Beta Man

Internet Explorer 8 Shows Promise

The new version of the IE browser renews Microsoft's commitment to the Web.

It's perhaps a measure of the market failure of Internet Explorer 7 that Microsoft has put its successor out for public evaluation so quickly. Relatively few users have gone through the trouble of upgrading IE6 to IE7, especially those who haven't moved to Windows Vista. Many commercial applications either took their time supporting it or never even bothered.

Now we have the beta release of IE8. Installing and setting up IE8 is easy. It prompts you to use its "express configuration," which sets your homepage, search engine and other defaults to Microsoft sites. Unless those are your normal defaults, go through the manual configuration before you begin.

At first, it may seem like there aren't many changes from earlier versions of IE. The most intriguing new features are under the hood.

WebSlices helps you track content changes on other Web sites. You designate some of the content, then monitor changes to that content independently of returning to the page itself. You can place a WebSlice on a new version of the Links bar at the top of the window and click on it to open a new, smaller window that displays the targeted information.

Incidentally, that new version of the Links bar is now called Favorites. It works by combining the old Favorites on the Links bar. This isn't something you'd necessarily notice unless you were looking for it.

Crash, but Not Burn
IE crashes a lot during my daily work, and not just the IE8 beta. That's probably more a result of malformed code on Web pages than any bugs in IE6 or IE7, but it's not unusual for me to have to restart my Web browsers several times a day.

IE8 has at least part of an answer to this problem. The browser's crash protection can recover from crashes and then restore the session or tab that crashed. So after IE8 or an individual tab crashes, you'll have the option of restoring it.

You'll find one change to IE8 that's largely cosmetic. In the URL bar, IE8 makes the domain name more readable by displaying it in black and the rest of the URL in gray. This seemingly minor improvement will help you determine where exactly you're browsing as you navigate through a series of pages. Occasionally, a Web site will send you to another domain altogether, so it's nice to be able to easily determine when that happens.

Expanded Support
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of IE8 is not something that you'll see right away -- or perhaps ever. The new version supports prevailing Web standards, a continued failing of many of Microsoft's Web technologies. And by standards, I don't mean Microsoft's established standards. I'm talking about the World Wide Web Consortium standards.

This doesn't mean the company is abandoning the quirks and variations it has built into IE over the years, however. For example, IE8 offers three rendering modes for Web pages:

  • One reflects Microsoft's implementation of current Web standards.
  • A second reflects Microsoft's implementation of Web standards in IE7, which are not always compatible with those corresponding standards.
  • A third is based on rendering methods dating back to the early Web, where there were few standards and technology changed largely on an ad hoc basis.

IE8 beta 1 has a long way to go before it's anywhere near production-ready code, but the potential is there to be a much better tool than previous releases. Overall, the browser is still in catch-up mode, but it's good to see Microsoft once again take Web browsing seriously.

My take is that users will update to IE8 more quickly than they did to IE7. This may pose several challenges to Microsoft, depending on how they present the upgrade. It'll certainly challenge ISVs that use a Web front-end and find they can no longer take a wait-and-see approach. In the long run, ISVs, users and especially Microsoft itself will benefit from a more modern and capable Internet Explorer.

About the Author

Peter Varhol is the executive editor, reviews of Redmond magazine and has more than 20 years of experience as a software developer, software product manager and technology writer. He has graduate degrees in computer science and mathematics, and has taught both subjects at the university level.


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