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March 18, 2009 7:08 PM

With Internet Explorer 8, Microsoft turns up Web browser competition

Posted by Benjamin J. Romano

Two-and-a-half years after Internet Explorer 7, Microsoft's next entry in the increasingly competitive Web browser market, Internet Explorer 8, is ready to go. The final version of IE8 is due to be available at 9 a.m. Thursday here.

A new, modern browser couldn't come a moment sooner for Microsoft.

Internet Explorer's share of the Web browser market has steadily eroded from more than 90 percent in late 2004 to less than 70 percent in the first quarter of this year, according to data from Net Applications. In that time, Firefox has skyrocketed from about 4 percent to more than 21 percent of the market. Apple's Safari browser has also increased from less than 2 percent to more than 8 percent of the market.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer drew attention to the issue during his February strategic update with Wall Street analysts.

"[W]ith IE8 we are very focused in on a set of technology marketing programs, et cetera, to regain browser share," Ballmer said. "We think that browser share is important. Browsers are not commodity. Browsers are key features of operating systems, and we have a lot of work that we need to do in that dimension."

Microsoft has packed a lot of new features into IE8, some of which even have Firefox cheering.

In general, Mike Beltzner, director of Firefox development, said he is pleased to see Microsoft bringing new browsers to market faster.

"We've had the effect we wanted on the Internet. It's not stagnating. People are continuing to move it forward," he said.

A fourth beta version of Firefox 3.5 is due next month, Beltzner said.

Some of IE8's bells and whistles include:

Web slices. You can park a designated portion of another Web page -- say a Seattle traffic report or other frequently updated and accessed information -- in IE8. Hover the mouse over the slice and it shows you just that info without having to navigate back to the page.

Accelerators. Billed as another time saver, these features allow you to take text highlighted in a browser -- an address, say -- and map it in a new browser window or send it in an e-mail in one step.

In private browsing. For specific browser sessions, you can tell IE8 not to collect history, cookies or other remnants of where you've been online. Great for shopping for a surprise gift for your wife. Right, that's going to be the most common usage scenario.

Online safety. Browsing to a Web site reported as unsafe provokes a big, red, unambiguous warning. It's designed to keep people from hitting known phishing sites. IE8 can also detect when one site is attacking another -- known as cross-site scripting -- which could make passwords and other account information entered on the site vulnerable.

Another major area of change in IE8 is support for Web standards. These common protocols, when followed, allow Web developers to create their sites once and have them behave and appear the same in all the major browsers that support the standards. In the past, when Internet Explorer had more than 90 percent of the browser market, developers didn't have to worry much about whether their sites would render properly in other browsers. That's clearly changed.

"We felt that going to standards mode was key to help the developers write their sites once," said Mike Nash, corporate vice president of Windows Product Management. "Today, most developers write their sites once for Internet Explorer, once for Firefox and then again for other browsers they might want to support. As more browsers move to standards mode, the need to write the [Web site] multiple times goes away. I think it was important for Microsoft to take that leadership position and focus on standards mode."

Microsoft has a complicated system for how IE8 will render Web sites that are not standards compliant. The company will notify the owners of those sites and help them become compliant.

Firefox's Beltzner applauded Microsoft's willingness to "wrestle Web developers into the standards world."

The rest of IE8's end-user features are detailed here. More info on the stuff for Web developers is here.

Asked how much marketing muscle Microsoft plans to put behind IE8, Nash said the company will do a better job talking about this browser than it did with its predecessor, IE7.

"I think in the case of IE7 there were a lot of claims that were made by the competition that went unanswered and a lot of the things were inaccurate," he said.

Nash has been talking about IE8 with his colleagues in the company, "to make sure that there's high-level awareness for it." In addition, the company is planning a digital marketing campaign targeting different types of users -- some that are active in their browser choice, some that are more passive, he said.

Has anyone tried IE8 yet? Tell us what you think about it in the comments.

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