I’ve just attended a Microsoft LiveMeeting briefing talking about the new version of Internet Explorer. The comparisons to Firefox were fairly contrived, as you might expect, and even so, the pitch still came off as fairly underwhelming.
Here’s a quick run-down:
- Pages render faster in IE8 than in other browsers. Maybe. Under some circumstances. But in any case, the difference is “pretty small.” (Getting excited, yet?)
- Interesting statistic: Microsoft claimed that Mozilla itself admits only about 20% of Firefox users install add-ons. If true, having more stuff built-in would certainly be an advantage. As long as that stuff was equally ‘rich’ (to use Microsoft parlance) and far-reaching. Well, Microsoft’s main alternative to add-ons are Accelerators, which are like mini-add-ons specific to certain services — Gmail, Facebook, etc. But of course, the functionality is pretty restricted too — mostly they show little pop-ups, like a Live Map. Or instead of cutting and pasting a bit of text into an email, an Accelerator might allow you do it with one right-click. Cute, but hardly Earth-shattering. And it still depends on third parties cooking up the dowloadable modules — just as with add-ons.
- Web Slices are like a proprietary take on RSS feeds. They can let you track specific parts of a favorite Web page — but of course, they require the page to enable this, using special markup on their site. Slices look easier to use than most RSS feedreaders, perhaps, but RSS is a widely-adopted standard, while Slices are all custom Microsoft. (See below about how Microsoft is now playing nice with standards…)
- IE8 clones the Firefox URL “amazing bar,” where it can now offer extensive suggestions as you type, from both your recent sites and quick online searches. There are some minor tweaks, mainly by virtue of working with specific providers, like Amazon and Wikipedia.
- IE8 has a cross-site scripting blocker, which Microsoft admits is similar to the Firefox NoScript add-on. But they called NoScript “extreme” in that it blocks all scripts. (As if that weren’t a good thing!) IE8 InPrivate Filtering is not unlike Firefox AdBlock — but with a simpler dialog, I’ll give them that.
- IE8 allows tabs to crash individually, without bringing down the browser. Cool. This would be a huge help — about twice a year.
- Another big feature: IE is now supporting standards. (As they admit Firefox and Safari have been doing for some time…) Gosh! But the real beauty of IE8 is that it has a Compatibility View, to correctly render all those pages that have already been built for Microsoft’s previous rogue non-standards. Microsoft has even created a new XML tag that can tell IE8 to render in IE7 mode. (Just one more new trick for developers to learn… assuming they still care what IE does with their pages.)
- Not discussed in the demo, but Tabs in IE8 are still horrible, horrible, utterly useless and horrible. Microsoft seems to feel no one will ever open more than about 6 tabs. In my case, their estimate is out by at least an order of magnitude.
All in all, the final release is looking no more amazing than early betas suggested it would be. The new features are all swell, but limited in quantity, and mostly just catching up on features already available in other browsers. The user interface remains by far the worst of any browser, ever. Overall functionality is light-years short of what Firefox can do with a few well-chosen add-ons. (And you can bet that Firefox will remain the more attractive platform for add-on developers.)
This is a far cry from Microsoft’s glory days. When threatened by Netscape Navigator, the company really moved browsing forward in a big way. Overall, there’s nothing in IE8 that would cause anyone to switch back from an alternative browser. Nor anything that would slow the steady trickle of IE users who try something else and never come back.