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Apple's Safari 4 underdelivers on community

The beta test version of Apple's new Safari 4 Web browser tries to compete with Mozilla Firefox, but it misses its most valuable ingredient: community.

Apple promises much with its Safari 4 browser, but it ultimately underdelivers. This isn't really its fault: the browser has simply become too big of a product for any one company to manage. Safari 4's blessing and cursing is that it's the brainchild of just one company. Safari lacks community.

Safari 4 is in public beta, but it comes with some pretty grandiose claims: "The fastest and most innovative Web browser for Mac and PC." This would resonate a bit more if Safari 4 didn't strive so hard to replicate features that Mozilla's Firefox browser already innovated (e.g., the "Awesome Bar"), offered performance that lives up to its billing (I found page rendering to be delayed on my Mac and not much faster, if at all, than either Internet Explorer on Windows or Firefox on the Mac), and came with a community to fill in the many missing features that the Firefox community delivers in spades.

Safari 4 installation screen

As CNET News' Stephen Shankland points out, it's this lack of an add-on community that handicaps Safari 4 the most: "The lack of something like the extensions architecture that Firefox pioneered still means Safari 4 is better only than Safari 3, not the competition."

Firefox, of course, is open source, and Safari, while borrowing from open source, is firmly proprietary. But that's not an excuse. The thing that has made Microsoft so powerful upon the desktop is that it has bred a rich partner ecosystem for Windows and Office which delivers Firefox-like add-on value. (Interestingly, Microsoft has largely failed to accomplish the same thing with IE.)

So, Apple could foster community around Safari 4, and perhaps it will: Apple has demonstrated with its App Store for the iPhone that it knows how to create an add-on culture.

But for now, Apple's Safari 4 claims ring hollow. If its community-building efforts are anything like what Apple accomplished for Safari 3, they will continue to ring hollow.

I'm a huge Apple fan and have used Macs exclusively for a long time, but Apple cannot keep pace with the innovation of the Firefox community. It's just one company, however smart and driven. It needs to bring the power of its App Store community-building to Safari or its new browser will remain underwhelming and underpowered.

Follow me on Twitter at mjasay.