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Netsurf examined

By Chris Williams. Published: 2nd Jun 2003, 20:50:41 | Permalink | Printable

We talk to the developers of the open source web browser

Interview Although the RISC OS platform has, in many areas, a good range of commercial software, having a base of freely available tools and applications is ideal for new users, who can later purchase commercial alternatives. Connecting to the internet is one area of RISC OS that's a smooth enough journey with applications like Sockeeter, Messenger, Newsbase, Nettle, FTPc and others to guide you; it's a smooth ride until you try to find something most users take for granted on other platforms - a modern, competent and free web browser.

This is why Netsurf is rather important and also rather ambitious. It's an open source project to develop a freely available native HTML 4 and CSS supporting web browser from scratch, for RISC OS. Firstly, let's get one thing clear: Netsurf is still very much in development and it's still finding its feet; producing a web browser from scratch is a big task and already the source code is over 600KB. However, having learnt this week that the pace of development has recently picked up, we were eager to find out more about this emerging software.

Earlier today, we spoke to James Bursa, who is one of the Netsurf project leaders to hear his side of the Netsurf story.

"I decided to get involved when there was a discussion about writing a browser on an Iconbar forum", James told us. "I'd already done a bit of experimental code because I was interested in rendering HTML / CSS, so I contributed that as a start.

"My approach to developing it was to start with what I thought would be the hardest part, which is rendering HTML using CSS. It's kind of interesting to see the web from the other side than writing pages".

James commented that amongst the project developers, there is an emphasis on having fun. However, he would like to spend the Summer working on improving communication within the development team. As James doesn't have access to his RISC OS machine all the time, he instead cross-compiles NetSurf on a PC with the GCCSDK and tests builds in the emulator ArcEm.

"GCCSDK is an excellent environment, because I can use tools such as make, parser generators, perl etc. very easily", James added.

"I always look for libraries implementing stuff before attempting to write it myself", James continued, on the subject of Netsurf using libpng, libcurl and other open sourced libraries. "...We use libxml to parse HTML, libcurl to fetch files. Porting these libraries with GCCSDK and Unixlib is trivial, it's no work at all.

"I've tried to make the code as simple as possible so the renderer uses CSS for everything internally. Most HTML elements aren't hardcoded, they're just a rule in the default CSS. You can see it in !NetSurf.Resources.CSS.

"As for developers, things have woken up recently. Most of the code there at the moment is by monkeyson [Phil Mellor] (front end) and me (back end), but jmb [John Bell] is now adding functionality (forms and proxies) and Phil Pemberton is looking at doing GIFs. I've also had contributions from Justin Fletcher, Andrew Duffel has been doing graphics and stuff."

The browser has a modular approach to supporting image formats, making it easier to add in code to allow a new format to be rendered by the browser software. The file fetching code has also been re-written. James admits that there's still a lot of work to do although the project team welcomes any patches and code from outside of their group.

On the tricky subject of Javascript, James wasn't sure if Javascript support in Netsurf would be a reality. He was confident that Netsurf would be able to keep up with new web standards just as well as other web browsers. As for the current situation..

"Firstly, we're just a fraction of the way [through] implementing the HTML 4 and CSS 1 (or even 2) standards completely. Then, we need to work on the quality of the code. For example, there are many leaks, the code is badly documented, and NetSurf will exit on any kind of error.

"I'm sure there will be many areas which have to be rewritten again as we reach limitations in them. I guess I'm pleasantly surprised by our progress though, things have really been picking up recently. I wouldn't have been surprised if the project didn't make it, but I think that possibility has passed now.

"In a year, I'd hope that we're being used as a primary RISC OS browser by people, but it's really difficult to predict. It's just over a year since the project was set up. I'd like to concentrate on getting NetSurf to display valid websites nicely first, but we have to deal with the actual web I guess. It's frustrating that there are so many badly written sites out there."

Click on one of the thumbnails below to see the current developmental build of Netsurf in action with various websites that don't upset it. And yes, they do appear to be using a theme designed for Castle Technology's commercial Oregano web browser.


NetSurf project homepage NetSurf builds

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This is a great project and will be of great benefit to RISC OS users everywhere. Thanks for the effort so far! -- Steve Knutson

 is a RISC OS Userknutson on 3/6/03 6:04AM
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Yes, it's looking good! Does it support https yet? -- Andrew Harmsworth, Cambridge. www.gcse.com owner and author

 is a RISC OS Userharmsy on 3/6/03 8:42AM
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Yes NetSurf is a very welcome project. RISC OS needs a good modern freely available native browser as a benchmark to compare the commercial browsers to and also as a browser for those who are unable to purchase a commercial browser. -- Victor Shears, Maidstone

 is a RISC OS Uservshears on 3/6/03 9:58AM
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Looking good.

Going to port java 1.4 next? :-) -- Ian Hawkins (g0tai)

 is a RISC OS Userpiemmm on 3/6/03 10:21AM
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g0tai: If only!

Saying that users could purchase commercial alternatives implies that Netsurf will never be as good as O2. While O2 right now is the best browser we have, many other free projects have shown that a few determined coders can beat it (on other platforms at least). Having used Netsurf, I don't think that they're a million miles away from having a great product, and one which obviates the need for O2, and the loss of 100.

 is a RISC OS Userthegman on 3/6/03 10:26AM
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thegman: If it works with all the online bankers (egg, natwest(javascript!), etc) then it gets my vote.

How fst is netsurf currently rendering pages? is it usable on an ARM6, or are they just going to ignore any speed issues and concentrate on making it work?

-- Ian Hawkins (g0tai)

 is a RISC OS Userpiemmm on 3/6/03 10:35AM
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It's a stuck record, and I keep saying this, and although NS is a nice project, it _cannot_ be taken as a serious contender without Javascript, even if certain people don't use it. JS is a huge job, and I hope people don't get their hopes up unrealistically.

tgm: NS is a _long_ way from matching O2, despite outward appearances.

-- Peter, drobe.co.uk

 is a RISC OS Usermrchocky on 3/6/03 10:39AM
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Even without any Javascript, I'd find proper CSS support brilliant for web development work, even if I didn't use it as a browser in the true sense of the word.

At the moment, I have to do what I can in Zap, and then bung it across to Windows and have a play there.

 is a RISC OS Usermoss on 3/6/03 12:21PM
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Though having just tried the latest build on an Iyonix, for sites that don't use javascript I much prefer it to O2 (if only because the interface is so much more responsive), despite its rather basic display abilities atm.

I look forward to more css1 support, forms support, and even css2 I hope. Good luck to the team!

-- Sendu Bala

 is a RISC OS Usersenduran on 3/6/03 12:22PM
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Netsurf: It burns my <li>'s

 is a RISC OS Userflibble on 3/6/03 12:28PM
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flib: yes, they're on the TODO list ;)

 is a RISC OS Userjmb on 3/6/03 12:41PM
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An earnest supplication to the Netsurf developers: please, please put in hooks that let the user apply filters, or scripts in her language of choice, to the incoming text stream. I would like to be able, for example, to filter out all IMG tags with a different source from that of the incoming stream. I guess it would be useful to be able to filter the outgoing fetch requests, too.

 is a RISC OS UserGavinWraith on 3/6/03 12:48PM
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I have only just managed to find it and get a copy and so far i am not impressed at all with it. There seems to be no guidance as to where to put the librarys that are also avaliable.. is this with the aim of updateing java so as sites such as go.icq.com would work as they appear not to atm.

 is a RISC OS Userbekka on 3/6/03 1:32PM
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That sounds like something a cache/ proxy might be made to do, not a specific browser. My earnest supplication would be to implement margins and padding asap, so that some default margins could be set up to make the text in sites pleasant to read (text up against the window edges and other columns is nasty). Once the text is readable, it becomes a lot better than some other browsers I use.

-- Sendu Bala

 is a RISC OS Usersenduran on 3/6/03 1:35PM
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bekka: all you need to download is 20030602_2115_26.zip which is the latest version. The libraries and everything else is for building NetSurf from its source code. If you don't want to do this, just ignore them ;)

 is a RISC OS Userjmb on 3/6/03 1:40PM
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Grrr, my last two points were aimed at mrchocky and Gavin Wraith respectively. bekka: I don't think its intended for serious use yet, and as for 'managed to find it'... there's a link in the article ('netsurf builds'), and you just download either the 26bit or 32bit build from the to of the page as appropriate. Then you just double click on !NetSurf.

-- Sendu Bala,

 is a RISC OS Usersenduran on 3/6/03 1:40PM
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bekka: NetSurf doesn't support Java so you won't be able to use things like go.irc.com with it. Can you use go.irc.com with any other RISC OS browser?

 is a RISC OS Userjmb on 3/6/03 1:55PM
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I could point out that Oregano 2's source is considerably larger than that, I mean the Style (CSS) code is 590k, and is expected to double in size as things get added.

 is a RISC OS Userflibble on 3/6/03 2:24PM
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All I was implying is that hopefully NetSurf will be a benchmark by which commercial browsers will be judged. If it is someday so complete as to beat Organo 2 etc into a cocked hat then I will be delighted as I expect will be Castle :-). -- Victor Shears, Maidstone

 is a RISC OS Uservshears on 3/6/03 2:31PM
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Out of interest, if you've never used Oregano, nor Netsurf, how on earth do you know that they're not just screenshots of O2? We've only got the text to trust!

 is a RISC OS Usertribbles2 on 3/6/03 4:15PM
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very well: [link] :P

 is a RISC OS Userjmb on 3/6/03 4:22PM
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Can I point out that NetSurf is very customiseable. If you click menu on the iconbar icon and go into choices you can easily change the theme. Also, there are more themes at [link] If anyone else writes any themes, please send them to me so I can add them to the site. There is no need to set it out so it is ready to download, because I will do that anyway to a custom template. -- Andrew

 is a RISC OS UserAndrewDuffell on 3/6/03 6:11PM
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I have to say, I'm pleasantly surprised to be still holding my breath. A year ago I never thought they'd get as far as those screenshots suggest. Now, I know the accompanying text indicates there's a long way to go before it's a usable application, but it seems feasible to me that they could supplant Browse as my primary browser when I'm on a RISC OS box within, say, 18 months, so long as it doesn't take overly long to make it sufficiently robust.

 is a RISC OS Userninja on 3/6/03 8:37PM
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Personally, from using the past builds of NS, I find that NS is far more functional and works so much better than Oregano! I haven't bought Oregano, no money, I only have the demo to go on. I don't have an internet connection on my Acorn either, I use my own pages or if I want, I download to a floppy on my PC. From what I have tried, NS is much easier to use, renders much faster and uses CSS propely! Half of the CSS I have coded (all CSS1) and tried on Oregano hasn't been rendered propely. I also find that tables look better, and the page is renedered as it should according to W3C regulations. It looks identical to how it's rendered in Mozilla. ----------- Smiler - :D Alex Melhuish

 is a RISC OS UserSmiler on 3/6/03 8:41PM
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My favourate page for showing off NetSurf is [link] because no other browser for RISC OS renders the layout correctly :o

 is a RISC OS UserAndrewDuffell on 3/6/03 9:15PM
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It's amazing, how fast NetSurf is rendering. I didn't expect it to reach this state so soon!

NetSurf is not far away from being a useful browser (error handling)..

A big thank to the NetSurf-developers for the work they did to the RiscOS-community


 is a RISC OS Usercrow on 3/6/03 11:03PM
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NetSurf is the bee's knees. The great thing about it is the way you can watch development :D

Pity the themes page only contains my hacked-together WXL theme. :D These things happen. I wonder if it will annoy R-Comp.

 is a RISC OS UserSnig on 3/6/03 11:30PM
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snig: it's your fault if it does ;)

Incidentally, if people wish to keep tabs on development, they could subscribe to the netsurf-develop mailing list. Bug reports are most welcome ;)

More importantly, if anyone wants to help... ;)

 is a RISC OS Userjmb on 4/6/03 1:24AM
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jmb its go.icq.com and the answer to your other question is no i can not seem to use it with any riscos browser. :-) -- I havent got one.........

 is a RISC OS Userbekka on 4/6/03 5:48PM
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bekka: yes, a typo I'm afraid ;)

 is a RISC OS Userjmb on 4/6/03 6:09PM
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Does anyone fancy making a google toolbar theme for NetSurf?

 is a RISC OS UserAndrew Duffell on 04/06/03 6:28PM
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I've made a quick conversion of the Internet Explorer theme for Webster XL. Still a bit rough in places but only took 5 mins to do.

 is a RISC OS UserOliveyrc on 04/06/03 9:22PM
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If you email it to me, I will add it to the site.

andrew -at- banners -dot- iconbar -dot- com

 is a RISC OS UserAndrew Duffell on 04/06/03 9:59PM
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I'm having trouble trying to e-mail you? My e-mails get bounced??

 is a RISC OS UserOliveyrc on 04/06/03 10:48PM
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I've uploaded to our webserver now. Just take it from there. its only 30k in size



 is a RISC OS UserOliveyrc on 05/06/03 08:38AM
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I hope it has scroll bars on frames.

One of my pet dislikes of Oregano is that frames can only be scrolled by dragging their contents. Apart from needing a lot more mouse movement, there is no indication of how far down a frame you are, which is a nuisance when you are reading something long.


 is a RISC OS UserMartyn Fox on 06/06/03 7:53PM
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It doesn't do scroll bars on frames (yet), probably due to the fact that it doesn't do frames at all :p

Still, it's an impressive achievement already - there's a great many sites that are readable (if not perfect) in the latest version (which now does GIFs in addition to PNGs and JPEGS).


 is a RISC OS Userbarti on 07/06/03 11:56PM
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