(STAR) By Alma Buelva - Internet Explorer 8 (IE8), the latest version of Microsoft Corp.’s browser, is finally available, bringing with it improvements in the areas of security, performance, ease of use and tighter adherence to W3C standards.

For years, Microsoft kept its own IE rendering engine that forced developers to build separate versions of webpages for IE and other browsers.

With IE8, the company embraced W3C standards in a broader way and it also went out to address key issues like backward compatibility, privacy and security for some 800 million current IE6 and IE7 users and potential new users.

To make sure old pages optimized for IE6 or IE7 won’t break when viewed in IE8, Microsoft introduced a “Compatibility View” icon that users could click on to facilitate viewing of the old websites.

By inserting a specially created “meta” element into the webpage, IE8 triggers the old standards mode, emulate its behavior and show the old pages unscrambled.

“We at Microsoft have a responsibility to make browsers interoperable with our old versions and with other browsers as the Web is about the free and seamless flow of information,” said Ryan Servatius, senior product manager, business strategy, Windows Product Management, during a short IE8 media briefing here.

“With IE8 we designed it as a Web standard compliant to the full W3C specifications. We have a shared understanding with Firefox and other browsers that when a developer creates a webpage, it should work seamlessly with all browsers. We are responsible to those 800 million IE users that we didn’t break their favorite sites. We designed for backward compatibility so developers don’t need to rewrite codes and webpages but to put a single tag on the pages that says ‘standards compliant’ or ‘written previously for older version,’” Servatius explained.

IE8 also behaves much differently from former versions, thanks to new features such as Accelerators, Web Slices, visual search suggestions, and SmartAddress Bar, among others.

Accelerator is a form of selection-based search that helps users reduce the number of clicks and navigation time to get to the online information they want. Users can simply right-click a word or phrase and instantly map, e-mail or share it.

“Accelerators are designed to help people go from Point A to Point B fast. It’s an open platform for people to create their own scenarios. It is XML and CSS (cascading style sheet) based and can be created in minutes,” explained Servatius.

Another tool in IE8 designed to maximize users’ productivity online is the so-called WebSlices, which makes favorite information from sites such as Digg, Yahoo! Mail, OneRiot, and eBay instantly available wherever the user goes on the Web.

“It’s the Web in a more condensed format. The technology is RSS that fetches the information needed. The RSS in IE8 can go out on the Web and fetch the information and pull it into the browser in a way that is formatted for the end-user,” Servatius said.

Attention to details

Servatius also lauded the way IE8 pays more attention to small details that matter to users — like the SmartAddress bar.

The IE8’s SmartAddress bar gives users a list of suggestions under the address bar to include sites that users have bookmarked in their favorite folders in addition to browsing history.

With it, users can just type key words and not necessarily the whole Web address and the SmartAddress Bar can pull the page or Web title based on what it remembers.

IE8 also provide users a way to do “visual search” by partnering with major sites such as Amazon, Wikipedia, Yahoo!, and eBay.

In addition, IE8 does color-coding. What it does is it groups tabs from the same website together and color-codes them so, for instance, if four pages from the same website are open, IE8 will group these pages and display their tabs in one color.

The brakes

For users’ privacy and security, IE8 contains new tools to guarantee both. First, there’s the InPrivate Browsing which helps prevent a user’s browsing history, temporary Internet files, form data, cookies and usernames and passwords from being retained by the browser, leaving no trace of browsing or search history.

“The privacy features of IE8 give users visibility and control over who they want to share information with. Users can selectively remove certain sites from their browsing history while preserving their favorite sites,” Servatius said.

Similar to the privacy protection modes in Firefox, Safari and Google Chrome, InPrivate Browsing, which has been jokingly called the “Porn Mode” by some, can be turned on and off by the user.

To protect IE8 users from malicious malware, phishing and other dangers, IE8 introduces a SmartScreen Filter that warns users when the sites or files they are attempting to open are potentially unsafe. If the SmartScreen filter detects a malicious website, IE8 will automatically step on the brakes and block the entire site.

“IE8’s malware filter analyzes the software from sites and block it during download or suggests that you don’t download it,” Servatius said.

IE8 can also stop “cross-site scripting” and “click-jacking.” IE8’s built-in, cross-site scripting filter can detect these types of attacks and disable the harmful scripts. Servatius noted that unlike other Web browsers, IE8 offers this protection right out of the box.

“Phishing sites are immediately flagged as phishing sites. IE8 has an extremely low false alarm rate as we have the technology to scan pages and detect which are phishing sites and must be automatically flagged and put on our list. Phishing sites are usually up only for an hour and they’ll be gone so we try to stay on top of it,” Servatius said.

IE8’s malware filter can also automatically block pervasive sites or pop-ups. IE8 also works separately from the rest of the operating system so, for instance, a hacker gets control of the browser the computer’s OS, registry and file system remain sandboxed, said Servatius.

Speaking of sandbox, IE8’s crash recovery system promises that if a single website or tab crashes, it should not crash the whole browser. This capability is called Tab Isolation wherein each tab functions independently and runs its own internal processes. This means closing a tab will only affect that particular tab, allowing the user to continue with only minimal disruption.

Lab tests

IE8’s coming-out party has been met with white papers and benchmark tests that show it still at the bottom of certain speed tests. Servatius challenged these and called them “artificial lab tests” as he highlighted the results of Microsoft’s own browser performance tests.

“We tested for the real world, meaning we measured performance based on how people actually visit and use the pages. The others took micro benchmarks as the full measure of performance,” Servatius told NetWorks.

“We found at least eight categories to measure and scripting only accounts for about three percent of a CPU cycle to load a page. So, it’s like being in a 100-meter speed race and just because you are fast on the first three meters doesn’t mean you are the fastest in the entire race. In the macro benchmark, we look at other areas that make the sum of the total.”

The IE8 test chose the Top 25 websites in the world as measured by comScore to reflect the sites users are most likely to visit on the Web (see table).

Summary of browser load times (in seconds)

Rank Website Chrome 1.0 Firefox 3.05 Internet Explorer 8

1 0.28 0.22 0.20

2 2.15 1.30 1.32

3 3.48 3.42 3.40

4 0.55 0.97 0.83

5 3.07 2.80 2.55

This table shows results from the benchmark testing process for 25 websites tested on the following browsers: Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox and Internet Explorer 8.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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