The first beta of Internet Explorer 8 was released to the public today, and following Microsoft’s yesterday announcement that Internet Explorer 8 will use its most web standards compatible mode by default, an important milestone in the way to a truly open web, I was eager to see this new version and what’s new, from a Firefox user perspective.
I installed it on Windows XP SP 2 but couldn’t make it even the home page as it kept crashing immediately. Reinstalling twice didn’t help either. So I tried it on Windows Vista where fortunately installation went without any problem. It however took about eight minutes without counting the computer restart, a whole age for Firefox users used to minute or less installs and updates.
The installer is about 11-12 MB for either XP or Vista, huge compared with Firefox’s 6.5 MB download.
My first impression from reading the “New and exciting features” section of the Internet Explorer 8 Readiness Toolkit was “That’s it?” as it is a very short list of just five items Microsoft is introducing in this release.
First in the list is Activities a feature that allows users to select some text and pass it to a web service to define it (Dictionary.com, Answers.com and similar), translate it, get a map, blog it or submit it to a social bookmarking site like Reddit or digg. In the background, someone (the service owner or an enthusiast) must create an OSD (Open Services Description) file that tells Internet Explorer where, what and how to send the selection to that particular service. The user must install the OSD file to add the activity. From then on you have it available in the context menu.
It however falls pretty short when compared to microformats, a standard to mark certain web page areas as geographic references, events, dates, contact information, tags, etc. Operator, for example, is a Firefox extension that recognizes this marked content and can pass it to the appropriate web service. Unlike Activities, since the passed content is microformatted, much more detail is provided and more specific tasks can be performed than a simple lookup.
Anyway, Michael Kaply, the author of Operator has already developed Microsoft Activities, a Firefox extension that processes OSD files and add content search activities.
In Firefox, when you bookmark a web site with a microsummary, you have the option to use the current page title or, if available, a live title: a tiny piece of web page text that shows the most relevant and updated facts. For example, for an auction it would be the item name and current bid, a stock symbol and value, or current weather conditions. Firefox periodically pings the page and updates the title if necessary.
Internet Explorer’s WebSlices, (partially based on the hAtom microformat) does pretty much the same but with a cool twist: instead of just text you get images and formatting. Myk Melez, creator of microsummaries (for Firefox 2) proposed a couple of years ago this kind of improvement. It was also proposed asÂ Summer of Code project last year.
Internet Explorer’s crash recovery goes beyond session recovery we find in Firefox and Opera with single tab recovery: just the tab that hangs up is closed and recovered thanks to its architecture that runs each tab in a separate thread. According to a developer white paper, recovered pages are re-navigated and not pulled from local storage, so elements produced by user interaction are not restored. It provides a mechanism for web developers to tell Internet Explorer what changes are being made so it is able to reproduce and effectively restore a web app.
Like Firefox 3, anti-phishing capabilities are complemented with malware serving sites blocking.
Finally, a new developer tool should prove a helpful aid for web developers with its DOM, CSS and script inspectors and debuggers, similar to Firefox 2’s DOM Inspector (available as an extension for Firefox 3), and the Error Console. Powerful extensions like Web Developer and Firebug provide even further support.
While still not a compelling offering, it is definitely very good news to see Microsoft back to the browser innovation game for real. I would like to see both WebSlices and Activities available in Firefox at least as extensions as I think they could effectively replace a number of extensions that pretty much retrieve and reformat small pieces of more complex web pages and applications.
Standards-wise, Internet Explorer passes the Acid2 test, (a web standards support test) but falls very short in the new Acid3 test with a meager 17/100 score, compared to 67/100 for Firefox 3.
Some other Firefox 3 features like web content and protocol handling, SVG, or <canvas> support are not mentioned so far but this is Beta 1 and hopefully they will get implemented in compliance with the defined web standards.
Update: Mozilla’s Robert O’Callahan provides more information on what’s in and what’s not in this beta. Thanks David for the tip.