Top 10 specialty Web browsers you may have missed

These oddly useful alternative browsers offer such advantages as 3-D searching, social networking, easy scriptability, and powerful page manipulation

In the game of technological one-upmanship, the browser used to be an easy place to win. Most people used Internet Explorer, so it was simple to gain the edge by using Firefox. But now Firefox is common, and even Opera and Google Chrome are losing their cachet. Safari ships standard with every Mac, so everyone, the cool and the uncool, have it by default. They're all excellent browsers, but they're still the status quo. Is there anywhere else to turn for a bit of distinction?

Finding an even more obscure browser is surprisingly straightforward, and it may offer more than just the feeling of superiority that comes from beating the crowds. Many of the alternative browsers exist to solve particular problems, and the new and better features are useful to us. Sometimes it's because we're part of some niche like Facebook, but often it's because our boss wants us to do something with information on the Web and the specialized browser makes it simpler.

[ Learn how to keep your Web surfing secure. Read "The InfoWorld expert guide to Web browser security" and download InfoWorld's Web Browser Security Deep Dive PDF special report. ] 

Some alternative browsers are just specialized versions of the common open source implementations. The rebels who feel that the world really needs another Web browser are also smart enough to know it doesn't make sense to reinvent the core technology. They just wrap their own features around Chrome or Firefox, Gecko or WebKit. This point is illustrated nicely in this family tree of Web browsers.

A purist might object that these hybrids are not much different from a standard browser with extra plug-ins. There's some truth to this, but not always -- some of the unique capabilities can only be done deep inside the software. In any case, the job of parsing the terms and creating an exact definition of the Web browser isn't as much fun as embracing the idea that there are dozens of alternatives.

So here's a list of 10 browsers that are not Firefox, Chrome, Opera, Safari, or IE, but that are all the more useful because they're not. They aren't different because they have a different name and some buttons in other spots, but because they offer something that can't be found in the traditional browsers: a more useful representation of Web pages or search results, integration with social networking sites or other services, a lower resource footprint, faster page rendering, or even easy scriptability.

Not everyone will need these extra features, but the list is valuable as an inspiration. We can build new browsers. We can change the parameters of our interaction with the distant websites by adding new features and reprogramming the code. There are some cases when it makes sense to package these changes as extensions, and there are others when it makes sense to call the pile of code a new browser even if the core is an old one -- sometimes because the code is truly revolutionary, and sometimes because we just want to enjoy giving it a new patina.

Specialty Web browsers: Browse Web tables into spreadsheets with Kirix Strata Specialty Web browsers: Browse socially with Flock Specialty Web browsers: Browse leaner with Dillo Specialty Web browsers: Browse in text with Lynx Specialty Web browsers: Browse smarter on Mac OS X with Cruz, Fake, and FluidSpecialty Web browsers: Browse in 3-D with SpaceTimeSpecialty Web browsers: Browse Wikipedia better with GollumSpecialty Web browsers: Browse musically with Songbird

Specialty Web browsers: Browse Web tables into spreadsheets with Kirix Strata There are few tools today that surprise me, but Strata from Kirix is one of them. It's a browser first and foremost, but the fun begins when you open a page that contains a table full of numbers. Then a click of the mouse turns the static HTML table into a dynamic spreadsheet.

Many people won't have any need for this. If your Internet connection is mainly a pipeline for cat videos from YouTube and updates from Facebook, you'll never be able to take advantage of any of its power. But if you work in a business where the bosses repeat mantras like, "You can't manage what you can't measure," then this is an ideal tool.

The sorting and reporting features aren't much better than any of the other related tools on the market, but the integration with the browser makes all of the difference. Suddenly you don't need to beg the back office to give you the numbers in the format that your boss requires. You can take any table and start manipulating it.

As soon as I popped open the Strata browser, I knew where I wanted to turn. One of my websites has a tool that digests all the log files and dumps out a table full of data. The table is adequate, but it's not grouped the way I want. So every day, I would think that I should just dig into the source code and reprogram it to sort the table better and group some of the columns. No more -- there's no need to reprogram because Strata sorts the table for me in a few clicks.

Many of us must deal with imperfect reports on Web pages all of the time. Reprogramming the reports or getting someone in the IT department to do it is often more time consuming than the data demands. Strata costs $250, but it's worth it if you're in such a situation.

The only downside to the Strata browser is that it's starting to age. The company blog posts are fewer and further between. The reporting tool is merely adequate, not fancy or impressive. The plug-ins are clever -- such as a tool for reading data directly from Digg -- but they're all dated in 2008. These are all warning signs, but not deal breakers. The tool is a real time saver, extremely handy if the boss wants those numbers right away.

Kirix Strata brings ad hoc reporting and spreadsheet-like functions to tables on Web pages. It can also draw data directly from back-end databases and other data sources.

Specialty Web browsers: Browse socially with Flock Somewhere in a different universe created when Web history took a different turn, Facebook doesn't exist and Flock is the dominant browser that unites people with their friends, letting them share links and messages. The folks who built Flock recognized the importance of social browsing long ago and created a tool to help get this done.

For some reason, people joined Facebook instead of adopting a new browser. Today some estimates -- perhaps bogus -- suggest that 20% of Web traffic is devoted to Facebook updates. Some email services say that the real mail travels via Facebook, while the email spool files are mostly filled with spam and updates from Facebook about messages.

Flock adapted nicely to this change by adopting access to Facebook's API. While you're browsing the Web, Flock is pulling in the status updates from Facebook, Twitter, and other RSS feeds, then scrolling this information alongside the main page. You can point your browser anywhere you want to go and never leave Facebook or Twitter behind.

Flock is completely integrated with these services, an approach that makes more sense than offering many of the same services. Sure, you can always go to Facebook.com, but that requires switching from site to site whenever you see something worth sharing. Many of these features work better wrapped around the browser than set apart as a website, and Flock accomplishes that.

The Flock browser also offers a few enhancements that Facebook should have delivered long ago, such as classifying some people as better friends than others. Their news will pop up immediately in Flock's sidebar, while Aunt Judy's cat pictures can wait until later.

The core of the Flock browser is now Google Chrome, whereas Flock was originally built around Firefox. While it may be hard for some users to leave the Firefox ecosystem and its huge collection of add-ons, there are now few reasons not to use Flock instead of Chrome. You get all of Chrome's core strengths and available extensions, along with Flock's extra powers.

Flock shows regular Web pages in the main window and updates from Facebook, Twitter, and RSS feeds in the sidebar.

Specialty Web browsers: Browse leaner with Dillo Are all of the AJAX calls and fancy JavaScript features dragging down the performance of your PC? Do you need to tap your heels while the information swirls around your screen in a tedious, HTML5-choreographed dance? Fret no more. Dillo is here for you -- if you use Linux or if you are ready to compile the C code for yourself.

Dillo hearkens back to the era of "Dragnet" when Jack Webb wanted just the facts. JavaScript tags get ignored and the information just appears. This lightens the load so much that you can browse the Internet faster on a 486 than you can with a modern computer that never has enough RAM to hold all of that semi-compiled JavaScript code.

It's hard to use Dillo without a compiler, but that just makes it a bit more obscure and gives the user even more of a reason to adopt an air of superiority. Where mere mortals need to keep buying faster processors with more cores, you're able to live simply with the 486 that your grandfather passed along to your father who passed it along to you.

The Dillo Web browser takes you back to the early '90s when the words spoke to us, not the movement of the images.

Specialty Web browsers: Browse in text with Lynx Lynx works with a command line, and that alone is a miracle. All of the text and the links are arranged in the ASCII terminal window in some reasonable approximation of what a real browser would do. The images are just marked with the alternative text if there is any. (Someday someone will pass the images through an ASCII art filter, but that would be more cool than useful.)

The main reason people use Lynx is to download software while logged in remotely to a computer. People maintaining servers remotely swear by it.

The Lynx browser is strictly ASCII, with no images, for command-line junkies who must use the Web.

Specialty Web browsers: Browse smarter on Mac OS X with Cruz, Fake, and Fluid These three browsers from Todd Ditchendorf of Celestial Teapot Software are probably each worthy of an entry on their own, but they're lumped together for simplicity. All of them work only on Mac OS X and use the same core rendering engine. The value comes in the way that they package the information.

Cruz, for instance, unpacks results from websites like Google and then fetches the links, renders the pages, and displays the results in a tab with the same basic CoverFlow that Apple uses in iTunes. The browser also tracks your Twitter account in a sidebar in much the same way that Flock does. There's no reason to have a separate window that gets lost in all of your other tabs and windows. That essential information drip of 140-character updates is always available.

Cruz will download all of the links from a Google search and display them in a Cover Flow window at the bottom.

Fake is an ideal tool for website programmers and managers. You can use AppleScripts to control the behavior of the browser -- perfect for testing. While Cruz and Fluid are free, Fake costs $29, but it's probably worth the price if you're worried about quality control.

Fake combines a Safari browser with an AppleScript scripting tool. It's easy to drag a series of browser actions together into workflows to automate testing or onerous tasks such as filling in Web forms.

Fluid builds "site-specific browsers," which are stand-alone browser applications that go to one site and one site only. They're like Safari but without most of the controls and buttons. Opera has a similar feature and calls them widgets. They're quite useful in computer labs and other public settings where people could use an open browser for reasons that aren't necessarily what the kiosk is supposed to be doing. Each time you run the program, it will suck down the Favicon from the URL bar and use it for the icon to the site-specific browser.

If you need a simple application that goes to one website, Fluid will produce it for you -- no extra buttons, just the website.

Specialty Web browsers: Browse in 3-D with SpaceTime In Hollywood, some movie directors create fancy new user interfaces for science fiction movies just so we know we're in the future. After a tough day at the office staring at an inbox that is just a long list, we get to go to the movies that show the future heroes pointing and gesturing as the information floats and bounces across the screen. I'm sure that the future heroes will get the same mixture of spam and depressing credit card bills, but somehow it just looks so much more fun when these messages fly across the screen.

SpaceTime is a browser that brings some of this promise to us now by building an "unlimited 3D space" and floating the data around in these three dimensions. If tabbed browsing arranges your information in one axis along the tab bar, SpaceTime uses three axes.

Is this just eye candy? I suppose it can look like that from time to time, but it offers more than just three dimensions for some websites. The SpaceTime developers tuned the browser to unpack the search results from major sites like eBay, Flickr, and Google into constellations of floating windows. I'm not sure it's perfect, though, because the special feature didn't work with every website I tried.

1 2 Page
Insider: How the basic tech behind the Internet works
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies