Many people, including myself, were surprised when Steve Jobs recently announced a Windows version of Apple’s Safari web browser. The reason this didn’t make sense is that a) Safari isn’t the greatest browser in the world and b) the world doesn’t really need another browser.


I have always subscribed to the notion that the fewer browsers I must use, the happier I will be. So, I run Safari and (mostly) Firefox on Mac and Internet Explorer on Windows. If you want to use Firefox on Windows, that’s fine with me.


To Apple, however, Safari is not just a web browser. And if not for the iPhone, Safari would not be coming to Windows. Why? Because Safari for Windows is a key part of the iPhone applications strategy.


Here’s an important concept that is hard for some people to swallow: Macintosh doesn’t matter. Sure, I am sitting here on an airplane (flying to Microsoft) running Word on Mac OS X and writing this column. Like most owners, I love my MacBook Pro, especially since it now runs Microsoft Windows at an acceptable performance level.


But, if you take all the Mac users on the planet and get them to buy iPhones, the overall wireless handset market would hardly notice. There just aren’t enough of us to matter. Need proof? Look no further than the iPod.


The huge success of the iPod did not occur immediately after its introduction. The original Mac-only iPod sold well enough, but the sensation didn’t start until roughly three years later when a Windows version of iTunes was released, and Windows users became iPod freaks.


It was the Windows installed base, not the Mac that turned the iPod into a cultural phenomenon. And it will be Windows users who make—or break—the iPhone.


Safari for Windows is the vital link between iPhone and the Windows desktop. Given that software beachhead, Apple is free to create all manner of shared applications and experiences for Windows iPhone users. My guess is that many of these wont work, at least not very well, on Internet Explorer.


With its browser installed on Windows desktops, Apple is free to create all manner of anti-Microsoft mischief, especially with Google as an important ally.


I do not expect the iPhone to sell anywhere nearly as well as the iPod. Right now, there really is no reason for a Windows user to download Safari, expect to smite Microsoft. If you want to do that, I’d really recommend Firefox, instead of Safari.


Safari’s guaranteed penetration of the Windows customer base is limited to iPhone customers, at least until Apple (or someone) creates a Safari-specific application that Windows users want whether they own an iPhone or not. It won’t be easy to do, but I feel sure that right now someone is working on a killer app for Windows Safari.


Once again, the Cold War between Apple and Microsoft is heating up. In the past, that’s been good for both companies’ customers and it should be again.