In this article we'll take a look at NetSurf's latest developments and the project's future plans. NetSurf is a collaborative open source project which aims, over time, to bring up-to-date web technologies to the RISC OS platform for free!
In response to users' complaints of failed downloads, NetSurf's web site has moved away from SourceForge to independent hosting donated to the project by Pepperfish. The web site will benefit from increased reliability and faster downloads. The new domain – netsurf-browser.org – provides NetSurf with a more unified presence on the web.
Much of the recent work on NetSurf has been towards implementing the features planned for the release of version 1.0. HTML lists and CSS absolute positioning support have both been added to NetSurf recently, improving the look of many web pages.
Users who have been regularly downloading the latest builds of NetSurf for years may not be particularly excited by NetSurf's developers pushing towards the 1.0 release, however, it represents a major milestone for the project. Currently very few features on the "for 1.0" list are left to be implemented.
Development, rather than adding new features, has started to focus instead on fixing bugs. There are well over 100 bugs, filed by users, on NetSurf's bug tracker. This bug fixing process should lead to improved stability and a more pleasant all-round user experience. The NetSurf developers hope to have version 1.0 ready within five months.
Why use NetSurf?
Over the years, RISC OS has had lots of browsers developed for it. Recently, we've even been blessed with ports of mainstream browser, Firefox. So what, if anything, sets NetSurf apart from the others?
NetSurf's developers have taken the RISC OS user interface paradigm to heart. Its fully fledged WIMP front end has been designed for RISC OS from the start and honed over several years with input from long-time RISC OS users and developers. NetSurf's interface, while retaining a strong RISC OS style takes some of the most useful features of browsers on other platforms and brings them to RISC OS. An example of a feature that NetSurf brought to RISC OS is URL completion; a list of options of for complete URLs that pops up as you type into the URL bar.
Drag and Drop is also supported throughout NetSurf. For example, it is possible to drag an image straight from a web page to a filer window or Impression document. NetSurf also lets you select text on web pages and drop it on an e-mail or word processor. You can even drag from the link pointing to a zip file download, straight to the filer, bypassing the need to move the mouse pointer to the download box and then drag from the download window to a filer window.
NetSurf's interface has always been about being inobtrusive. It is designed to take up a minimum of screen space with toolbars and status indicators, leaving the maximum amount of space for the browser's primary function; displaying web pages. Various plans exist to improve NetSurf's interface further. One concept that is being investigated is to add an animated progress bar to the status bar. This would show what NetSurf is doing if it appears to have stalled while loading a big page and provide a richer degree of feedback to the user.
Aside from user interface, NetSurf also excels in its compliance with the web standards. It has far more complete support for HTML and CSS than any of the traditional mainstay of RISC OS browsers (the Oreganos, Browse, Fresco and WebsterXL) although it does not match up to Firefox in this regard.
Alongside development of NetSurf for RISC OS, a GTK version of NetSurf (hereafter referred to as nsgtk) is being worked on. With nsgtk, NetSurf has become a multi-platform web browser. It runs on Linux and has also been run on Windows. At first glance it looks very similar to RISC OS NetSurf, although it currently lacks many of the features of the RISC OS version, such as the Hotlist, text selection and page searching.
It is intended that NetSurf will be included in the Debian and Ubuntu Linux distributions as an optional package. This will make NetSurf available to many thousands more people. NetSurf could comfortably fill a niche position as a small, fast open source browser. An increased user base may also attract more developers to the project. Any work by Linux based developers on NetSurf's core will ultimately benefit the RISC OS version too.
It has been recognised that printing is an important feature to many of NetSurf's users. Sadly printing from NetSurf on RISC OS 5 has been hampered by lack of support for Unicode text in the printer drivers. It is hoped the release of RISC OS sources by RISC OS Open Limited will give the developers the chance to identify the cause of this problem and perhaps even fix it.
With the continuing improvements of NetSurf, a promising looking port of the Flash player Gnash by NetSurf developer John-Mark Bell and an up-to-date port of a mainstream browser, Firefox, by Peter Naulls, the outlook for the ever important issue of web browsing on RISC OS is beginning to improve.