By Harry McCracken | Wednesday, January 28, 2009 at 11:02 am
By any standard, Internet Explorer remains the planet’s dominant Web browser. Even after serious shrinkage over the past few years, estimates of its market share range from around 70 percent to 80 percent, a figure that just about any player in any business would happily take. Yet IE is a beleaguered giant. It’s got companies small (Mozilla, Opera) and huge (Google, Apple) nipping at its heels with alternative browsers. It’s still trying to shake its reputation for poor security. The more sophisticated a consumer of the Web you are, the less likely it is that your browser hails from Redmond. And it’s so widely used that even minor changes have major implications.
I’ve been thinking about all of these factors as I’ve spent time with Internet Explorer 8 Release Candidate 1, which Microsoft released on Monday. Every one of them has an impact on this near-final product, which adds a few features with no counterparts in other browsers; works hard to make its emphasis on safety as tangible as possible; and, when all is said and done, seems a bit hobbled by the sheer size of the user base it’s trying to serve.
Judging from this blog post by IE General Manager Dean Hachamovitch, a conversation I had with him myself last week, and–most important–the browser itself, I think Microsoft is aiming IE 8 at the teeming masses of folks out there who aren’t browser junkies. Maybe even folks who don’t make any conscious decision about browsers at all, other than whether to upgrade to the newest version of IE or not. Which makes perfect sense. But it means that if you’re content with Firefox, Opera, Safari, Chrome, or my underdog favorite Flock, there’s nothing in IE 8 that’s so strikingly better that it’s likely to lure you back.
Here’s a far-from-comprehensive look at some of what’s new (and old) in IE 8:
Accelerators and Web Slices. These two additions, both of which are designed to provide expedited access to useful Web info, are the closest things IE 8 has to new signature features. They’ve both been around since the first public IE 8 beta eleven months ago–Accelerators were called Activities at first–but they both remain intriguing ideas that don’t yet live up to their potential.
Accelerators are options that show up in a context-sensitive list when you highlight a snippet of text on a Web page, letting you perform tasks such as viewing a map of an adddress you’ve selected:
Web Slices, meanwhile, are widget-like snippets of dynamically-updated info from the Web that you can place as links in your Favorites toolbar, so you can check them without leaving whatever page you’re on. Earlier in the IE testing period, two of the highest-profile Web Slices were ones from Facebook and eBay. Curiously, the Facebook one, which let you check out your friends’ status, is no longer available. And the eBay one is odd and clunky. It lets you add items that are up for bid to your IE 8 Favorites bar, but as far as I can tell, you need to find them on eBay using a special search page designed for IE 8 users. And when I stuck them in my Favorites bar and clicked on them, they only showed a not-very-useful undersized image of the item I was watching:
…until I dragged the Web Slices to enlarge my view of the information they contained, whereupon they became pretty useful:
Both Accelerators and Web Slices will only catch on with IE users if plenty of third-party sites bother to build good ones. Judging from the listings for them at Microsoft’s IE Add-Ons site, response has been less than wildly enthusiastic so far. I count 46 accelerators (a high percentage of which are from Microsoft or Google) and 22 Web Slices (most of which are from Microsoft itself, from Indian content sites, or devoted to superniche audiences such as clockmakers or fans of former Lizzie McGuire supporting player Jake Thomas).
Another problem: The current descriptions for Accelerators and Web Slices on Microsoft’s site are strangely skimpy. Most of them don’t tell you exactly what the Accelerator or Slice does, and few include a screenshot of the add-in in action–which is a shame, since that would be by far the clearest way to convey why you might want it. Here are eBay’s Accelerator and Web Slice info pages:
The good news is that most of what’s unsatisfying about Accelerators and Web Slices has nothing to do with the technology itself as implemented in IE 8. If more developers hop on board and do a better job of promoting their creations, both features could become very useful very quickly. And it might happen once IE 8 is officially the current version of IE.
The address bar and search field. Like other browsers, IE 8 makes its address bar into a Swiss Army Knife that lets you do Web searches (including ones in search engines not owned by Microsoft), pull up pages from your history and favorite, and otherwise locate Web pages of interest. I miss the way Firefox’s “Awesome Bar” finds pages even if you begin typing characters from the middle of their URL, but IE’s version is slick and effective:
Someday, I suspect, browsers will dump their search fields and just use the address bar for everything. But for now, IE still has a dedicated search tool, and it’s easy to set it to default to Google or another engine instead of Microsoft’s Live Search. A feature called Visual Search lets you see thumbnail images as you preview results; nice idea, but the thumbnails would be more useful if they weren’t so teeny-tiny (I don’t have a clue what that third image below is):