological one-upmanship, the browser used to be an easy place to win. Most people used Internet Explorer, so it was simple to gain the edge by using Firefox. But now Firefox is common, and even Opera and Google Chrome are losing their cachet. Safari ships standard with every Mac, so everyone, the cool and the uncool, have it by default. They're all excellent browsers, but they're still the status quo. Is there anywhere else to turn for a bit of distinction?
Finding an even more obscure browser is surprisingly straightforward, and it may offer more than just the feeling of superiority that comes from beating the crowds. Many of the alternative browsers exist to solve particular problems, and the new and better features are useful to us. Sometimes it's because we're part of some niche like Facebook, but often it's because our boss wants us to do something with information on the Web and the specialized browser makes it simpler.
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Some alternative browsers are just specialized versions of the common open source implementations. The rebels who feel that the world really needs another Web browser are also smart enough to know it doesn't make sense to reinvent the core technology. They just wrap their own features around Chrome or Firefox, Gecko or WebKit. This point is illustrated nicely in this family tree of Web browsers.
A purist might object that these hybrids are not much different from a standard browser with extra plug-ins. There's some truth to this, but not always -- some of the unique capabilities can only be done deep inside the software. In any case, the job of parsing the terms and creating an exact definition of the Web browser isn't as much fun as embracing the idea that there are dozens of alternatives.
So here's a list of 10 browsers that are not Firefox, Chrome, Opera, Safari, or IE, but that are all the more useful because they're not. They aren't different because they have a different name and some buttons in other spots, but because they offer something that can't be found in the traditional browsers: a more useful representation of Web pages or search results, integration with social networking sites or other services, a lower resource footprint, faster page rendering, or even easy scriptability.
Not everyone will need these extra features, but the list is valuable as an inspiration. We can build new browsers. We can change the parameters of our interaction with the distant websites by adding new features and reprogramming the code. There are some cases when it makes sense to package these changes as extensions, and there are others when it makes sense to call the pile of code a new browser even if the core is an old one -- sometimes because the code is truly revolutionary, and sometimes because we just want to enjoy giving it a new patina.
Specialty Web browsers: Browse Web tables into spreadsheets with Kirix Strata | Specialty Web browsers: Browse socially with Flock | Specialty Web browsers: Browse leaner with Dillo | Specialty Web browsers: Browse in text with Lynx | Specialty Web browsers: Browse smarter on Mac OS X with Cruz, Fake, and Fluid | Specialty Web browsers: Browse in 3-D with SpaceTime | Specialty Web browsers: Browse Wikipedia better with Gollum | Specialty Web browsers: Browse musically with Songbird
There are few tools today that surprise me, but Strata from Kirix is one of them. It's a browser first and foremost, but the fun begins when you open a page that contains a table full of numbers. Then a click of the mouse turns the static HTML table into a dynamic spreadsheet.
Many people won't have any need for this. If your Internet connection is mainly a pipeline for cat videos from YouTube and updates from Facebook, you'll never be able to take advantage of any of its power. But if you work in a business where the bosses repeat mantras like, "You can't manage what you can't measure," then this is an ideal tool.
The sorting and reporting features aren't much better than any of the other related tools on the market, but the integration with the browser makes all of the difference. Suddenly you don't need to beg the back office to give you the numbers in the format that your boss requires. You can take any table and start manipulating it.
As soon as I popped open the Strata browser, I knew where I wanted to turn. One of my websites has a tool that digests all the log files and dumps out a table full of data. The table is adequate, but it's not grouped the way I want. So every day, I would think that I should just dig into the source code and reprogram it to sort the table better and group some of the columns. No more -- there's no need to reprogram because Strata sorts the table for me in a few clicks.
Many of us must deal with imperfect reports on Web pages all of the time. Reprogramming the reports or getting someone in the IT department to do it is often more time consuming than the data demands. Strata costs $250, but it's worth it if you're in such a situation.
The only downside to the Strata browser is that it's starting to age. The company blog posts are fewer and further between. The reporting tool is merely adequate, not fancy or impressive. The plug-ins are clever -- such as a tool for reading data directly from Digg -- but they're all dated in 2008. These are all warning signs, but not deal breakers. The tool is a real time saver, extremely handy if the boss wants those numbers right away.
Kirix Strata brings ad hoc reporting and spreadsheet-like functions to tables on Web pages. It can also draw data directly from back-end databases and other data sources.
Somewhere in a different universe created when Web history took a different turn, Facebook doesn't exist and Flock is the dominant browser that unites people with their friends, letting them share links and messages. The folks who built Flock recognized the importance of social browsing long ago and created a tool to help get this done.
For some reason, people joined Facebook instead of adopting a new browser. Today some estimates -- perhaps bogus -- suggest that 20 percent of Web traffic is devoted to Facebook updates. Some email services say that the real mail travels via Facebook, while the email spool files are mostly filled with spam and updates from Facebook about messages.
Flock adapted nicely to this change by adopting access to Facebook's API. While you're browsing the Web, Flock is pulling in the status updates from Facebook, Twitter, and other RSS feeds, then scrolling this information alongside the main page. You can point your browser anywhere you want to go and never leave Facebook or Twitter behind.
Flock is completely integrated with these services, an approach that makes more sense than offering many of the same services. Sure, you can always go to Facebook.com, but that requires switching from site to site whenever you see something worth sharing. Many of these features work better wrapped around the browser than set apart as a website, and Flock accomplishes that.
The Flock browser also offers a few enhancements that Facebook should have delivered long ago, such as classifying some people as better friends than others. Their news will pop up immediately in Flock's sidebar, while Aunt Judy's cat pictures can wait until later.
Next page: Browsing in 3-D, text only, and without fancy features