October 19, 2010, 11:30 AM — 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.
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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.