Perhaps acknowledging its declining market share among Internet browsers, Microsoft is borrowing several popular features from Firefox and Safari in its release of Internet Explorer 8 beta 1. Although intended primarily for developers, the beta is public and should be used with caution.
We downloaded the 14.4MB file, then waited as Microsoft downloaded any missing Internet Explorer updates, checked for malicious code on our machine, and finally installed the browser. We then had to reboot. Our system crashed during the reboot and had to be manually restarted (but remember, this is a beta).
After restarting Windows, we were not prompted to do anything. Only after clicking on Internet Explorer did we find that Version 7 had been overwritten with Version 8 beta. A first-time-use wizard walked us through configuration and personalization. There's the Express Settings option, which accepts the settings from your previous Internet Explorer installation, and there's Choose My Settings. We chose Choose My Settings, and we were asked to:
- change default search engine (we kept ours Google)
- change Activity Providers (see below)
- enable Safety Filter (yes)
- make Internet Explorer 8 beta 1 your default (no)
- import settings from another browser (yes)
Activity Providers, according to Microsoft, are default pages for maps, encyclopedia information, and social networks. Accepting Microsoft's defaults puts you firmly within the Microsoft universe of Windows Live spaces: Blog with Windows Live Spaces, Define with Encarta, Translate with Windows Live, and send with Windows Live Hotmail. We chose not to install any of these. Later we found that Microsoft has partnered with Facebook, eBay, StumbleUpon, Yahoo, Windows Live, and MSN, and provides "activities" associated with each. By choosing StumbleUpon, for example, we found that we can set Internet Explorer to always check StumbleUpon for reviews of a Web page, for related content associated with a Web site, for up-to-the-minute feeds of popular sites, or StumbleUpon itself. If you check for more Activities, you will find a Page Not Found.
The Safety Filter exists in the latest release of Internet Explorer and is the antiphishing part of the browser. In Version 8, Microsoft adds malware prevention, actively scanning a downloading page for malicious content. Unlike other safe-surfing applications we've seen, Microsoft displays a warning. We think it might be better to flag the user, say, in a pop-up window. Efforts to find what Microsoft found objectionable were futile; you could either block the threat or allow it without ever knowing what "it" is.
When we typed in maps.google.com, Internet Explorer 8 beta 1 crashed. Fortunately, Microsoft has borrowed the Session Recovery feature from Mozilla Firefox. Dubbed Automatic Crash Recovery (ACR), the Microsoft feature only crashes the tab, not the whole browser, and attempts to restore the tab individually. Apparently Google Maps did not crash the page, but our Google Toolbar did. After several attempts to recover the page, Internet Explorer 8 beta 1 asked if we wanted to close the tab.
Another borrowed feature is Web Slices. At the moment, only a handful of sites offer slices, so it's hard to judge how well this works in the wild. Apple Safari has a similar feature, allowing you to create applets on your desktop with snippets from live Web sites. Microsoft isn't that ambitious, as the site snippets only work within the Internet Explorer 8 beta 1 browser.
If you load Internet Explorer 8 beta 1 and then decide you don't like it, you can click the Emulate IE7 button to return your browser to the look and feel of the current version. Check back to see our take on beta 2 and the final release expected later in 2008.