The WaSP is reporting that Microsoft will end support and cease distributing Internet Explorer for the Macintosh at the end of January. It’s been about eight months since the latest version of Mac OS X shipped without IE, and almost three years since Apple launched Safari.

While there is an “end of an era” feeling to this, it’s kind of like losing the last veteran of World War I. It’s of more historical significance than anything else. When Microsoft released IE5/Mac, it was hailed as the most standards-compliant web browser available. But Microsoft abandoned it years ago.

Fortunately, not only is Safari a worthy successor, but there are other options as well. What’s great about the web browser field these days is that the major players are constantly improving their offerings and working toward greater compatibility. And soon any website that wants to cater to Mac users will no longer be able to fall back on “Just use IE!” They’ll have to test in Safari, and of course the easiest way to build a website that works in IE/Win, Safari, and Firefox (the two defaults and the major alternative) is to start with standards-based code in the first place—which improves compatibility with even more browsers. Users get more choices, and websites get more users. Everyone wins.

It occurred to me today that if you lay out the three major players in computer operating systems and the three major players in web browsers, the results track remarkably well.

  • Windows and Internet Explorer. The dominant player. Obtained that position by being good enough, cheap enough, and promoted enough to win a protracted two-way battle. Detractors claim the victory was primarily due to marketing and business practices, not quality. Plagued by a public perception of insecurity. Currently trying to maintain that lead against an opponent unlike any they’ve faced before. Believes itself to be technically superior to the other options.
  • Linux and Firefox. Open source product with a core team and hundreds of volunteer contributors. Originally created as a replacement for a previous major player. Very extensible. Promoted as a more secure alternative, but has faced growing pains with its own security problems. Highly regarded among many computer power users, beginning to gain mainstream acceptance and challenging the dominant player. Believes itself to be technically superior to the other options.
  • Mac OS and Opera. Has been there since the beginning. Constantly innovating, pioneering ideas that get wider exposure when their competitors adopt them. Very dedicated fan base that never seems to grow enough to challenge the dominant player. Has been declared doomed time and time again, but keeps going strong. Believes itself to be technically superior to the other options.

It breaks down, of course. Traditional UNIX is missing from the OS wars, though it provides a nice analogy to Netscape for Firefox. The battle lines don’t quite track either, since the previous wars were Windows vs. Mac and IE vs. Netscape. And Safari’s missing entirely. But it’s interesting to see the same three roles in play.

The internet is a hostile place. Viruses, worms, and worse are constantly trying to break or break into your computer. Software developers are constantly fixing the holes that can let them in. It’s become critical to keep your system up to date. Unfortunately this can be very frustrating, even for a power user, for one simple reason: you have to keep track of each program individually.

Sure, the operating systems have their own centralized places. Microsoft has Windows Update, and Apple has Software Update. But every application that exposes itself to the network directly or opens untrusted files has to be updated, and there are many that aren’t part of the operating system.

So Symantec has Live Update. Real Player has its own updater. iTunes and QuickTime for Windows can update themselves. Adobe Reader has an update function. Firefox is redesigning its update system. Games check for updates when they connect to the network.

But wouldn’t it be nice if Windows would grab the Acrobat updates overnight, instead of waiting until the next time you launched it? Wouldn’t you like to be able to patch everything on your system at once and just not worry about it? As a software developer, wouldn’t you like to be able to let someone else deal with the update problem instead of re-inventing the wheel yet again?
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The eternal Mac OS on Intel rumor resurfaced last week, and as always, my reaction was “I’ll believe it when I see it.” Well, I’ve seen it.

After five years of rumors, Apple has not only confirmed Mac OS X can run on Intel processors, but future Macs will run on Intel. No, they won’t be releasing a version of Mac OS that you can install on your PC, they’re “just” replacing the CPUs in future Macs. Apparently Intel has a better road map for future performance. (Hmm, better tell the marketing division, quick. The PowerMac page [archive.org] still touts the PowerPC’s superiority over the Pentium 4.)

It’s a switch on the order of—well, on the order of leaving the Motorola 68K for PowerPC. Back in those days, it was Apple vs. IBM Compatibles, and IBM was a partner in the PowerPC design. These days it’s Apple vs. Wintel, the Windows/Intel combination.

Apple seems to have everything planned out. Secretly running OS X on both PPC and x86 for the past five years, preparing developer tools to produce applications for both architectures, setting up a translation tool to run PPC apps on Intel chips. Microsoft and Adobe are already on board. It’s not a surprise, really—they’ve done it all before. Of course, we all know how well the best laid plans go…

I do have to wonder how this will affect Linux distributions aimed at the PowerPC line. Yellow Dog Linux, for instance, is also advertised as running on IBM’s own PowerPC systems. And depending on the rest of the hardware, standard x86 distros may have to incorporate formerly PPC-only code. Update: It hasn’t shown up on their website yet, but I just got an email from YDL stating that they will remain focused on PowerPC, remain “in good standing with Apple” as a reseller, and “expect [server OS] Y-HPC to gain an even greater userbase with existing Apple Xserve users.”

I also wonder which Intel chip line they plan on using. Everyone seems to be assuming it’s x86-based, and I’d guess it’s 64-bit (why go backwards from the G5?). In theory Apple could go with Itanium, since they don’t need to drag around x86 compatibility, and the extra volume might be enough to bring the price down.

It took four extra days due to the UPS snafu—and would have taken longer if the regular carrier hadn’t been on the route. (They changed the suite number. I know I didn’t enter it in wrong, because when I talked with them on the phone Friday afternoon, they told me they had changed it.)

Anyway, I opened up the box to take a look, and aside from a sticker on the box and a 1-paragraph license addendum, I don’t see anything else to indicate how the 5-license pack differs from the standard 1-license pack. I guess they figure on voluntary compliance rather than messing around with license keys. (Keep in mind I’ve never actually installed Mac OS X before. Katie’s upgraded her computer a couple of times, but the laptop came with Panther pre-installed.)

On the plus side, we already know 10 days’ worth of pitfalls to watch out for before upgrading…whenever we have the time to do it.

Anyway, off to lunch and then back to work.