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Web browsers are toasters and that’s good

September 14, 2015


Recently I went on a hunting trip for novel web browsers and found literally dozens, including a few I’d never heard of, that have been in development for more than five years and a few for more than a decade.

Some of the oldest of these browsers, such as the Internet Explorer respin Avant, dating back to 2004, are general purpose browsers that fought and lost the Web 2.0 browser wars of the first decade of the 21st century but survived to soldier on.

Most of the offerings — especially the newest — as this Hongkiat list of 20 alternate browsers shows, are designed to excel at niche uses.

One particular company called Maxthon offers two web browsers that stand out for me — for their high quality and for they way that they book-end and explain a decade of second-string browser offerings.

The best browser that I’ve never heard of?


The China-based company Maxthon Ltd. has been developing the Maxthon Browser continually since 2005. This is a feature-rich propriety freeware browser, available for Windows, Mac, Linux, Android and iOS.

With version 4.x, released in 2014, the rechristened Maxthon Cloud Browser has a new interface and increased features, which include:

  • Multiple rendering engines under the hood
  • Split-screen browsing (having two browser tabs open at once)
  • Free cloud storage for personal settings, such as bookmarks
  • Built-in ability to block ads, Flash, Java and Active X objects
  • Support for Internet Explorer plugins as well as its own
  • Custom Google search engine (which may help earn Maxthon some cash)

Maxthon was, and still is, designed to be a top mainstream web browser.

Back in 2008, 2009, it won a lot of awards and turned a lot of heads. It was, as they say, “a real contender”. Perhaps if the juggernaut that was Chrome hadn’t appeared in 2008, Maxthon might have become one of the big three.

As it is, Maxthon’s YouTube channel says that over 600 million people have downloaded the browser and the positive reviews (often with titles like “The best browser you’ve never tried“) keep coming. So it’s still a serious challenger.

The high-margin business of “free” browsers

While I don’t know exactly how a company like Maxthon has survived for 10 years to produce a free web browser with an invisible market share, apparently it hasn’t been a hand-to-mouth existence.

An article on the Fast Company website, discussing the chances of a new browser called Vivaldi to survive in 2015, cites the 10 year success story of the Maxthon browser and goes some way to explain why there are still so many web browsers floating around, competing for our attention.

Fast Company quotes Maxthon International vice president Karl Mattson as saying that the company has been profitable since it began and that correctly managed, a web browser is a high-margin business.

That’s comforting to know. I was really worried (note to self: don’t mail the cat food).

As an aside, the aforementioned Vivaldi browser is the brainchild of Jon von Tetzchner, a cofounder and former CEO of the pioneering Opera browser. Von Tetzchner left Opera in 2011 in something of a huff and told Fast Company that when, in 2013, Opera rebuilt itself on the same Chromium framework as the Google Chrome browser, he felt that there was nothing left of his life’s work.

Naturally his Vivaldi browser, which is meant to recapture all that was once good about Opera, is built on the Chromium framework.

Anyway, back to Maxthon. Many reviews stress its speed and my early tests show that it is definitely faster than Pale Moon, the Firefox fork that I use as my main browser.

The only browser that I found to be faster than Maxthon was its new sibling, released earlier this year for Windows, called Maxthon Nitro.

Today’s contenders are specialists not generalists


If the older Maxthon browser resembles a fully-appointed touring sedan, then Nitro is like a sports car stripped-down for speed. It does bookmarks and seemingly little else — except load pages really, really fast.

Nitro doesn’t even have time to to install anything on your computer, which is to say that it’s a portable application — you can run it from anywhere on your computer, including a flash drive.

Maxthon Nitro aims at the high performance niche which is one the few remaining ways in which new browsers can distinguish themselves from the big three. Another popular niche is better security.

The Comodo Group is a good example of a free browser maker that has successfully focused on both. The company offers IceDragon, described as a faster, more secure version of Firefox; as well as similarly speedy and more secure versions of Chrome called Dragon and Chromodo, the later most definitely omitting some of Google’s privacy-violating features, such a user tracking.

Midori is a free browser from 2007 for both Windows and Linux that successfully occupies something of a third niche. Midori is certainly fast but its developers deliberately eschew what they consider unnecessary features in order to provide an elegant and pared-down browsing experience.

Speed alone isn’t a good enough reason to switch


Peacekeeper performance benchmarks. The bigger the number the better.

In benchmark tests using Peacekeeper, the most neutral online tool that I know of, Both Maxthon browsers significantly outperformed every other browser on my computer — those would be the latest versions of both the Firefox fork Pale Moon (25.7) and Chrome (45.0), as well as the year-old copy of Firefox 28 that I still have on my hard drive.

The tests are for a lot more than speed and I have to say that Nitro really is noticeably faster at launching and opening web sites than its older sibling the Maxthon Cloud Browser (which I didn’t feel was that much quicker than Pale Moon).

In any event, impressed as I am with both Maxthon browsers, I have no intention of switching away from Pale Moon (aka, the “slow browser”).

Both Maxthons give me speed, which is subjective and subject to degradation depending on my Internet connection and they deny me, among other things, the concrete benefit of using Firefox add-ons, which materially improves my browsing experience.

It’s perhaps worth noting that when I switched from Firefox to Pale Moon last year, it was not for anything that Pale Moon added but because of functionality that I felt Firefox had lost. I expect that I will likewise only leave Pale Moon when it loses some key functionality that I can only get back by switching to another browser.

I will concede that had I discovered the original Maxthon six or seven years ago it might be my main browser today. I’ll at least keep it around to test its features. And I’ll keep an eye on Maxthon Nitro. I like its speed, its minimalist layout and portability. If a subsequent version includes an ad blocker I will like it that much more.

The browser wars are over and the peace is good and dull

Other Internet users may disagree but I would argue, that from the user’s point of view, the difference between the big three web browsers, from Google, Microsoft and Mozilla, has become increasingly cosmetic.

Perhaps simplistically, I credit Firefox with popularizing the core feature set that users expect in all web browsers: tabs, decent bookmarking and add-ons. Firefox didn’t invent browser extensions (that was Internet Explorer in 1999) or tabbed browsing (I believe that honour goes to Adam Stile’s 1997’s browser NetCaptor) but I do credit Mozilla’s Firefox with redefining the status quo.

However, since the speedy, feature-rich Phoenix/Firebird/Firefox rose from the ashes of Netscape Navigator to knock the slow and bloated Internet Explorer down several pegs, a kind of dull parity has defined the major web browsers — from Mozilla and Microsoft and, beginning in 2008, from Google.

And Firefox, having won the battle (for all of us) against Internet Explorer in the mid 2000s, now finds itself losing a slow war of attrition against Google Chrome, much the way Firefox’s progenitor Netscape lost its battle in the late 1990s against Internet Explorer (that’s irony for you).

Increasingly, Mozilla’s way of holding its own against Google’s browser is to make Firefox more like Chrome, which itself started out by copying the best practices of Firefox. And that trend, on the part of Firefox, is expected to continue.

By the end of 2015, according to HowToGeek, Firefox is expected to move to a Chrome-like multi-process design incorporating sandboxing and shortly thereafter abandon its signature add-on system in favour of one largely compatible with Chrome extensions.

But rather than see this as failure and capitulation on the part of Firefox, it could be viewed as more of the bland feature parity that has been so beneficial for browser users.

Sandboxing is actually good security and a universal extension system would mean more choice for everyone.

Mozilla may be thinking of its users as well as its survival. It would be cutting off something for sheer spite if it ignored truly good features just because it didn’t think of them first. And after all, Google certainly didn’t hesitate to adapt Mozilla features for Chrome.

The days when a browser could introduce a unique killer feature that causes people to switch browsers en masse seems like a bygone memory. I’m not saying that it couldn’t still happen but what big stuff is really left to add, that users will notice?

Today’s top web browsers are nearly as interchangeable as toasters — with different brand names but almost identical high functionality. All that seems to be left to do is to incrementally tweak and refine that functionality.

For proof, I can point to the army of would-be first- and second-string web browsers, all trying to either carve out a specialized niche for themselves or still fighting the last browser war for total feature supremacy — there isn’t a single killer feature to be found in the lot of them, just a whole lot of refining and tweaking. Click the images to enlarge them.

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