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Apple Releases Safari 4 Beta

The latest addition to the Web browser wars, according to Apple, is faster and "more innovative" than Internet Explorer, Firefox, and other competing apps.

In an escalation of the Web browser war, Apple on Tuesday released a public beta of its Safari 4 Web browser, claiming that it's "the world's fastest and most innovative browser."

"Apple created Safari to bring innovation, speed, and open standards back into Web browsers, and today it takes another big step forward," said Philip Schiller, Apple’s senior VP of worldwide product marketing, in a statement. "Safari 4 is the fastest and most efficient browser for Mac and Windows, with great integration of HTML5 and CSS 3 Web standards that enables the next generation of interactive Web applications."

Apple claims that its new Nitro JavaScript engine runs JavaScript up to 30 times faster than Microsoft Internet Explorer 7 and more than three times faster than Firefox 3. It also claims that Safari 4 loads Web pages three times faster than IE7 and almost three times faster than Firefox 3, although it allows the caveat that "performance will vary" based on system configuration, network connection, and other factors.

Such assertions have come to be obligatory with new browser releases. It's a recognition by those fighting the browser war -- Apple, Google, Microsoft, Mozilla, and Opera -- that speed is critical to a good user experience. One need only consider the $66 million that Mozilla earned in 2007 from its Firefox search deal with Google to understand the upside of owning a popular browser.

Last September, when Google boasted about how fast Chrome was compared with other browsers, Mozilla CTO Brendan Eich posted data from a speed test that pitted Chrome's V8 JavaScript engine against Mozilla's new TraceMonkey JavaScript engine, which should appear in Firefox 3.1. According to Eich, TraceMonkey was 1.28 times faster than Chrome's V8 running under Windows XP (on a Mac Mini) and 1.19 times faster when running under Windows Vista (on a MacBook Pro).

Apple did not compare Safari 4's performance against the Windows versions of Chrome, Firefox 3.1 Beta 2, or Internet Explorer 8 RC1.

As for Apple's insistence that Safari 4 is the most innovative browser, that's not easy to prove one way or another. Certainly Safari 4 has some innovative features, but Mozilla also is pushing the envelope with features like its Ubiquity command-line interface for Firefox. And Chrome also deserves recognition.

Even so, Safari 4 includes a variety of new features that go beyond the need for speed.

It's the first browser to pass the Web Standards Project's Acid 3 test, which attempts to evaluate compliance with Web standards like CSS, JavaScript, XML, and SVG.

It extends Apple's popular Cover Flow navigation interface to searching Web history and bookmarks, and it adds a Top Sites visual menu that displays graphic previews of frequently visited Web sites.

Safari 4 also includes drag-and-drop tab management tools, a Smart Address field that offers auto-complete suggestions based on the user's Web History and bookmarks, a Smart Search field that offers suggestions using Google Suggest and past searches, full-page zoom, built-in Web developer tools for debugging and site optimization, and a new Windows-native look for Windows users.

It is, however, still a beta product. This article was written using Google Docs and Safari 4, and it crashed once during the process.

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