Note: Meanwhile this issue could be resolved using the command line (see comments).
In February 2008, I wrote about Safari 4.0 when it was first launched as a beta. Back then, I focussed on the learnings Apple had made by being inspired by the innovations introduced with Google’s previous release of Chrome.
(Image by Apple Inc.)
All that glitter
I don’t know how much Apple changed under the hood, but the most obvious rip-offs were the tabs which were now placed above the address bar. Apple changed that back to the original design with the release of Safari 4. The second UI copy-cat was what Apple calls “Top Sites”, a page that displays your most visited pages in a gallery—in all Apple-glory—with lots of shadows, glossy surface mirror-effects and of course presented in a concave 3D-view.
I had my doubts about Safari’s innovation factor, but it didn’t really matter. Apple’s Safari 4 update was clearly an attempt to impress the average Mac user, not necessarily to please the geeky audience of Web app developers.
Safari 4 later introduced a set of developer tools that are pretty impressive, including a nice data-flow chart, catapulting Safari 4’s value as a developer tool in line with Firefox and its combination of popular developer plugins.
Never the less, the new innovator in the browser business seems to be Google. While it is apparently struggling to finalize a release of a non-crashing version of Chrome for Mac OS, Google Chrome’s innovation factor and its influence on the industry cannot be denied.
Apple brand versus Apple innovation
Apple has a great way of glossing things up. If they continue with this pace, they will have to be careful not to lose focus of real questions and needs consumers may have.
I know it is hard to be the leader in what you do, and the constant need of living up to high expectations, appearing as innovative and fresh as Apple has always been perceived, is probably a lot of pressure. Apple has managed to withstand this pressure well in the past, repeatedly emerging as a victor over various attempts to diminish its great spirit.
The problem with focussing on being the best is, you cannot focus on being really good at the same time. With your eyes fixated on how people may perceive your brand, the foundation of the values that make this brand are an endangered species.
Why Safari 4 has privacy issues
In the past couple of weeks I tried to revive my love Safari 4 again. Playing around with Firefox 3, Chromium (an Open Source version of the upcoming Chrome for Mac OS), I always ended up being frustrated, be it over Firefox 3’s continued memory leak (600MB of constant RAM usage are not normal for any application) or Chrome’s incapability to handle Flash. With hanging head and remorseful feelings I returned the open arms of Mother Safari 4—only to get slapped in the face. So what’s wrong with Safari 4.0?
Simply put, Safari’s glamour feature “Top Sites” cannot be turned off. Try it, you may turn it off for one session, but you cannot turn it off for good. The preferences interface suggests you can, but that is an illusion. Once you startup Safari 4 again, every new tab will show Top Sites again, until you set it back to open new tabs with an “empty page”. You can play this game for a few times, but it won’t change the fact you cannot change the Top Sites setting to “empty page” for good.
You may say that’s not such a big deal. It looks like a minor flaw Apple oversaw when it changed Safari’s beta status to “release”. I would agree, if I didn’t have second thoughts caused by serious privacy issues.
Let Safari decide what you like best
Let me explain.
Every time you create a new tab with Top Sites, Safari consults a database that is hidden in your system. This database was created by the Top Sites feature and it is constantly updated as you are surfing the Web. Its content is never completely deleted when you reset Safari. Selecting “Reset Safari…” from the application menu may give you a warm, secure feeling, but it is nothing but an illusion. There are a number of things Safari claims to be erasing, but in the case of Top Sites it just resets the sites to the default set (Disney, Monster, C-Net and other sites you may or may not want to make your favorites).
I for my part do not consider Disney.com one of my favorite sites, and I am also not on a steady job search. I actually never visit Disney.com or Monster.com. Yet, this is what my browser stores about my surfing behavior.
Again, let me be clear about the issue: You reset Safari, but Safari doesn’t let you. You may also try resetting it first and then changing it to open new windows and tabs using an empty page, or any homepage you define. However, the database of Safari’s Top Sites remains intact in your System Library. Resetting Safari’s Top Sites is futile. You may as well try cooking an egg in cold water.
It doesn’t take a developer to figure out that anything that remains on your hard drive can be located by third party software, some way or the other.
Apple’s lack of care
You can try establishing your own set of Top Sites, by pinning them on the wall. Resetting them using the “Reset Safari…” menu though will reset them, but it will not not empty the database. All it does is putting you back to what Apple thinks are your favorite sites.
I am sure, somebody at Apple’s Safari team is aware of this situation. This is naturally not something they are going to talk about publicly, but I still find it surprising that, two or three updates later, Safari still has this bug. So is this actually a bug?
My theory is, this is less of a technical concern for Apple than more of a marketing- or branding issue. Apple wants to be popular, and it assumes that the most popular sites must be the best option for a default set that never changes. A default set wouldn’t be an issue if you could actually get rid of it.
Technically, having Top Sites actually erase all previous top sites and never adding or changing anything unless you choose to do so, wouldn’t be very hard to do. It is actually the normal way for all other browsers, including Google’s Chrome.
Apple is messing with its Brand Stream
If you think this is about making an elephant from a mosquito, think twice. Think of your bookmarks, by they locally stored or on a social bookmarking service, like Delicious. Would you like someone to mess with them? Sure, a fresh installation of any browser introduces a number of bookmarks you may want to get rid off as soon you opened it first time. But the point is, you actually can get rid of these default settings. Your browser won’t reinstall those bookmarks after you chose to erase them.
I am just one blogger who wrote about this issue. I have read stories about privacy issues of Safari elsewhere, but they were mostly about the beta version. Safari 4 as a release is not that old really, so Apple still has a chance to correct what went wrong. But if they are waiting for too long, it might be too late. Google’s release of Chrome for Mac OS is not so far away.
From a Brand Stream perspective, Apple’s ignorance is not helpful. Again, it is a really, really small issue. But to me, it is symptomatic of an Apple that seems to care less about the core of what made its brand rise above the level of average tech brands.