Microsoft has finally taken the wraps off its latest Internet Explorer iteration. The recently-released Internet Explorer 8, downloadable for Windows Vista and Windows Server 2008, has been thoroughly tested and cleansed for public consumption.
So what does the new Internet Explorer 8 offer? Microsoft promises something faster, easier, more private, and more secure than what has come before.
A lot rides on Microsoft's ability to deliver. Despite having knocked out Netscape as the leading Web browser, Explorer's place is by no means assured, with open source Mozilla Firefox steadily gaining public acceptance. With that in mind, let's look at features new in IE8.
IE's Accelerators promise to cut steps out of the browsing process, speeding everyday tasks by means of cleverly engineered connections. Take mapping a driving route, for example. Rather than needing to cut and paste an address into a mapping Website, the user clicks a blue Accelerator icon that offers a map displayed directly on the page. The Accelerator can also deliver translation and dictionary services, email content, and Web search.
Acceleration in this case means less cut and paste activity, streamlining functions that have previously called for multiple mouse clicks. Users can select Manage Add-ons from the Tools button to add or remove various Accelerators.
The new Internet Explorer also comes with a number of enhanced navigation features, starting with its own failsafe, Compatibility View. If a Web site isn't ready to support Internet Explorer 8, a toolbar button will display the site in Internet Explorer 7 mode, cleaning up visual presentation as needed.
Do you open too many tabs to manage? A new feature called Tab Groups simplifies things a bit: When one tab is opened from another tab, the pair of tabs is grouped and color-coded, making it easier to follow the chain. This should make it easier to keep multiple tabs in context for easy reference.
All these navigation features point toward a single end, the desire to simplify, simplify, simplify.
Likewise, a smarter address bar recalls recently visited sites based on the first few characters of a URL. It searches across your History, Favorites, and RSS Feeds for likely matches. A reworked zoom function improves upon earlier efforts by intelligently organizing the page in order to eliminate the need to scroll left and right, making it easier to magnify pages with small type.
Staying with the themes of enhanced ease and efficiency — and these do seem to be our dominant themes today — Internet Explorer 8 incorporates a clever piece of technology Microsoft refers to as Web Slices.
It's not uncommon for a user to return to a site several times a day, perhaps to follow stock prices, watch auctions progress, follow the weather, or get fresh sports scores. Right now that's a multi-step procedure. Navigate to the page and click the appropriate link or refresh the page. Web Slices aims to automate these actions.
To add a Web Slice, a user selects a site through a menu on the Favorites bar. If that page supports Web Slices, a green icon will show up in the upper right corner of the browser. A click adds that Web Slice to the Favorites bar for easy tracking.
As the chosen Web site updates, its Web Slice lights up. A click on the Web Slice in the Favorites bar will bring up a preview of the relevant changes. Click on the preview and the browser sends you to the Web site for the new view. It takes longer to describe the feature than to actually use it — the procedure is swift and efficient.
There's a hitch here, though, and only time will tell the severity of the shortcoming. Microsoft has left it in the hands of developers to make their Web pages Web Slice-capable and it remains to be seen how many will make the effort to include the coding in their pages. Right now big names like eBay and Weather.com are participating, while Live Search is providing traffic and finance updates, but it will take a critical mass of developers to build a really meaningful feature here.