July 20, 2005

A trio of open source niche browsers

Author: Lee A. Spain

Tired of debating which Internet browser is superior? Then you may want to try out a trio of niche browsers that are simply interesting: Ghostzilla, BrowseX, and Amaya. Each takes a different approach to the Web experience to serve different kinds of users: Ghostzilla offers a stealthy browser for paranoid surfers, BrowseX provides a minimalist browser, and Amaya serves as both an authoring tool and a browser to showcase new Web technologies.

I tested each of these browsers by visiting three diverse Web sites: Edward Jones, a large financial services company; NewsForge; and auto maker Audi USA. Edward Jones strives to keep its Web site on the simple end of the technology spectrum. NewsForge is a common frame of reference for us all. And the Audi Web site takes maximum advantage of graphics and multimedia technology to dazzle customers that expect the latest technology.

Ghostzilla

If you think someone is watching over your shoulder, Ghostzilla just might be your browser. It offers a sneaky route to the Web. The Mozilla-based browser for Windows 98 or later hides within the work area of a typical office application like AbiWord. Web pages simply appear within the application with toned-down graphics and fonts. An extra toolbar lets you handle surfing functions. If you use the CD-ROM version (version 1.0.1), you can even set the browser up to run from the CD and write your browser history to a diskette.

To get started with Ghostzilla, you simply activate an application, bring up a document, size the application window as you want on your screen, and then activate Ghostzilla. The browser appears within the boundaries of your work application. Anyone walking by will simply assume that you are working on a document. If they start getting too close to your computer, you can simply move your mouse off the window and the Ghostzilla browser will disappear like magic and leave only your legitimate work on screen. When the danger has passed, a simple mouse gesture to the left of the screen, back to the right, and back to the left again brings the Web content right back.

Ghostzilla blocks pop-up ads and lets you choose from six different "hiding levels" for graphics. The first level shows all graphics and full color, like any other Web browser. Level 2 shows the page in black and white and hides big graphics. From level 2 on, the graphics only appear when you let the mouse hover over them. Level 3 shows the page and graphics (when they appear) in black and white. For level 4, the page appears in subdued gray and pictures are in color when they appear. On the level 5 (the default), the page is gray and pictures are black and white when they appear. Finally, level 6 shows the page in gray, and big pictures are gray and pale when they appear.

To a company's network administrator, tracking user surfing habits, Ghostzilla should have the same "signature" as Mozilla, according to the developers.

In practice, on an old Windows 98 machine, I found Ghostzilla to be unobtrusive and easy to use. The browser stayed hidden and didn't appear on the task bar. On a dial-up connection, I found that Web pages were rendered slightly more slowly with Ghostzilla than with my other browsers. Nevertheless, Web pages were accurately rendered and readable. In keeping with its nature, Ghostzilla did not play any movies or sounds from the Audi Web site.

While the Ghostzilla browser seems like a nifty piece of technical work, the project's Web site contains some important warnings about the software. The developer warns users to stay away from naughty Web sites because most companies keep Internet access logs. Further, the developer calls the Ghostzilla a bad idea and warns users not to use Ghostzilla to waste time. Ordinarily it would be easy to laugh aside such warnings, but on the Ghostzilla Web site; the still anonymous programmer admits to having wasted months of company time surfing with Ghostzilla. He developed Ghostzilla just to surf while stuck in a dead-end job under an overbearing boss. After squandering all this time, the developer's problems were solved within days when he finally asked for a transfer to a new position. The developer's conclusion: don't use Ghostzilla to escape important work issues. I'll also add that surfing too much with a conventional browser can lead to a warning, but surfing too much with non-standard personal software that helps to conceal your Web habits can lead to immediate termination.

BrowseX

Comparitive Screenshots of The Browsers
Amaya - click to enlarge
BrowserX - click to enlarge
GhostZilla - click to enlarge

BrowseX version 2.0.0 is an alternative browser developed entirely in TCL and C for both Linux and Windows. A 3.8MB download, BrowseX is a rather slim browser. The project Web site claims BrowseX can run in an X Window on an old 386 with as little as 12MB of RAM. BrowseX also offers some nice built-in features such as an address book and password manager.

Unfortunately, in my testing, BrowseX did not render Web pages nearly as well as major browsers. With BrowseX, only the rather straightforward Edward Jones Web site was rendered quickly and well. Using a dial-up connection, I was able to find an Investment Representative in my neighborhood, see of map of the broker's area, and use a form on the site to send an email. On the NewsForge site, I found the articles were rendered passably, but reader comments appeared in an almost unreadable microscopic four- or five-point font. Having seen raging flame wars after some articles, I could see some merit in BrowseX. However, as I pressed on, I found the browser nearly useless at the Audi site. BrowseX showed most of the text, but pictures, movies, and some important menu options were not displayed. It became impossible to get useful information from the site. On the other hand, pop-up advertisements, annoying Flash movies, and ActiveX code will not bother BrowseX users.

While not great for everyday use, BrowseX still may be a viable choice for hobbyists pushing the limits of ancient hardware.

Amaya

While BrowseX may appeal to the minimalist, Amaya was created by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to demonstrate future Web technologies. Amaya version 8.7.4 is available for Windows, Unix platforms, and Mac OS X.

In addition to working as a browser, Amaya is an authoring tool that allows users to create new Web pages and to create local annotations for Web pages on the Internet. Thus, the Amaya menu bar offers some typical HTML editing icons.

Navigation with Amaya differs from navigation with traditional browsers. To visit a link, you must right-click on it. To create a local annotation for a Web site, you simply click where you want to position the cursor. Annotation and the ability to collaborate on Web documents in real time as you surf is one of the more interesting technologies Amaya offers. Currently, annotations are stored for your own use on your own workstation, but they could also be stored on what the W3C calls an annotation server. This might allow people from all over the world to work on a Web document collectively in real time. For example, if Audi created a collaborative Web site, I'd love to annotate it and mark which Audi cars are too small for tall people. Now, that would be a truly interesting Web experience!

In normal navigation at the Edward Jones Web site, Amaya rendered pages quickly and for the most part accurately. However, Amaya nearly superimposed a box for entering your ZIP code with a box for entering your state. On the NewsForge site, Amaya did not properly render the page. Instead, Amaya displayed vast whitespace and forced the articles to appear down at the bottom of the page. Like the other browsers, Amaya had even more trouble at the Audi USA Web site. It did not faithfully render the graphics or play movies.

Amaya's strengths stem from its ability to author and display Web pages using the traditional Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), and proposed new Web technologies like Extensible Hypertext Markup Language (XHTML), the Mathematical Markup Language (MathML), Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG), and the animation module of Synchronized Multimedia (SMIL Animation).

The special capabilities of Amaya should make it appealing to a variety of niche audiences. For example, academics, journalists, and other researchers should find the annotation features useful for adding their own notes to useful Web content. These notes would be available whenever they return to the page with Amaya. Web authors can readily use the tool to create Web content or collaborate with other writers. Finally, mathematicians and scientists should also embrace Amaya for its ability to create and display Web pages that use MathML. Currently, only Mozilla/Firefox, Netscape, and Amaya natively support MathML. Internet Explorer requires a free Design Science Mathplayer plugin.

Each of these browsers is an interesting Web alternative. Which of these browsers is the best? I think it depends on whether your boss is lurking in the next cube, or whether your basement is filled with an eclectic mix of old machinery, or whether you need to enter your mathematical formula for the meaning of life into a Web format.

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