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With the release this week of the first beta of Internet Explorer 8, we are finally getting a good look at the next step in Microsoft’s Web strategy. And we also can finally start to put the next generation of the Browser Wars into focus with a new version of IE to compare with the recent betas of Mozilla’s forthcoming Firefox 3. Of course, this release of Internet Explorer 8 is a very early beta and one that Microsoft accurately describes as a developer beta, meaning that regular users should probably stay away from it. However, while Beta 1 of IE 8 is definitely developer-oriented, it does include more in the way of actual new features than I’m used to seeing in developer releases, which are typically focused on helping Web developers code to the new HTML engine in the browser.
Among some of the new features in Internet Explorer 8 Beta 1 are WebSlices and Activities. While I didn’t find either of these features revolutionary in their design, they do offer some interesting tweaks to how users access Web content and carry out everyday Web browsing. Activities is probably my favorite new feature in IE 8 so far based on my initial tests. Activities makes it possible for a user to quickly carry out actions on highlighted text within a Web page. In some ways, Activities works in a similar way to some Firefox extensions, and it even opens to third-party developers in the same way. Activities can be accessed by highlighting text and right-clicking, or in some pages, once text is highlighted, a small symbol appears over the text that when clicked pops open an Activities window. The nice thing about the way Activities is implemented is that it launches in a small window directly from the menu, rather than launching an entirely new Web site. This made it possible for example to easily translate text to a new language or view a quick map of an address without launching an entirely new Web page. The WebSlices feature provides an extended way for Web site developers to make it possible for visitors to extend site content into their browsing experiences. If a developer has enabled WebSlices in a site, IE 8 will detect it in much the same way that current browsers detect RSS feeds. If IE 8 finds a WebSlice, a button appears on the browser tool bar. Clicking this button subscribes the visitor to the WebSlice and places it in the IE 8 Favorites tool bar. Once a WebSlice is subscribed to, the user can quickly view content from that site from the tool bar or in a sidebar and not have to launch the site to see that specific content. Both Activities and WebSlices are being developed using fairly standard Web technologies such as XML. On the security side, IE 8 Beta 1 offers some small enhancements, with the new Safety Filter replacing the old phishing filter. The Safety Filter, which users can choose to turn on or off, looks to see if a site is known as a phishing or malware site, and users can also report sites they suspect of being malicious. If the filter is turned on then Web site information will be sent to Microsoft servers. There were a couple of other small security enhancements in IE 8 Beta 1, including an altered browser address bar that now shows the core domain of the Web site URL in bold, with the idea being that it may be easier for users to detect fake sites that play games with domain names similar to legitimate sites. Along with the information available in the Internet Explorer 8 Readiness Kit, IE 8 Beta 1 also includes some features designed to help developers. These include an IE 7 emulation button which switches the browser back to a standard IE 7 rendering engine. In order to use this feature the browser needs to be restarted. Also, I was sometimes unsure if I was in or out of emulation mode until I found in the Tools menu that the mode was checked when on. Of course, this being a developer release, much of the focus is on the new Web rendering engine of IE 8. As was previously reported, this beta of Internet Explorer does successfully pass the Web Standards Project’s Acid2 test, meaning the browser has a good baseline of standards support (other browsers including Opera, Safari and the beta of Firefox 3 have also passed Acid2). However, the Web Standards Project also has a newer much tougher test called Acid3, which Internet Explorer 8 Beta 1 performed very poorly on. In limited testing performance seemed good, though this is an early beta and even in this short testing period I had a couple of sites hang on me in testing. Because of this, regular users should heed the warning and stay away from this beta for now. Web developers and cutting-edge enthusiasts who can’t stay away can download Internet Explorer 8 Beta 1 here.