Analysts: Mozilla’s Safari complaints ‘much ado about nothing’

Apple’s decision to push the latest version of Safari to Windows users through a software update application on XP and Vista may have scorn of Mozilla’s CEO. But industry analysts say there’s nothing unusual about the practice.

“It’s much ado about nothing,” said Michael Gartenberg, vice president and research director at JupiterResearch.

The controversy flared up late last week with the release of Safari 3.1. Windows users began noting that Apple was posting the updated browser as a download in the Apple Software Update utility, which is packaged with the Windows version of iTunes and QuickTime.

Mozilla CEO John Lilly decried the move, saying that the practice of offering a new piece of software that users didn’t ask for, and checking that update by default “is wrong, and borders on malware distribution practices.” Mozilla develops the rival Firefox Web browser.

Apple’s move “undermines the trust relationship great companies have with their customers, and that’s bad—not just for Apple, but for the security of the whole Web,” Lilly wrote on his blog.

However, industry analysts that track browser developers like Apple and Internet Explorer maker Microsoft don’t share that assessment. “It’s hardly a stealth installation or sneaky,” Ross Rubin, director of analysis at market research firm NPD, told Macworld. “It’s an option that shows up and consumers can clearly decide whether they want to install it. It’s something that can be positioned as complementary to the other software Apple already has on the machine such as iTunes that likely uses the same rendering engine as Safari.”

Analysts also point out that Apple has made no secret of its plans to push Safari in this manner. When he announced the Windows version of the Web browser at last June’s Worldwide Developer Conference, Apple CEO Steve Jobs said that the company planned to leverage its ties to Windows-based iTunes users to distribute Safari.

“This should come as a surprise to nobody because Apple said they were going to use this mechanism to distribute Safari,” JupiterResearch’s Gartenberg said.

Analysts also note that Microsoft follows a similar practice with its automatic updater. In fact, Microsoft has been steering people away from using “Windows Update” in favor of the more robust “Microsoft Update,” which also checks a user’s PC for Office updates and other Microsoft software. The update mechanism also offers options for new software or capabilities that were not on the PC.

“It’s a little disingenuous of Mozilla because Firefox is a self-updating application,” said Gartenberg, noting that when he turned on his computer recently there was an update for Firefox that he hadn’t asked for. “Now you’re talking about degrees.”

So what’s behind Mozilla’s complaints about the way Apple is distributing its Safari updates to Windows users? Bloggers have suggested that the dispute could be rooted in the Google search tool found on both Safari and Firefox. The search tool reportedly generates revenue for both browser makers, and if Firefox starts losing market share to Safari, that would mean less revenue for Mozilla.

Rubin noted that Mozilla had always been supportive supportive of Safari under the rationale that having more standards-compliant Web browsers is good for the Web and it pressured Microsoft to be more standards=compliant itself. However, that attitude may have changed once Safari stopped being a Mac-only browser and threatened to take away some of Firefox’s Windows users.

“If I were the Mozilla guys I’d be concerned too,” Gartenberg said. “Safari offers a great browsing experience. It may be a bit of sour grapes from the Mozilla guys.

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