The World Wide Web is constantly evolving. The earliest Web pages were static sites that featured a few images, some text and the occasional unwelcome MIDI file. Today, Web sites may incorporate sophisticated elements such as Flash animation, video and customized markup languages. But you can't experience innovative features on the Web without a browser designed to handle everything the Web can offer.
That's why Microsoft released a beta version of Internet Explorer 8 (IE 8) in 2008. Beta versions are unfinished builds of programs. The purpose of a beta version is to allow people to test a product before its final build. This gives developers an opportunity to see which features become popular, which ones are ignored and which ones may need some tweaking before the final release. It also lets the developers test the stability of their program before launch. In January 2009, Microsoft offered consumers a release candidate version of the browser -- one step closer to the final official build of Internet Explorer 8.
It took five years for Internet Explorer 7 to hit the Web after the introduction of Internet Explorer 6. But the beta for Internet Explorer 8 appeared only two years after its predecessor. As the Internet and Web evolve, browser developers have to push to stay ahead -- or even keep up. That's just one reason IE 8 appeared so quickly on the heels of IE 7.
Another reason is that Microsoft is preparing Windows 7, the next version of the Windows operating system, for the market. Internet Explorer 7 harnessed the capabilities of the previous operating system: Windows Vista. But Vista suffered from bad press. It turns out the operating system had some problems when it went to market. Many journalists pointed out those problems and before long, people associated Vista with security issues and stability problems. Even though Microsoft released patches to address these early problems, the stigma remained.
Microsoft has designed Internet Explorer 8 to take advantage of some of the capabilities in Windows 7, much as IE 7 worked with Vista. But IE 8 will work on other operating systems as well. Let's take a closer look at the new browser.
New Features in Internet Explorer 8
Dean Hachamovitch is Microsoft's General Manager of Internet Explorer. He says that the Web is becoming more central to our lives and is almost synonymous with computing. Arguably, the Web browser is one of the most important computer applications in the world of software. To make Internet Explorer 8 an improvement over earlier versions, he and his team concentrated on making the browser faster, easier and safer to use.
The team wanted to avoid compatibility problems, so one feature they incorporated into IE 8 was the Compatibility View. This gives you the option of viewing Web pages as if you were using Internet Explorer 7. A related feature allows you to designate Web sites as either IE 8 or IE 7 sites. After categorizing a site, you'll view it using the optimal version of IE every time you visit it.
One thing the team noticed as it researched the best way to build IE 8 was that most people open several tabs while browsing the Web. That's why the team spent time trying to create a simple way to organize and manage multiple tabs. They developed tab groups. Whenever you open a new tab from a Web page, Internet Explorer 8 places the new tab next to the original Web site. It also color-codes all tab groups. You can also remove a tab from a group, close an individual tab or close an entire tab group with a right-click of the mouse.
Another feature of Internet Explorer 8 is a new address bar that functions in a way similar to Firefox's "Awesome Bar" or Google Chrome's "Omnibar." As you type in a term, Internet Explorer 8 searches your browsing history, bookmarks and RSS subscriptions to find a match. It displays matches in a drop-down menu. Clicking on an entry in this menu takes you to the corresponding page.
Safety First with Internet Explorer 8
Hachamovitch points out that browsing the Web isn't just informative and entertaining -- it can also be risky. Many sites on the Web host malware. Malware includes applications that can harm your computer or make it vulnerable to attacks from hackers. The best way to avoid malware is to use safe browsing habits. But sometimes it's hard to tell if a site is safe or not. The Internet Explorer team tried to make it easier for users to recognize safe sites with some special features included in IE 8.
The key feature in the team's safety strategy is the SmartScreen Filter. The filter is an opt-in feature, which means users can choose whether or not to turn it on. It builds upon the phishing filter Microsoft designed for Internet Explorer 7. The SmartScreen Filter refers to a database of sites known to host malware. When you try to visit such a site, a warning screen pops up alerting you to the risks associated with that page.
Another safety feature is the new InPrivate feature. Similar to Google Chrome's "Incognito mode", the InPrivate setting allows users to browse Web sites without retaining cookies or browsing history. This makes it more difficult for outside parties to track your browsing habits. While some people refer to this feature as "porn mode," there are plenty of reasons you may want to avoid leaving a trail. For example, if you are using someone else's computer to research private health information, you may not want to leave evidence behind.
Microsoft also built in an automatic crash recovery system to help prevent users from losing work due to a browser crash. This system isolates browser extensions for each tab -- Microsoft says that extensions cause 70 percent of all browser crashes. By isolating the extensions to each tab, IE 8 helps contain crashes. It also stores information so that you can return to your browsing once you reopen a tab or browser.
Internet Explorer 8 Extra Features
Internet Explorer 8 includes some new functions designed to make browsing easier and more intuitive. These include features Microsoft calls Accelerators, Suggested Sites and Web Slices.
Accelerators are features that allow you to make better use of information from the text on a Web site. Microsoft designed these features to eliminate the necessity of copying text from one page and pasting it into another. Let's say you read an article and want to blog about it using a Windows Live Spaces account. Using IE 8, you could highlight the section that interests you, click your mouse's right button and select Blog with Windows Live Spaces from the menu. Internet Explorer 8 will take you to your blog and automatically insert the highlighted text into your edit field. You can also use Accelerators to find directions to a location, search for an item on eBay and define a term using Microsoft's Encarta encyclopedia.
Suggested Sites is another opt-in feature. If you choose to activate it, Internet Explorer 8 will examine your browsing history and suggest Web sites similar to the ones you visit regularly. It doesn't pull information from any sites you've deleted from your browser history or visited while using the InPrivate mode.
Web Slices let you subscribe to specific blocks of content on Web pages. You can use Web Slices to keep you informed of new e-mail messages, weather reports, eBay auctions and news services. Webmasters have the option to build out Web Slices on their pages by adding some code on the back end. In a way, this turns the IE 8 browser into a portal -- you can pull information from multiple Web sites into a unified view.
If you use Web Slices to subscribe to a page, the information from that page becomes available in a toolbar Microsoft calls the Favorites bar. The Favorites bar helps you organize your favorite sites -- it's essentially a bookmarks manager. But the Favorites bar can also keep track of documents you create in Microsoft Office products like Word and Excel, turning your browser into a more general organization application.
These are just some of the updates you can expect from the new Internet Explorer. Microsoft may incorporate more changes before releasing the final build. To learn more about Web browsers, take a look at the links on the next page.
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More Great Links
- Hachamovitch, Dean. General Manager, Internet Explorer. Personal interview. Jan. 8, 2009.
- Microsoft. "Automatic Crash Recovery: Windows Internet Explorer 8 Beta 1 for Developers." March 2008. http://code.msdn.microsoft.com/Release/ProjectReleases.aspx?ProjectName= ie8whitepapers&ReleaseId=582
- Microsoft. "IEBlog." http://blogs.msdn.com/ie/default.aspx
- Microsoft. "Internet Explorer 8 Readiness Toolkit." (Jan. 22, 2009) http://www.microsoft.com/windows/internet-explorer/beta/readiness/new-features.aspx#favbar
- Microsoft. "Internet Explorer 8: Home page." (Jan. 22, 2009) http://www.microsoft.com/windows/internet-explorer/beta/default.aspx