The challengers keep coming, but Microsoft's Internet Explorer still holds the lion's share of the Web browser market. Most estimates put Internet Explorer's market share at around 72 per cent, which means that when a new version of the browser is released, a lot of people will likely be upgrading.
Internet Explorer 8 (IE 8), the long-awaited successor to IE 7, is about to turn a lot of heads, as Microsoft nears completion of a browser upgrade that does significantly more than tack on enhancements to existing features. Here's what's in store.
Performance: Perhaps the biggest news about IE 8 is what Microsoft has done for performance of the browser. In short, the browser is faster in almost every respect. It loads faster, switches pages faster, and renders complex graphics and videos faster than in previous versions.
No doubt Microsoft is responding, as it has in Windows 7, to users' insistence that performance is consideration number one when it comes to software. But IE now also has considerable competition from Google's recently released Chrome browser, which loads faster than any other browser on the market.
Load times, while they may seem trivial on the surface, are actually very important to most of us, since the web browser is typically called up many times during the day, and for many different reasons. Waiting for the browser to load, therefore, becomes a serious productivity issue.
With IE 8, Microsoft has recognised that performance is about more than just the speed at which the browser opens, however. A few new features of IE 8 are aimed at recognising the types of activities you perform on a regular basis and helping you to get those tasks done more quickly.
For instance, how many times have you found an address on the Web and then proceeded to Google Maps, MapQuest, or Microsoft's own Live Maps to find directions? If the answer is "plenty", then IE 8 will be a boon to your productivity. Thanks to the browser's new "accelerators" feature, you can highlight an address, right-click, and select Map to get almost instantaneous directions from your location, assuming you've registered your existing address with whatever mapping site you use regularly.
The same principle applies to e-mail addresses, words you'd like to define, words you'd like to translate, or e-mail addresses to which you'd like to send a message.
Features: Beyond performance enhancements, IE 8 plays some catch-up with features that other browsers have pioneered. Among them is the new InPrivate browsing mode, which allows you to browse the web without having your browsing history stored for others to see. Google's Chrome calls this Incognito mode. In Firefox, you can achieve something close to Incognito mode by choosing to clear private date from the Edit - Preferences - Privacy dialog box.
Whatever the name, the intention is the same: to give you a way to browse the Internet without enabling others to see which sites you've visited. The ramifications of this feature are obvious, but the fact is that users want it, and browser makers are delivering. Microsoft's InPrivate mode works as well as Google's Incognito, and it means never having to worry about whether the sites you visit can be revealed to those who snoop after you.
For those who frequently visit the same web site over and over again, waiting for updates, IE 8 introduces Web Slices, a feature that allows you to be notified via IE's favourites bar when a site has been updated with new information. Sites have to be "Web slice enabled" in order for this feature to work. When they are, a green Web slice button will appear in the upper right-hand corner of your browser window. Click it, and you are subscribed to the site and notified instantly of updates.
Enhanced security was the headline feature of IE 7, and IE 8 improves on the foundation built in its predecessor. A new SmartScreen filter is a refined version of the phishing filter found in IE 7. Even better, an impressive domain highlighting feature helps to alert you when you stumble upon a potentially unsafe site. Lots of malicious sites use spoof domain names that resemble legitimate ones.
When IE 8 detects that you're on a potentially dangerous site, the entire address bar turns red. Additional security controls help to prevent malware from being loaded onto your computer surreptitiously.
Compatibility: The pre-release version of IE 8 is not compatible with all existing web technologies. Microsoft is aware of that and consequently has incorporated a "compatibility mode" into IE 8, accessible by clicking a toolbar button. Unfortunately, not everyone will even know that a compatibility mode exists, so web site owners who find that their sites do not display correctly in IE 8 will want to avail themselves of code that forces IE 8 into compatibility mode. There are ample instructions on how to do this at various locations on the web.
Users, on the other hand, can only hope that Microsoft works hard to ensure that its newest browser doesn't break a number of existing web sites. If it does, that commanding market share that Microsoft enjoys just might become endangered.
Beta 2 of IE 8 is available now at http://www.microsoft.com/windows/Internet-explorer/beta/default.aspx. It works with Windows XP and Windows Vista.