The title of this article is deliberately provocative: I don't know the answer to the question, and I don't really care. But having been there with Firefox many times, all I can say is that Safari add-ons like SafariStand make me grateful that I don't have to find out. For me, it's much easier to utilize and keep track of one extension rather than keeping, say, six or more in sync and up-to-date.
Our culture is generally dominated by a "more is More" attitude, so that the browser with the most plugins is believed by definition to be the best horse to bet on. This is the same argument some Windows users have made for years with respect to their choice of operating system: I want to use the computer that has the most software to choose from. This argument is proven empty when you actually sit down and compare the quality of Mac software in a given functional category versus that of Windows software (don't take my word for it: Actually do it yourself sometime), and that emptiness carries over to the issue of browser plugins. Certainly, there are some software categories that you legitimately need access to a Windows PC for. But if you notice, nearly all such categories cover business, rather than personal, requirements, and they're for very narrow fields of interest indeed. The only personal software category where the Mac actually lags Windows is gaming, and I predict that the gap in gaming titles won't be nearly so large a year or two from now as it is today.
As far as the supposed dearth of plugins for Safari in comparison with Firefox, SafariStand is an excellent case-in-point. There are other excellent multifunction Safari add-ons (Saft, PithHelmet, Safari Extender, for example), but I'm highlighting SafariStand because it's not only great, but also free. After all, if a Safari user finds they are starting to buy plugins, they really should consider paying for a browser that has dozens of plugins already built in, like OmniWeb. Being the cheapskate I am, I like free things, and SafariStand is one of my favorite freebies for Safari. Besides, most Firefox extensions are free, so it seems only fair to restrict this plugins conversation to those that Safari users can add without paying extra.
In this article, I'm going to focus on just a couple of the best bits from the latest SafariStand beta, which are too wonderful to remain obscure from the Safari-loving hordes. But very briefly, here is a list of the main functions that SafariStand adds to Safari. To gather these functions into Firefox would require the gathering of a half-dozen or more separate extensions, each of which would have to be authorized and kept up to date, etc.
- Option to restore your last workspace, or any of the pages you had open, on launch.
- Add sidebar with thumbnail tabs.
- Customize search engines available in the standard Google search form.
- Automate "find" function without having to type Cmd-F.
- Add color labels to your bookmarks.
- Colorize the HTML source window, and make it editable.
- Reorder tabs in a window (this is a native feature of Firefox and will be one in Safari 3.0).
- Use the "Stand Bar", a floating palette with searchable bookmarks and history, as well as customizable SafariStand folders and RSS feeds.
- Configure your "Bookmark Shelf," a floating palette that lets you build and access saved "workspaces," which are lists of sites you open up in a browser session and want to save for later use.
- Access one of the best "Page Info" stores now available for any browser.
- For any site you're visiting, easily see a list of all the cookies the site has set, examine their contents, and/or delete one or more of them.
Believe me, that's not the entire list... but I think you get the idea. SafariStand is free, is continuously being developed, and works seamlessly and quietly with Safari. You access SafariStand's settings either by the "Stand" menu that's added to the top-level menubar, or via one of two new icons you can add to your Safari toolbar. (If you try SafariStand, be sure to customize your Safari toolbar in order to add at least the SafariStand Actions Menu icon... it's the only way to access the new Page Info window, which I'll describe in a moment.)
Yet Another Improvement To Browser Tabs
The two features I want to provide more information about just showed up a few weeks ago in the latest beta release. One is a really useful, but simple, enhancement to SafariStand's thumbnail-icon sidebar that actually makes this tool usable for me. A couple of months ago, I went into detail about the design of the forthcoming Shiira 2.0's graphical tabs, comparing them with those in the new OmniWeb 5.5. As it turns out, as much as I like Shiira's thumbnail tab implementation, SafariStand's innovation is a brilliant improvement. I hope the Shiira developers are paying attention!
The main problem I've had with thumbnail tabs up to now is that if you make them small enough so that they don't consume too much screen real estate, you can't (or rather, I can't...) distinguish them clearly enough to be useful. You might as well click on the tab to see what page the tab is for, since the teeny icon is too muddy to be recognizable. You could make the tabs big enough to see the thumbnail, but then you're eating up valuable screen space. (An approach some browsers have tried, including Opera and the forthcoming Safari 3.0, is to enable tooltip-like page previews when you hover the mouse over your tabs. This is another great way of letting users distinguish tab content, although it arguably takes more effort than well-implemented thumbnail tabs.)
What SafariStand's developers have done is to add a cropping tool that lets you select the portion of web pages you want to see represented in the thumbnail. This lets you tell the browser to make a thumbnail of only a certain rectangular portion of a given web page. Since most web pages have their main graphical identification in the upper left-hand corner, you can now basically tell the browser to "blow up" that portion into your tiny thumbnail. This also lets you define how high the thumbnails will be, since you can define the height and width of the rectangle to be "iconized."
This is very cool indeed. It's also the kind of feature that a small movie can describe better than words, so check out the accompanying QuickTime animation if you're having trouble visualizing this functionality.
The new SafariStand sidebar has also been cleaned up in small ways that bring it up to date with the latest and greatest Mac OS X software: You now have the light-blue background from Mail, Ecto, iTunes, and dozens of other Mac apps, and you have the "new" standard drag bar that you can use to resize the sidebar. The new sidebar preferences let you decide whether the drag bar goes at the top of the sidebar or at the bottom. All in all, I really, really like the new sidebar. I also like the fact that I can use it while still keeping my regular Safari tab bar, because I like it, too... for different reasons.
"Page Info" Goes Graphical
The second big news in SafariStand is the "Page Info" window. I swear these developers must have read my raves about Shiira's new "Page Info" window back in August, because the new SafariStand window bears a striking resemblence to the one planned for Shiira 2.0. I find this new window invaluable, since as a developer it lets me very easily identify and peruse all the components of a given web page.
Inside the new window, you've got a screen with the basic page information: File size, referrer, user-agent string, and server headers. Next, a pane showing the page's "Sub Resources," a list similar to Safari's standard "Activity" window.
This is again so great, I had to capture a quick screencast of the way it works. Hopefully it's clear enough that you can get an accurate picture of how the window works.
Making Safari The Best That It Can Be
Now, it would be great if Apple would simply build some of these features into Safari. What I hear so often is that users think Safari simply can't do this thing or that thing... when I know for a fact that it can. You just have to find the right plugin. And there's a plugin for nearly everything you really want Safari to do. No, you can't have weather forecast information displaying in your status bar, and there's nothing quite like the Scrapbook you can use with Firefox. But honestly, there's probably more free stuff you can get for Safari than you realize.
In a quick inventory of my own Safari add-ons, here's what I'm currently using in addition to SafariStand:
- SafariBlock, an excellent ad-blocking tool comparable to Firefox's AdBlock extension. It can block Flash as well as image content, is free, reliable, and very easy to use.
- The aforementioned Safari Extender, a $10 plugin that adds a variety of functions to your contextual menu in Safari.
- Acid Search, a free plugin that adds extensive search engines and customization to the Google search bar, as well as find-as-you-type.
- Safari Tidy, a terrific free plugin that validates web pages for (x)html compliance using HTML Tidy, and puts error and warning messages in your status bar. It also does some great upgrades to Safari's standard "View Source" window.
- SafariScript, a terrific extension that takes advantage of the fact that Safari can do a heckuva lot with AppleScript that other browsers simply can't. The developer's website is a wonderland of great scripts that you can add to your new Safari Script menu, including some which are full-fledged plugins themselves.
- WebDevAdditions, a plugin that corresponds roughly with Firefox's terrific Web Developer extension. It adds an array of menu items and contextual menus that let you parse, poke, and peek at a web page's structure, design, and functionality. It's gotten steadily better since it was first introduced in mid-2005.
I highly recommend all of these add-ons to Safari, but if you're intrigued, be sure to pay a visit to PimpMySafari.com, where you'll find plenty more where those came from, with even more being added each month. You'll certainly find a prominent link to SafariStand as well! With all of these riches, there really is no need for Safari users to look enviously at the more than 1,500 extensions available for Firefox. After all, a huge number of the Firefox extensions merely cover functionality that Mac OS X "Tiger" users can get through Dashboard widgets (which are just little web pages, after all). And how many Dashboard widgets are available now, a year and a half after they were introduced? That's right... almost 2,400 as of today. Believe me, widgets are a heckuva lot more fun than browser extensions, and they're available when your browser isn't running, too.
Uh-oh, you got me started on widgets... So, just to keep this in perspective, if you don't have Tiger and want widgets, Konfabulator is now free and living at Yahoo. Wouldja believe there are now over 3,200 Konfabulator-style widgets at Yahoo's widget portal? Like the Apple-style widgets, nearly all of these are free for the taking.
If that weren't enough, Google is now in the widget business, and though fledgling at this point, has a gallery with hundreds of little web widgets that you can add to your browser to do nearly anything you can think you might want to do on the web.
Now, I don't know about you, but that's more than enough "stuff" I can get nowadays to make accessing web content easier and more enjoyable on my Mac, no matter which browser I'm using. And isn't your ability to access content and services on the web faster, easier, and more fun the final measure of success for whatever web-browsing tools you use?