From Internet Explorer (IE) to Firefox to Google Chrome, there's no shortage of Web browsers to choose from these days--a luxury that can be easy to take for granted for those who have forgotten what things were a number of years ago, after Netscape collapsed and IE was the only game in town. But GNOME, the open source development community, thinks it can offer a better browser than these bigger-name alternatives in the form of Web, formerly known as Epiphany. Is it right?

Although Firefox has long been available as an open source, multiplatform browser, the GNOME team has quietly maintained its own browser package since 2002. The platform, which was known as Epiphany until its rechristening in March 2012 with the simple title "Web," is based on the open source WebKit rendering engine (which also powers Chrome and Apple's Safari) and supports Linux, Mac OS X and BSD.

The browser's new name reflects the focus on cleanliness and simplicity that the GNOME developers prioritize (even if it also makes googling for information about the application viciously difficult, since "web" is a pretty broad term to put into a search engine). The browser is also designed, unsurprisingly, for rock-solid integration with the GNOME desktop environment that ships as the default with many mainstream Linux distributions.

Sizing Up Web

I've been using Web for a while on my Ubuntu PC, ever since Gmail stopped playing nicely with Firefox, and it has some attractive attributes. It's very light, with brilliant response times for starting up and loading pages. In that respect it certainly beats Firefox and is a close contender with Chrome--which, incidentally, most websites seem to identify as my browser, probably because the user agent of Web in Ubuntu 12.10 doesn't actually mention Web. The Web interface is also strongly reminiscent of Chrome, with a design that maximizes space for displaying website content.

In many ways, though, Web clearly reflects the geeky backgrounds of the people who developed it. Its native functionality for Web browsing is quite basic, and the dozen-or-so extensions available for enhanced capabilities--a paltry lineup compared to the hundreds of Firefox add-ons--cater mostly to power users. There's no extension for adding a search box into the toolbar, for instance, but one does exist for firing up a Python console--in case, you know, you want to make some quick tweaks to your latest Python script in between surfing Web pages.

The browser also comes with a pretty rigorous "Web Inspector" feature built in, which allows users to study HTML and CSS layout, monitor network activity and so on. Again, this isn't the kind of stuff "normal" people will care about at all, but it will make geeks happy.

This is to say that, while Web works well for the most basic browsing needs, it's hard to accept the GNOME depiction as "a simple, clean, beautiful view of the web," given all of the catering to developers rather than ordinary users. That's fine, since there are, again, plenty of other browsers to choose from, even on Linux. But as in other GNOME endeavors--such as GNOME Shell, which also arguably suits power-users much more than people who just want to get basic work done--there seems to be a disconnect between the needs of developers and the masses when it comes to GNOME's answer to Web browsing.