Part 3 in my roundup of the new breed of web browsers. In this installment I’ll discuss the beta version of Internet Explorer 8…
Browser Roundup Series:
Part 1: Firefox 3
Part 2: Google Chrome
Part 3: Internet Explorer 8
Ever since IE 5, Microsoft has been letting me down with each release of Internet Explorer… but I think with IE 8, Microsoft may have redeemed themselves.
IE 8 could, possibly, restore Microsoft to legitimate technical dominance, instead of just having the inherited market-share dominance that allowed previous versions of IE to skate by for so many years.
First off, IE 8 has finally dropped automatic backward compatibility with pages that make use of poor HTML techniques that run counter to W3C recommendations.
This has been the biggest problem that IE has faced over the years. IE is the only survivor of the original browser wars, and so it carried a lot of baggage with it. There was a time before there was a W3C to “decided” what was going to be “standard”, and back then browsers were making their own rules.
IE has always had to maintain a certain level of backwards compatibility for those non-compliant pages simply because there were so many popular sites using them. Making things worse was the fact that some of those techniques made more sense and worked better than the official W3C way; so a lot of lazy developers continued to use non-standard IE specific techniques long after they had became obsolete.
I’m guilty of this myself.
Then making it even worse… newer browsers entering the market also had to support some of those non-compliant mechanisms too… which gave lazy developers even more room to continue using the IE specific techniques.
The result… 10 years later, there are still a LOT of crappy sites out there.
Microsoft has always felt compelled to tread carefully when adopting newer W3C recommendations where adoption would break backwards compatibility. They didn’t want to “break” half the internet when IE users upgraded to a newer version.
But finally, IE 8 will embraced the W3C recommendations full on with the new “super-standards mode”. Futher, this will be the default mode for IE 8.
For those sites that still suck, there is button at the address bar that reverts to the IE 7 style of rendering. .
IE 7 was a good step in fixing the security and privacy issues that plagued IE 5 and 6. But IE 8 has taken this to a whole new level. If you want a more detailed summary check out this post at the IE blog.
There are major improvements in every area of security, but my favorite part is in how IE 8 keeps the user aware of privacy and security conditions as they browse around. The security and privacy settings are also much friendlier this time around too.
Like Google’s Chrome, IE 8 has a special super-privacy mode. IE calls it “InPrivate” while Chrome called it “Incognito”, but they are essentially the same feature. It handy for those times when you don’t want to leave a trail of history, cookies, or saved passwords behind you as you browse. Useful when you check your bank accounts on a public computer, but we all know that the REAL reason this will be popular is for surfing for car-bumper porn without anyone else finding out about your “special interests”.
While it remains to be seen how secure the underlying browser actually is, the user features around security and privacy are much improved compared to previous versions and in most ways are better than those of rival browsers.
IE 8 has a mixed story with add-on support. IE has always had decent extensibility and support for add-ons, but security issues have been a bit of a problem in the past. IE 7 didn’t really try to do much with add-ons except lock them down against abuse. This gave the competition, especially Firefox, a lot of time to gain ground with much newer and more modern add-on architectures and management features.
IE 8 still has the classic add-on mechanisms they’ve always had, though much improved under the hood. Management of add-ons is quite a lot better in IE 8 though. Compared to Firefox though, the add-on system still kinda sucks overall.
The good news is that “most” of the popular toolbars and media plug-ins for IE 7 will still work in IE 8 too.
Instead of a major overhaul with add-ons, IE 8 has added some features that are totally new in IE, and are a bit different from what you find in most other browsers.
“Accelerators” are a new type of add-on. What these do is allow you to select (highlight) something on a page and a semi-transparent button will appear. This allows you to select an accelerator. The specific accelerators that will be shown will depend on what exactly you selected on the page; it is pretty intelligent about not showing options that don’t make sense for the selected text. I’m particularly fond of the “Define with Wikipedia” accelerator.
The other new type of add-ons are Web Slices. Web slices sit on the toolbar, and when clicked they pop-up little mini-windows that show content pulled from a web services somewhere on the internet. A classic example is the “Facebook status” web slice, which just pulls recent status updates from your account. Web sites that have support for web slices can expose those slices very similarly to how RSS feeds are exposed so that when you browse a site with an available Web Slice, a button will appear at the address bar to allows you to install that slice.
You can get slices, accelerators, toolbars, and add-ons from an online add-on gallery too, and thisis very similar Firefox’s add-on system. IE also has a centralized add-on manager that resembles Firefox’s equivalent. Firefox’s add-on system still remains better overall, but IE 8 is taking a pretty good step in that direction.
Probably the most important change in IE 8 for me is the increased performance and much improved visual quality of the rendering engine.
IE has always been a tad on the slow side, and the ugly rendering has been a source of constant frustration. But pages on IE 8 look are almost as good as those rendered in Firefox, and is very comparable to Google’s Chrome. The speed is amazing, much faster than Firefox 3 and very comparable to Chrome.
The majority of the UI features remains the same, or are very similar to those in IE 7. It is clean and professional. The only down-side is that it doesn’t feel very “new” when you first upgrade from IE 7… so IE 8 has a little less “wow!” factor for the users.
A highly marketed feature is the color coding of tabs. Tabs are color coded when opened from the same source tab. This is kinda neat at first, but overall I don’t find it very useful after having used it for several weeks. I do; however, find that the color coding detracts from the overall visual appeal of the browser making the tabs area seem noisy and out-of-sync with the clean and crisp appearance of the rest of the user interface.
IE 8 also improves the pop-up prompts that you see when you type in the address bar. Pretty much everyone has improved this feature, but I think IE 8 has done the best job organizing items in the pop-up suggestion box. Unlike Chrome though, IE 8 doesn’t include suggestions from online searches in the address bar’s pop-up… Instead it still has the separate search box. Oddly, the search box has it’s own pop-up suggestions that does show suggestions from an online search provider, as well as suggestions from history, favorites, etc. that are pretty much the same as the address bar’s pop-up.
While I find that the suggestion pop-ups are incredibly well done in IE, much better than those in the other browsers, I also think they should combine the search box with the address bar like Chrome does… It seems crazy to have two different suggestion boxes that look almost the same, but behave differently. It’s even crazier since it was IE that actually invented the “search from the address bar” feature in the first place. It wasn’t until IE 7 that there was a separate search box.
One step forwards, two steps back I guess.
The beta of IE 8 still has some rough edges, but it has narrowed the gap with Firefox for the majority of users. Microsoft is clearly taking the renewed competition in the browser space seriously. It has plenty of advanced features, is very fast, renders pages much better, has an intuitive UI, and still manages to keep a clean and professional design despite the highly advanced and complex feature set.
IE 8 will compete very well with Google’s Chrome simply because the two share so much in common, but IE has features that remain absent from Chrome (for now).
Power users and developers may still prefer Firefox for the add-ons and customization advantages though.