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March 4, 2009


Why OmniWeb Failed


Update: See comments below for a response from Omni Group The OmniWeb Web browser is, for the most part, no more. Though the announcement last week highlighted the fact that it was now available for free, the buried lead is that they are stopping active development on the browser. Though they aren’t ruling out future updates, they aren’t promising any either and they didn’t open source the browser. With the browser wars the way they are, that’s as good as a death sentence.

However, most people that used OmniWeb seemed to like the browser. I tried it several times over the past few years, never quite getting to the point where I was willing to pay for it after the trial ended. Sadly though, the browser couldn’t build any real traction. Many Mac users were unaware it was available and, those that did, seemed to always go back to free browsers.

It was, and still is, a fairly innovative browser and one that works fairly well. Based on Webkit, it’s a fast browser with an intersting “tabs on the side” system that uses thumbnails of pages rather than a traditional tab bar. It also has a slew of built-in features, such as ad-blocking, workspaces and individual site preferences.

Yet, the browser is clearly being put into retirement. Where did it go wrong and how can other “deep in the pack” browsers, such as Flock and Opera, avoid a similar fate?

The Business Model


When it comes to determining why OmniWeb is sliding out the exit, many are going to instantly point to the business model for the browser. It was, until the announcement, a paid browser in a field of freebies. Though the price was low, fifteen dollars, it was definitely a barrier to entry.

That being said, I don’t think it’s that simple. In fact, if there has ever been a time for a paid browser to succeed, this is it.

Think about it. The browser is now more integral to our lives than ever. Where five years ago it was a fancy box to look at Web pages, now it’s a mail client, an office suite, a publishing platform and more. Where once a browser was just a commodity, now it is an integral part of our work experience. Where once we could “make do” with any browser, now a good one is a necessity.

The problem with selling a browser is that there are so many good ones out there for free. Between IE, Firefox, Safari, Opera, Flock and so forth, there is a wide selection of good (or in the case of IE, ‘meh’) browsers that can do what most users need and either come installed with the OS or can be freely downloaded. Furthermore, if you want to sell a browser, you aren’t just competing with Firefox, IE, etc. but all of the add-ons and plugins created for them.

That’s a tough sell to say the least but it can be done. If you can bring something new, powerful and compelling to the table, you can probably sell it. If you can make the browser more useful and more powerful for how people use the Web today, there may be a market for selling copies.

In the meantime though, it seems that the “free browser, split search revenue” model for the browser is going to remain the focus. It’s made the non-profit Mozilla Organization a ton of cash and seems to be keeping Flock afloat, even with barely six million users.

Though the business model may have contributed to OmniWeb’s problems, I don’t it was the sole cause of the browser’s lack of traction. I think the browser had, and continues to have, bigger problems.

The Bigger Missteps

In my experience using OmniWeb, I noticed that I would use the browser almost exclusively for the whole 30-day trial but, when it expired, I could never quite bring myself to turning over my credit card. It wasn’t the price itself that bothered me, just a difficulty justifying the purchase. Thinking back, I see why I had the problems I did.

  1. Not Innovative Enough: Though Omniweb did try to bring something new to the browser, its most obvious feature, the tab sidebar, could be easily replicated using a single extension for Firefox. It’s hard to convince me to pay for something that is available for free so trivially.
  2. Stability: The Omni Group does a great job building software that doesn’t leak memory or slow down computers. Omniweb is no different. However, it does seem to crash at semi-regular intervals for me. It’s not an “all the time” problem that was a deal breaker, but a few times a week it would go down completely, even Safari 4 beta seems to be more stable.
  3. Poor Feature Parity: Though the Firefox extension system is something of an inelegant solution when it comes to adding needed features, some of the extensions do add very compelling elements. Though OmniWeb attempted to add some of the more popular features back in, they were poor substitutes. Ad blocking in OmniWeb, for example, was a poor substitute for AdBlockPlus.

In short, OmniWeb, as a paid browser, did not offer anything that was compelling enough to get me to pay for it. In fact, even with it being free, its unlikely that I’ll use it as my main browser.

How to Sell a Browser

As I said above, it isn’t that I think one can’t offer a browser for sale and make money, it’s that Omni Group didn’t do it well enough. This is largely likely caused by the fact that, by their own admission, they are a small company and didn’t have the resources to really build the browser they needed to. They are right to shift their focus to other, more lucrative, apps.

So how would one build a browser for sale? Here’s my suggestions:

  1. Come Packing: If your browser comes with a price tag, it needs to come with some kick-ass features. It needs to be so unique and so powerful that other browsers struggle, through hacks and extensions to get something resembling it. It needs to offer unique, compelling features and be the fastest, most stable browser available. Difficult? Yes. But not impossible.
  2. Target Power Users: This may seem obvious, since power users are the ones most likely to pay for a browser, but OmniWeb screwed this one up. Most of the features of OmniWeb were targeted at the ease-of-use crowd and not the “need to write four blog posts and check my Gmail” crowd.
  3. Rethink the Browser: As I’ve noted before, the Web browser has not changed much in the past ten years or so. The earliest browsers look and function much like the current ones. If you’re going to charge for your browser, it needs to shake things up and not just follow the leader. Being genuinely better will mean doing something radically different that not everyone will like. However, those who do like it will like it enough to pay you money.

The bottom line is that, if you’re going to charge for a browser, it isn’t enough that it be a solid one, which OmniWeb is, it has to be clearly superior, at least to a certain group, and one that other browsers strive to be like.

Bottom Line

The question isn’t whether anyone can sell a browser and make a profit, it is whether someone will invest the time, resources and energy into making it work. It’s going to take more than what Omni Group was able to muster for its browser. Other companies that used to charge for their browser, such as Opera, have also switched to other business models for much the same reason.

But these failures are not due to a market that won’t pay, they are due to the fact that OmniWeb, like Opera, was never able to distinguish itself clearly enough from free alternatives to justify any price tag. Though many feel OmniWeb was the superior browser on Mac, very few felt it was superior enough to justify opening their wallet.

Anyone who wants to sell a browser has a tall mountain to climb and there’s no shame in failing, Opera has done great things with the free model, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be climbed and, as the browser becomes more and more the hub of all our computer activities, that opportunity will only grow.

Of course, as the free alternatives improve, the challenge of getting consumers to open their wallets will only become greater over the years.

In short, if someone’s going to do it, it is now or never…

  • Ken Case

    When we were selling it, it made enough money from its tens of thousands of direct sales to continue to pay for its development and support. But we feel it has the potential to reach a much wider audience as a free application than we did when we were charging for it.

    So OmniWeb is still being developed, we've just decided to make it free. You can see what's coming in the next version under development by watching its daily “sneaky peek” builds at <…>.

  • Jonathan Bailey

    I have to be a bit honest here and say that this has me confused. If OmniWeb was a positve cash flow product, why stop active work on it? Granted, by your own admission in the blog post, development has been slow, but it doesn't make any sense to stop profiting from it and slow down development further.

    The post says the following: “No. We aren’t ruling out future updates at all, and we’re keeping our options open. We have lots of ideas for what we’d like to add to these products, and it’s possible that at some point we’ll have more resources to allocate to them.”

    That makes it seem, to me, that the product is not under any active development, something verified by the Mashable article, which said “which are not currently under active development.”

    To find out that there are new versions, including a beta release today, is surprising.

    Getting back to my point, there is nothing wrong with a niche browser finding a niche audience and making a profit. Though the temptation to open it up in hopes it finds a wider audience is great, I have to wonder about how large of an audience it will find with the knowledge that it isn't under active development.

    OmniWeb is a great browser and I do love it, the announcement it was free lifted my sprits and the related one that it was no longer under active development was a real downer.

    I am beginning to wonder if maybe this is more of a misunderstanding/miscommunication. I want to see OmniWeb succeed, but it sounds like, from what you say, it was succeeding just fine. Other than the potential for the larger audience, was there anything that prompted this decision?

  • Bradley Wright

    I feel OmniWeb's most prominent features aren't the gimmicky tabs on the side (which I never liked), they're the awesome site-specific preferences (including ad-blocking), and excellent (and still to be replicated) history search via location bar. No browser even gets close to these, they haven't yet been replicated in any plugin I've seen, and I'd be using OmniFocus to this day if the WebKit caught up with Safari 4.

    PS: I paid for a license and haven't regretted it.

  • Jonathan Bailey

    You're probably right in terms of usability but if you read the literature on their site it's all about the tab tray. I will say that I did like the tab tray feature, The history search was/is cool but Safari seems to have caught up with it for the most part with the new beta and it isn't a feature I used a great deal on the best of days. I lean more on Diigo, Evernote, etc. to find links of interest.

    The site specific preferences had a similar problem, a very useful feature, but not one I used heavily either. It ended up being something I liked but felt I could live without.

    I probably wouldn't have regretted buying a license, but still ended up not doing it. Considering some of the other crap I HAVE bought, it does seem odd. Still, I wanted to write this to try to put some perspective on it for me at the very least.

  • Greg Titus

    “If OmniWeb was a positve cash flow product, why stop active work on it?”

    (I work at Omni.) Because we have too many successful products and too few resources to continue development full-speed on all of them. And finding the right people to hire takes a long time.

    So it wasn't that OmniWeb wasn't positive cash flow, the problem was that a lot of the other things we are doing are a lot more cash-flow positive, and we came to the conclusion that we needed to put more resources into those things.

    This leaves OmniWeb in kind of a hobby-esque place at the moment. We all still use OmniWeb, and we all still want better web browsing, but the fact is, other apps are higher priority for the time being. And the pricing change (to free for OmniWeb aand for 3 of our other apps) just reflects that reprioritization.

  • Jon Glass

    (my name too, btw), It's odd what one comes across, while searching the internet. I'm a bit late to this parade (three months late, in fact), but I found this post while searching other information, and just had to post. ;-)

    I've been using Omniweb almost exclusively since 5.4. Like you, I played with the demos and then the betas, constantly upgrading, but not paying, but finally, one day, I realized that Omni was the browser for me, and worth my money, so I paid, and put the others on the “shelf.” I use most of Omniweb's unique features regularly, and the ones I use the least, I use no less than once a week.

    I suspect that what you have done in your comments, is project your own needs and desires for a browser onto the entire market. Omni may not have been compelling for you, but for a good number of people, it _is_ compelling. Also, I've been delighted to see Omniweb getting a fair number of updates in the months since they made it free. I have decided to stick with 5.9.1, due to Webkit issues in Gmail, but the sneaky peaks are fun to play with. ;-) I wouldn't give up on Omniweb just yet.

    Since I suspect you will ask, I'll try to tell you what about OW compels me to use it.

    1. Tabs. I do so much prefer the tabs on the side. For one, they are always a consistent size, and not dynamically changing all the time, causing me to accidently close a tab I merely meant to click on (as happens to me all the time in Safari and Firefox, and all the rest–I can't believe this doesn't irritate other people like it does me). Also, I can see more on the screen than with top-tabs (and if I turn off the icons, I can get a _huge_ number on-screen)

    2. The flexibility of the tabs, moving, double-click to open in a new window, drag tabs between windows, etc. OK, most other browsers have added these features–but Omni had it first. ;-)

    3. Workspaces. I have workspaces for certain kinds of works and subjects. It's great! I use this far too much. ;-)

    4. Site-specific preferences. Granted, this one may seem silly at first, but I have a couple web sites, where I have set their downloads to other, specific locations. Also, I prefer a couple web sites to show me all their ads, and others, none. I have also added/changed the CSS for a couple sites I frequent. All of this is possible _only_ in Omniweb, and Omni makes it quite brainless to implement. I may not use all the site-specific preferences for the bulk of my pages, but when I have it, it is a great blessing. :-) Trust me, once you start using it, and seeing the potential, you will find more and more uses for it–at least I did.

    5. Built-in source editing, and a gorgeous item inspector. Love 'em! Don't use them as often as the other features, but when I need them, they are life-savers.

    6. And one feature I am using currently, and use so much, I forgot it was a feature. ;-) Popping out text entry fields into a separate window. You get used to that, and forget it may not be normal. ;-)

    So, as you can see, there are compelling reasons for some/many people. :-) BTW, the “crashing” issue for Omni–not so much a show stopper as I originally thought. 5.9 is very stable, and besides that, Omni crashes as elegantly as you could hope a program to crash. Relaunch, and you are right where you left off. I don't remember ever losing work due to an Omni crash, yet other browsers frequently have let me down on that front–and yes, as you said, they _all_ crash. :-)

    Well, that's my .02‹ worth (a little inflated, maybe)


  • sven

    I fully agree. I even forced myself to try Safari 4 for some time, but I couldn't stand the barely readable tabs. OmniWebs sidebar is a major advantage, because it scales much better when it comes to a large number of tabs.

    Also, nice write-up on the other features. I hope somehow the development continues we're not forced to switch ;)

  • Jon Glass

    It seems that Omnigroup is keeping up with bugs, and also trying to keep the technology at the latest (Webkit, etc.), but they even added a new , albeit weird feature with 5.9.2–Gopher support! I don't think they will be abandoning us any time soon.


  • Jon Glass

    It seems that Omnigroup is keeping up with bugs, and also trying to keep the technology at the latest (Webkit, etc.), but they even added a new , albeit weird feature with 5.9.2–Gopher support! I don't think they will be abandoning us any time soon.


  • Jon Glass

    It seems that Omnigroup is keeping up with bugs, and also trying to keep the technology at the latest (Webkit, etc.), but they even added a new , albeit weird feature with 5.9.2–Gopher support! I don't think they will be abandoning us any time soon.


  • Mark McFarland

    NIce article. I'm writing this on Omniweb (OW) after another short attempt to love it. My default is Camino which, I think, is the best mac browser as it's uncluttered, quick and always reliable. For me, Omniweb failed for three reasons – and I agree with BW below that OW's real joy was its page preference settings, not its tab bar.

    OW failed because it didn't look great in the way that most mac products do. Those 1970s purple bookmark tags have always looked cack. I complained about them back in 2004 when OW5 was in beta stage. No one listened and there isn't a quick means of re-skinning.

    OW also failed because it didn't innovate quickly enough. JB below has it perfectly; everything else on the market caught up in 2007-09 and went past, for free. I used OW4 back in 2002/04 as my default browser. It lacked features and had a few compatibility issues, but it rendered pages beautifully. The font settings were fantastic; the page looked crisp and clear – something like the difference between a document in word and its published version in pdf. Either everything else on the market does it just as well now or OW has lost it.

    The other problem with OW was speed. In recent years I have found it slow compared with others. I don't use Safari much as it has too many rendering problems on autofill sites, but Camino/Stainless/Chrome all work well and very quickly on almost all sites.

    It's sad that OW is being put to bed, but that's the way life is. Keeping ahead of the pack or forging collaborative alliances are the keys to success. OW did neither very well.