The little blue compass on my Windows desktop is easy to mistake for the blue "E" that millions of us click to launch Microsoft's Internet Explorer Web browser. The similarity isn't an accident - because Apple doesn't design anything accidentally.
The blue compass launches Apple's surprise-of-the-week, a Windows version of its Safari Web browser, which CEO-for-life Steven P. Jobs unveiled this week at an Apple developer's conference. Since there are already three good Web browsers for Windows - Internet Explorer, Mozilla and Opera - you might wonder why Jobs would go to the trouble of creating another one.
Since Web browsers are free, it certainly won't make him any money, at least not directly. But there are good reasons, and one of them is to prove that Apple can do it - and better than Microsoft, which bombed with Internet Explorer for the Mac.
I downloaded the "public beta" of Windows Safari a few hours after I heard about the release and installed it on my home computer. Now a beta version is by definition a test run, but by the time a company the size of Apple invites several million of its very best friends to try out a piece of software, it's pretty well developed.
My first impressions: a typical Apple product - slick, fast and good looking, but lacking some muscle underneath.
The installation went perfectly - and quickly. Safari didn't overwhelm me with questions - it set itself up in a couple of minutes and automatically imported my Internet Explorer favorites, which Apple calls bookmarks.
When Safari starts up, you'll know immediately that you're not looking at any other browser. Safari's brushed chrome window trim is Apple's trademark, along with ultra-thin windows borders that make the competition look downright clunky.
All the buttons and menus were in the expected places.
You'll really know you're not in Kansas any more the first time you enter a Web address. Safari is fast - considerably faster than Internet Explorer 7 or Mozilla's Firefox. When I clicked on Baltimoresun.com, a notoriously slow loader, Safari displayed it in three seconds - faster than the other browsers.
This is quite a feat, considering that the others had the advantage of cached graphics - images stored on the user's hard drive so they don't have to be downloaded with every visit.
Safari loaded most sites in two seconds or less - and many almost instantaneously. That's slick programming.
The irony of this is that Safari isn't that popular with many die-hard Macolytes. They complain it's buggy and under-featured.
I was impressed with how few bugs I encountered in what still amounts to a test version. But there were some glitches and some design features that would probably discourage me from switching.
To compare the browsers on the surface, I ran Internet Explorer 7, Firefox and Safari in windows of the same size - alone and simultaneously.
Most Web pages displayed almost identically on all three. Safari's font rendering, however, was darker, clunkier and less subtle than the others. With its ClearType technology for flat panels, I think Windows has had the upper hand here for years - one of the operating system's few graphical advantages over the Mac.
Safari also had problems displaying the Web version of Outlook, Microsoft's e-mail and personal organizer software, which Mozilla's Firefox handles without complaining. And while this is a personal thing with me, Apple lets you resize a window only by dragging on the lower right-hand corner. In Windows, you can click on any border. A small difference, but annoying.
Like Internet Explorer 7 and Mozilla, Safari supports tabbed browsing, which means you can open multiple pages in the same window and click on tabs at the top of the screen to switch instantly among them. But some people find tabs confusing, and Apple, to its credit, doesn't impose them on you.
It also has a good, built-in system for handling RSS feeds. That stands for Really Simple Syndication, a system of aggregating news from a variety of sources that geeks love but no one else really understands.
That's enough of a review - if you're interested in a slick, if not perfect alternative to Internet Explorer, Mozilla or Opera, visit apple.com/safari and download the Windows version. It probably won't wreck your computer, and you might enjoy it.
In fact, that's exactly what Apple is hoping. Thanks to the success of the iPod, Apple's iTunes music software is running on far more Windows computers than Macs.
The iPod has also brought Apple a fair number of converts to Mac computers. So the company hopes another successful Windows application - one that everybody can use - might persuade even more Windows users to hop the fence.
I don't think this is likely. Macs are slick, but most people are satisfied with the computers they have. Of course, the total market is so big that if Mac can move it 1 or 2 percentage points, it can make a truckload of money.
And, as long as Apple doesn't really threaten Microsoft, the Evil Empire isn't likely to fight back. In fact, most of their squabbles have always been for show. A few lawsuits notwithstanding, the companies have had a long, symbiotic relationship.
Microsoft needs a healthy Apple to keep the antitrust wolves at bay. Microsoft also sells a ton of software to Mac owners, who pay top dollar for everything without complaining. Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint are still the world's three standard business programs in their categories - on Windows and Mac computers. And if Microsoft stopped developing Office for the Mac, Apple's flagship computer would become irrelevant outside the graphics trade.
So, if you're feeling adventurous, take a Safari for a ride. It's not as big a leap as you might think.
Adios, amigo: For years, Jim Coates of the Chicago Tribune has served our readers well with his folksy "Ask Jim" advice column. Jim's avuncular style and technical expertise dispelled the mysteries of hardware and software for millions around the country. Now Jim has retired after a career that spanned 40 years in assignments that ranged from local police to Washington politics. We'll miss his voice but wish him well.