By Harry McCracken | Thursday, March 19, 2009 at 8:55 pm
Now that Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 8 has officially launched, I wanted to take a look at the final incarnation of what may be the browser’s most strikingly new feature: Web Slices, which let you add buttons to your Favorites bar that provide little snippets of Web content when you click them. Here, for instance, is one that lets you peek at your Hotmail inbox:
Back when I reviewed the RC1 version of IE 8, I said that Web Slices were an intriguing idea, but that they didn’t live up to their potential–in part because there weren’t enough of them, and those that did exist were poorly explained. The good news is that Slices have launched with a bunch of examples that weren’t there when IE 8 RC1 appeared. The bad news is that they still don’t come anywhere near living up to their considerable potential.
Shall we run through them? There are:
–six Slices from Microsoft itself: Hotmail, weather, traffic, finance, MSN headlines, and Channel 9 video;
–four ESPN Slices;
– a StumbleUpon Slice;
–an eBay one (which wouldn’t install, at least in my copy of IE 8)’
–a Digg one;
–one from a site called OneRiot;
–one for senior healthcare professionals;
–one from the Times of India;
–one from the Economic Times, also of India;
–a sports podcast slice;
–one for a music site called Jam Radio;
–news about actor Jake Thomas, who played Lizzie McGuire’s kid brother;
–two news feeds from Sify, an Indian site;
–a slice from an Australian bargain-hunting site;
–one for a Web comic called Epo’s Chronicles;
–a National Geographic Channel TV listings slice;
–one called Webstyle Center, with the useful description “This is an good example on how webslices can be used even in small size. As your can see the latest news about the company and it’s work is shown in a webslice, so for people interested in what it does, they can subsribe tothe slice.” I installed it; it links mostly to…stuff about Jake Thomas;
–a social-media press release service;
–a sports news feed;
–an Indian browser-based game portal;
–movie listings. For theaters all over…Malaysia;
–weather warnings from the Hong Kong Observatory;
–a Slice that lets you see upcoming performances at the Mariinsky Theater. Note: It’s in St. Petersburg in Russia–the listing doesn’t mention that;
–eight feeds involving news for programmers, Web developers, and designers;
–one for Webdunia Dosti, an Indian social network;
–a feed for Microsoft blog istartedsomething (actually, it has two listings, for no apparent reason);
–a feed about Australian rugby;
–a “Most Twittered Videos” Slice from Truveo (the Slice itself opened a new IE window every time I clicked on a video–kind of maddening);
–editors’ picks from The Big Money (an excellent site, but the listing doesn’t explain what it is).
Many of these Slices aren’t much more than repackaged RSS feeds; some have descriptions that are vague at best; they all have a spot where they could show a helpful screen image, but many don’t use it. And the four-page section where you find them seems to put them in more or less random order, except for the fact that most of the ones with the widest appeal are near the top. (In fact, don’t bother browsing through them–use the search feature instead.)
The Slices created by Microsoft itself are quite good, but the explanation of how to use them leaves a lot to be desired: You’re told that a green icon will appear in the upper right-hand corner of the browser (that’s not where it is, and it doesn’t always appear on pages that offer Slices). If you click the Add to Internet Explorer link for the Weather from Live Search Web Slice, it dumps you at Live Search and seems to expect you to figure out that you should do a search that includes the word “weather” and the name of the city in question–only then can you add the Slice. Intuitive, huh?
Web Slices could really use a killer app or two–something which leveraged their potential beautifully in a way that was useful to millions of people, thereby making the possibilities clear to both consumers and developers. Oddly, a candidate for that honor existed in March of 2008 when Microsoft released the first public preview of IE 8. Back then, there was a nifty Facebook Slice which showed your friends’ statuses. It disappeared at some point, and didn’t return for IE 8′s formal debut.
I’m not saying that Web Slices are dead on arrival–they’re still an interesting idea, and if good ones arrive and are clearly described in Microsoft’s gallery, the feature could quickly turn into a genuine point in IE 8′s favor. I wish I remembered whether Firefox was accompanied by any truly compelling extensions when it first appeared…or whether they came along later.
Actually, a good example of a much better launch of a browser-extensibility feature is close at hand. It’s IE 8′s new Accelerators, which let you highlight text on a Web page and then do useful things with it, such as map addresses, translate stuff in foreign languages, and sharing items on social networks. There are plenty of them, including ones from some of the Web’s biggest names: Google, Facebook, Yahoo, eBay, LinkedIn, TripAdvisor, a certain company in Redmond, and many others. I can’t imagine anyone who likes browser customizing checking out the Accelerators that IE is launching with and not finding something appealing.
Unsolicited advice to Microsoft: Do a great big second pass on Web Slices, and do it fast. Convince multiple major companies other than yourself to build some terrific ones, and make sure that every Slice at IEAddOns.com is easy to find, is well-described, and does what it’s supposed to. I’d love to see hundreds of useful ones emerge in the coming months–but right now, it seems equally possible that they’ll join such items as Active Desktop and Web TV for Windows on the long list of much-hyped Microsoft features that never amounted to much.