Microsoft's release should retain its browser base but doesn't yet have enough to lure loyal Firefox users back to Internet Explorer.
With the public release of its second beta, Microsoft said it intends for the Internet Explorer 8 browser to be more customer-oriented than previous versions of its browser. Our initial impression of Internet Explorer 8 Beta 2 is positive: we think Microsoft has not only caught up with Opera, Safari, and Firefox, but in some cases even surpasses these other browsers with its innovative new features. IE8 offers people several enhancements like color-coded tabs, increased privacy options, and greater security features baked right in. Most of the new features require systems to be running Windows Vista SP1 or Windows XP SP3. The final version of Internet Explorer 8 is expected in November 2008.
The user interface hasn't changed much since Internet Explorer 8 Beta 1, except to add a Security pull-down menu between Page and Tools on the main toolbar. In addition to blocking phishing sites, IE8 now highlights the main domain of any Web site you visit. Thus, if something other than eBay.com is highlighted, chances are you are on the wrong Web site. Perhaps the most anticipated addition is Internet Explorer's new antimalware protection. Opera 9.5 and Firefox 3 both recently added antimalware protection. Safari has so far not announced plans for similar protection. Using mostly its own antimalware technology, Microsoft will block emerging threats by masking the entire IE 8 browser screen with a warning to users. The addition of malware protection to the existing antiphishing protection will be rebranded as the Microsoft SmartScreen filter.
In another feature, known as InPrivate, Microsoft allows the browser to suspend caching functions while you surf. Some scenarios for using InPrivate might be when you're using someone else's computer, when you need to buy a gift for a loved one without ruining the surprise, or when you're at an Internet kiosk and don't want the next person to know which Web site you visited. While you can currently clear the browser cache with a mouse click, it's an all-or-nothing action. InPrivate temporarily suspends the automatic caching functions, allowing you to keep the rest of your browsing history intact.
IE8 also contains a cross-site scripting filter, one of the first in a mainstream browser. Cross-site scripting allows an attacker to execute script on a user's browser without them knowing. When the IE8 filter finds a Web page with a cross-site scripting request, it changes the content on the page with a notice. Users are not presented with an option; IE simply blocks the malicious script from executing and displays the rest of the page.
IE 8 Beta 1 has already introduced several changes when handling ActiveX components. Components will be installed per user, which eliminates the need for everyone to have administrator privileges. In addition, you must acknowledge or opt-in for the component to run, eliminating drive-by downloads. Components will be per site and will only be available from the site of origin. Finally, site developers can request killbits, code that identifies a particular ActiveX control, from Microsoft which can be sent via Windows Update to terminate risky or outdated components. Killbits look for a specific identifier; if the identifier is missing or marked bad, an application will not run within Internet Explorer until the developer issues an updated version of the application.
Getting back to the customer experience, there's an underlying assumption by Microsoft that everyone wants new tabs. For instance, opening a bookmark means automatically opening a new tab. To re-open a closed tab, you need first to open a blank tab; same if you want to restore a previous session within IE8.
Fortunately, IE8 has included a new color-coded tab system that interrelates tabs. If you are on one page and click a link to open another tab, the two will appear side by side and share a color. This may work for casual users, but for a power user who needs 10 to 15 tabs open with tools and sites frequently visited, the proliferation of new tabs becomes unwieldy--whether or not they are grouped and associated by color.
IE8 provides what Microsoft calls an "accelerator." Here's how it works: highlight any word or phrase on a Web page and the browser will prompt you with a blue arrow icon. Now, use that icon to associate that word or phrase with a Web 2.0 service, such as Google maps to conveniently find an address. You can customize the options. Your accelerated item will appear in a new tab that is color-coded and adjacent to the original reference tab.
All this is good news for loyal Internet Explorer fans, but loyal Firefox fans still retain the customization edge--for every new feature in IE8, there will undoubtedly be another Firefox extension produced soon enough. If anything, IE8 will serve notice to the other browsers that the sleepy giant has awakened. The browser wars have reignited.