Microsoft rolled out the final code for Internet Explorer 8 (IE8) on Thursday, signaling the software titan's intent to take back market share it has lost to competing browsers, primarily Firefox, in the past few years.
In fact, some analysts say IE8 is a big step in the right direction, with a version of Microsoft's flagship browser that does many things right and brings it closer in parity to its major competitors. However, that might not be enough.
The company's market share with its aging earlier versions of IE has fallen in recent years from in excess of 90 percent to only 67 percent today, according to the latest global browser share figures from tracking firm Net Applications.
That means that while Microsoft still dominates the browser category, if it can't slow or reverse the current pace of decline, the company can hardly count on remaining the leader for much longer. Ultimately, that could threaten its operating system dominance as well.
Dean Hachamovitch, general manager of the Internet Explorer team at Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) announced free downloads of IE8 are available as of Thursday morning. The announcement came at Microsoft's MIX09 conference in Las Vegas.
In introducing IE8, Microsoft officials highlighted the browser update's support of the latest and most popular Web standards, as well as its performance versus the competition and its security.
In one major change from IE7 and IE6, Microsoft added a so-called "Super-Standards" mode that will render Web sites using the latest Web standards. That aims to enable sites that are tuned for standards support to properly display in IE8. At the same time, Microsoft came up with ways for owners of sites tuned to run in IE6 or IE7 to be able to tweak their pages to display properly as well.
Additionally, just last week, Microsoft published a video and white paper touting IE8's performance in loading websites as at least as fast as competitive browsers. Indeed, the times of IE8 versus Firefox and Chrome are very comparable. With the differences in speed often too fast for the eye to see, that puts it into the running when it comes to performance, analysts say.
Finally, there are the security improvements. Among the changes, Microsoft made improvements to the SmartScreen filter to make it harder for attackers to steal users' personal information, added an inPrivate browsing mode to protect surfers' identities, and introduced a cross-site scripting attack filter, as well as other anti-malware features.
Still there are plenty of questions surrounding IE's decline and the pressure imposed on it by not only competitors but also by the European Union (EU).
"It's [IE8] a good improvement but Microsoft has lost a lot of market share, a huge drop in just a few years," Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, told InternetNews.com. While he concedes that IE8 is competitive with current opponents' browsers, that's just the first step toward turning around its precipitous market share slide.
"I don't think they [Microsoft] can sit on their laurels IE9 is going to have to be clearly superior to competitors in every way," Enderle added. (There has been no announcement of an IE9 and Microsoft officials declined to discuss any plans regarding the next generation browser.)
Roger Kay, president of Endpoint Technologies takes a slightly different view, pointing to the recent performance report.
"One of the messages that Microsoft is working to get out is that IE8 is no worse than competing browsers," Kay said. To this point, IE has been viewed as inferior to competitors like Firefox, Safari, and Chrome.
However, neither Kay nor Enderle think that Microsoft is backing away from competition, not because of its sinking market share and not due to any pressure from the European Commission.
The EC's pending case against Microsoft for "illegally tying" IE to Windows going back to 1996 may have been the driver of the recent decision by the Windows 7 engineering team to allow users to disable IE on the new operating system. Also, the addition of Super-Standards mode to IE8 may help to soften the blow from the EC the European Union's executive branch if it takes action against Microsoft.
"It's a little unfortunate that Microsoft has to hobble the user interface in order to meet the EC's requirements," Kay added.
However, neither see Microsoft backing away from its role as an arch competitor, particularly because IE has always played an integral role in its role of the Windows browser.
"IE is the underlying engine to the Windows user interface, so I can't see them backing away from IE," Enderle said.
Still, both analysts see IE8 as a viable competitor for now.
"It's a strong comeback [from the poorly-received IE7] and it should slow, if not stop, the market erosion from Firefox," Enderle said. One advantage that Microsoft has, Enderle added, is a massive cash reserve, a luxury that Firefox developers, who do their work on a volunteer basis, do not have, he added.
This article was first published on InternetNews.com.