As the computing world prepares for the release of Windows 7, another big release from Microsoft is also on the horizon: Internet Explorer 8. Currently in Release Candidate 1 status, IE 8 is available for users but still undergoing testing and, if rumors prove true, may be finalized any day.
In recent years, Microsoft’s Internet browser has lost much ground to Mozilla Firefox, a free, open source, cross-platform, graphical Web browser. Google has joined the browser wars with Chrome, and Apple’s Safari (which just released Safari 4 in beta) and Opera are still contenders. So will this latest version be a return to Internet Explorer glory, when the browser once held a 95 percent market share rather than its current 68 percent?
IE 8, like Windows 7, does show some remarkable progress beyond its predecessor. The following are some notable features.
- InPrivate: This legacy feature from IE 7 allows users to halt any recording of their Internet browsing in their history or cache. IE 8 now offers an easy-to-access button for InPrivate mode and also provides administrators with group policies.
- Smart address bar: The new address bar offers suggestions as you type, categorized by your history, bookmarks, and feeds. For privacy you can delete URL suggestions from the toolbar, a function not available in Firefox.
- SmartScreen filter: This function warns you when you visit an unsafe site.
- Domain highlighting: By highlighting the “owning” domain in a URL, you can more easily spot a phishing scam, which is the attempt to fraudulently acquire sensitive information such as usernames, passwords, and credit card numbers.
- Crash recovery: Tabs are treated as individual processes, so when a site crashes, it only crashes that single tab.
- Upgraded tab system: Tabs opened from another site will be grouped with that site by color and be placed next to the originating site for a more contextual browsing experience.
- Web slices: This new feature allows you to grab a section of a site, such as the weather or an eBay auction, and place it directly into the Favorites bar so you can follow it without having to open a new window. It’s neat but one complaint is there are only around 35 of these Web slices available so far.
- Accelerators: These service shortcuts provide a page within a page so that by highlighting text and right-clicking for a menu, you can define or translate text, e-mail or blog something, or open a map without leaving the page you’re on.
- Accessibility: Many new accessibility features have been added, including full keyboard functionality and an impressive new adaptive zoom and high DPI support, which work together to zoom all elements on a page, not just text.
- Other upgrades: An improved Find function offers highlighted results and the number of results found on the page; and improved Search offers visual results with images, an expandable search box, and easily customizable search services.
The Compatibility Issue
Up to this point Internet Explorer just hasn’t bothered to keep up with Web standards. However, Microsoft is now taking a big step forward by having IE 8 function in a standards-mode default, which, while not on the bleeding-edge (CSS 2.1 is supported, while CSS 3 is not), is an improvement. Ironically this is also IE 8’s biggest problem. Many sites that are not Web-standards-compliant (i.e., designed to work in IE 6 and 7) do not render correctly in IE 8. The workaround is a new Compatibility View button, which switches to IE 7 compatibility so sites will render correctly. You can also download a 2,400-plus Compatibility List so that IE 8 will autoswitch to Compatibility View to render problem sites correctly. (And note that some problem sites include Google, Amazon, and eBay.) You can also create your own auto IE7-rendering site list via settings.
The Upgrade Question
If you’re already using Internet Explorer 7 as your main browser, it undoubtedly makes sense to upgrade to the new and improved IE 8. Microsoft even offers built-in deployment features (unlike Firefox, Safari, and Chrome) to make it easier to implement a networkwide upgrade. Just be sure to train employees regarding the compatibility issue before they complain that IE 8 broke the Internet.
If you’re already a Firefox, Safari, or Chrome user, there’s a good chance that your complaints with Internet Explorer aren’t just technical or user-experience oriented but philosophical. IE irks you, for past security issues, its grip on the market via Windows bundling (which the European Union is currently investigating), or the browser’s previous noncompliance with Web standards. But this new browser has enough going for it that it’s worth sating your curiosity by downloading the final version once it’s released.