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Internet Explorer 8 Beta 2 Review

Sometimes you get what you ask for. For years, Web developers, standards advocates, technology enthusiasts and others have been asking--no, begging--Microsoft to ship a standards compliant version of its Internet Explorer (IE) Web browser. Doing so would free Web site owners from having to worry about cross-browser differences, though given the millions of intranet and Internet sites developed solely for classic (read: Pre-IE 7) versions of its browser, such a thing would surely bring with it compatibility issues.

Does it ever. With Internet Explorer 8, Microsoft will ship its browser in standards-compliant mode for the first time. And in two weeks of working with the Beta 2 version of this browser, I can say this: The transition is going to be painful. An alarming number of its sites don't render correctly in IE 8 Beta 2, and that's true whether you visit them in its default standards compliant rendering mode or in a special compatibility mode that's supposed to--but doesn't appear to--make it render exactly like IE 7.

That said, Internet Explorer 8 does deliver on the key tenets of its predecessor, IE 7, with advances around day-to-day usage, trustworthy computing and safety, and developer features. In this review of Beta 2, I'll focus on the changes that Microsoft has delivered since the first beta and then discuss some of my experiences using this browser. Well, trying to use this browser, at least.

Day-to-day browsing

With the industry moving to a cloud computing model where more and more of our day-to-day work is performed through the Web browser, products like Internet Explorer are more important than ever before. This reality requires new levels of performance, reliability, and functionality, and, for the enterprise, suitability for mission critical applications, manageability, and compatibility.

From a raw performance standpoint, Microsoft has tweaked IE 8 to make it perform faster. The browser starts up more quickly than its predecessor, as do new tabs and secondary windows. Sites with JavaScript will run more quickly as well, Microsoft says, thanks to an overhauled JavaScript parser. Memory management has been dramatically improved as well.

Dean Hachamovitch, Microsoft's group manager for Internet Explorer, told me that the performance improvements in IE 8 go well beyond pure benchmarks, however. "With IE 8, the sum is greater than the parts," he said. "We've looked holistically at how users actually use the browser. And we've made sure that IE 8 performs better in day-to-day use, making users more efficient and placing them in control."

To this end, IE 8 includes hundreds of improvements and small efficiencies. Accelerators (called Activities in IE 8 Beta 1; see my review) pop-up as needed, giving users context-sensitive actions, while Web Slices, also introduced in Beta 1, provide a way for users to subscribe to portions of Web pages that change frequently.

The new IE 8 Smart Address Bar presents an organized drop-down list that changes as you type, providing you with quick access to your relevant browser history, Favorites, and subscribed RSS feeds. And if one of the search results contains a typo, you can now remove it from your history and thus any future search results. "Our research shows that 80 percent of navigation is to previously visited places," Hachamovitch said.

The new Smart Address Bar probes more than just your browsing history.

Tabs, generally a strong point in IE 7, get even more intelligent and useful in IE 8, which automatically collects related tabs into groups, each of which has its own color scheme. Thus, when you CTRL-click on a link on the current page, the new tab opens next to the current tab, and not at the end of the list of tabs; the two tabs are also colorized to match. "This seems like a small thing, but it's important," Hachamovitch told me. "Tabs open near their source and are grouped according to what the user is doing. They're not just a bunch of tabs, because the user has a task in mind." And if you open a blank new tab, you're presented with a useful UI that provides access to lists of recently closed tabs (in case you mistakenly closed something important), Accelerators, and other features.

Tab groups are colorized for your convenience.

The Links toolbar, widely misunderstood by users of previous IE versions, has been revamped and renamed to the Favorites toolbar. It's now used to save RSS feeds and Web Slices, content types that update frequently. Now, they are more discoverable: Aside from being readily available in the IE 8 UI, items in the Favorites toolbar also go bold when they've been updated.

Answering one my long-standing complaints about IE, Microsoft has finally replaced the Find dialog--which could often obscure the content on the very page you were trying to search. Now, instead of a dialog, you'll see a new On This Page toolbar that appears right below the tabs and Command Bar in the IE user interface. This toolbar works much like a similar feature in Mozilla Firefox, and includes such niceties as results highlighting. (Now if Microsoft would only add a similar feature to its Office applications, they'd really be on to something.)

The IE 8 search box has been dramatically improved, and that's true whether you use Microsoft's Live Search engine or not. The box provides a plug-in model for search providers to create visual search results, so images can appear in-line in the box's drop-down list box, for example, a feature that's used to great effect by, among others. And thanks to this new drop-down, you can easily redirect a search to different providers, moving from, say, Google to Wikipedia in the click of a button. As always, Microsoft respects the search providers you've previously configured, so if Google is the default before you upgrade, it will still be the default after IE 8 is up and running.

The Search box has been dramatically improved and can be customized by search engines.

On the reliability front, IE tabs and windows now all run in their own processes, so if something in one tab crashes, it will only crash that tab, and not all open IE tabs and windows. "Crash recovery is great," Hachamovitch said, "but why not just contain the crash and not end up in that situation in the first place? We think of it as Browser NT," a comment that should draw more than a few smiles from the enterprise crowd.

Safety and security

While some IE 8 security features were revealed with Beta 1--such as the SmartScreen filter, cross-site scripting (XSS) filter, enhanced Delete Browser History, domain name highlighting, and Data Execution Prevention (DEP) support--a number of changes have been made since then as well. "Safety is about more than technology," Hachamovitch said. "We want the user--or the organization--to be in control of the browser, how information is shared, and the settings."

A major new feature called InPrivate Browsing lets the user open a separate IE window that won't later reveal any of the browsing history or information that was transacted while open. Hachamovitch called this "over the shoulder" security: The browser history, temporary Internet files, forms data, cookies, and any usernames and passwords are not stored by the browser after the window is closed. InPrivate Browsing is great for those times when you want to keep your activities secret, such as when you're buying a present for the boss. "Buy the present and then just close the window," Hachamovitch added.

InPrivate Browsing also enables a secondary safety feature called InPrivate Blocking that prevents Web sites from sharing cookie data about the user with third party sites. This feature is aimed at protecting the privacy of the user and can be enabled separately from InPrivate Browsing as well.

InPrivate Browsing protects your browsing habits from prying eyes.

Many new security features can be accessed via a new Safety menu item in the IE 8 Command Bar. "There are just so many safety enhancements, we had to add that," Hachamovitch told me. "For example, Delete Browser History is good functionality, but it can be frustrating if you don't want it all wiped out. Now, we protect Web site data for sites in your Favorites list by default. But you can also configure exactly what gets wiped out when you use this feature."

IE 8 also makes it easier than ever to remove browser toolbars, with an always-on "close" box on the left of every toolbar. If you suddenly find that an unrelated software installation has added a toolbar, just close it: IE 8 will even prompt you to disable any related browser helper objects as well.

New developer features

One of the biggest changes with IE 8 is that it will run in a standards compliant mode by default, a change that could bring compatibility issues. (It certainly does in Beta 2.) To combat the problem of Web sites expecting IE to act like IE 6, Microsoft has built a new Compatibility View into IE 8, which replaces the temporary Emulate IE 7 toolbar button from Beta 1. Exposed as an icon in the right of the IE 8 Smart Address Bar, this feature lets you run IE 8 in backwards compatibility mode on a site by site basis, without requiring browser restarts. "It's great to have interoperability," Hachamovitch said. "But really what people want is a smooth experience."

Additionally, developers can specify which of IE 8's three rendering engines are used by adding a small bit of code to their sites. In this way, Web sites and intranets can force IE 8 to render correctly based on their own needs.

Enterprise features

IE 8, like its predecessors, and unlike Mozilla Firefox, is enterprise-friendly, with familiar deployment and management capabilities. It can be deployed using standard Microsoft products such as Active Directory (AD), Windows Server Update Services (WSUS), or System Center Configuration Manager (formerly SMS), and it can be slipstreamed into Windows client and server install images. A new version of the IEAK (IE Administrator Kit) provides full management of the application pre- and post-install, including the configuration of hundreds of new IE 8-specific features via over 100 Group Policy (GP) settings. You can also manage compatibility issues via a new Application Compatibility Toolkit (ACT) version. And on intranets, IE 8 defaults to IE 7 rendering mode.

As important, perhaps, is IE 8's support life cycle: Microsoft will support IE 8 with updates for the duration of the life cycle of the OS on which it is installed. And unlike with other browsers, IE 8 updates can be managed and configured centrally using existing Microsoft management technologies.

How it works: IE 8 Beta 2 in the real world

So, does IE 8 Beta 2 deliver on all the promised improvements? It does and it doesn't. The performance of the browser appears to be excellent. One of the big complaints I've had about IE 7 is that it appears to really chug along occasionally, and this isn't the case with IE 8 Beta 2. For example, I can often execute a count to 3 or 4 in the span of time between clicking the New Tab button and having that button actually become available in IE 7. In IE 8, this action is instantaneous.

While Microsoft's move to standards compliance is welcome, I'm surprised to report that I've had many site compatibility issues with IE 8, and that's true whether I was using the default rendering mode or the compatibility mode, which renders sites like IE 7 did. Many sites, including Microsoft sites, simply don't render correctly with this browser. My guess is that Web site owners have less than 6 months to make the necessary changes. But a bigger issue is that compatibility problems could hamper uptake of this new browser, and that would be bad given its many excellent functional and security improvements. I'll be watching this throughout the remainder of the beta process.

Many sites, including some Microsoft properties, do not display properly in IE 8 Beta 2.

IE 8 appears to eliminate the need for many of the add-ons I used to load into the previous version of the browser. This is great for users, maybe not so great for add-on makers. That said, IE 8 Beta 2 appears to be very compatible with IE 7 browser add-ons. I haven't experienced any incompatibilities, but I'm not a huge fan of the big "x" close box that is now mandatory on all third party toolbars. There's gotta be a better way.

One area in which IE 8 has a distinct advantage over Firefox is in its suitability for the enterprise. I'm astonished that Mozilla hasn't yet taken the necessary steps to make Firefox more fully manageable and deployable in large organizations. IE has had this functionality for years.

Final thoughts

Now that we have Internet Explorer Beta 2 in our hands, we can see that Microsoft's next Web browser will be a major update with new usability, security, and developer-oriented features. Unlike the competition, IE 8 is enterprise-friendly, though changes to browser's compatibility model could hamper deployment both inside large businesses and with individuals. And that's really the big issue with Beta 2: The functional and security improvements are noteworthy and desirable, but the compatibility problems render this browser (ahem) less usable than it should be. It's unclear if Microsoft plans another major beta release--I was told they would evaluate the feedback from Beta 2 before deciding how to proceed--but my gut feeling is that we're going to see the final release of this product by the end of 2008. That doesn't give anyone a lot of time to do the necessary testing and make the required changes for IE 8 to be a seamless experience. For now, I can only recommend IE 8 Beta 2 with caveats: This is an important browser, and one that all businesses, technical enthusiasts, and other power users should begin evaluating immediately. But it's not something that's ready for the average consumer. Not yet.

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