By Emil Protalinski
Microsoft has announced that Internet Explorer 8 has been released and can be downloaded now for Windows XP, Windows Server 2003, Windows Vista, and Windows Server 2008.,
The final build of Internet Explorer 8 has been released in 25 languages. You can also grab the download directly from these links: Windows XP 32-bit (16.1 MB), Windows XP 64-bit (32.3 MB), Windows Server 2003 32-bit (16.0 MB), Windows Server 2003 64-bit (32.3 MB), Windows Vista 32-bit (13.2 MB), Windows Vista 64-bit (24.3 MB), Windows Server 2008 32-bit (13.2 MB), and Windows Server 2008 64-bit (24.3 MB). The final build number is 8.0.6001.18702.
The public Windows 7 beta is not being updated, and although Microsoft released an update for IE8 for Windows 7 in February, the next update is not likely to arrive until the Windows 7 Release Candidate next month. For everyone else, in the coming weeks Microsoft will put IE8 out as an optional download on Windows Update and then later roll it out to users via Automatic Updates. A quick note to all the IT administrators out there reading this post: the IE8 blocker toolkit is already available, so make sure you get acquainted with it if you’re planning on avoiding IE8 when it’s released via Microsoft’s update channels.
Dean Hachamovitch, general manager of Internet Explorer, will be announcing the release of IE8 to the masses at MIX09 today. You can watch his one-hour keynote live right now over at live.visitmix.com but it will also be available on demand later in the day on the same site. Ars had a chance to talk to Dean yesterday about IE8’s release, and he touted the fact that IE8 uses fewer resources than earlier versions and said he was “excited about how people will respond to IE8.” Hachamovitch also laid to rest any speculation that IE8 would be the final version of the browser or that IE9 would switch to WebKit.
The news about IE8’s resource usage is promising: despite all the new features and tweaks to the browser, Microsoft still kept performance of the actual program under scrutiny during development.
Putting browser standings aside though, why is Hachamovitch excited for the public response to IE8? Well, the lengthy feature list is one thing, but what really needs to be emphasized here is that IE8 puts Microsoft back in the game. IE7 was a catch-up release, there’s no question about that. However, with IE8, which is bigger leap from IE7 than IE7 was from IE6, Microsoft is pulling out the big guns and offering features which other browsers have yet to adopt. It’s good to see Microsoft fight back with a vengeance, but the company has more competition than ever before, from the likes of Firefox, Safari, Chrome, and Opera.
There are three areas of improvement that are worth underlining with Internet Explorer 8: speed, security, and improved standards support.
At the same time, Microsoft is also pushing features like Accelerators, Web Slices, and visual search suggestions, which improve how quickly users can get typical browsing tasks done. Accelerators allows users to get—or pass on—information like a map or a definition by right clicking a word on a website and choosing a service from the drop down menu, without ever leaving the page. That means getting directions to the party, figuring out what your friend means when he says he’s an “aficionado,” or even sending something on the page to a friend via e-mail, all from the right click menu.
A Web Slice grabs specific information from a website (like the top stories from Digg or the weather forecast) and puts it in a drop-down menu, eliminating the need to browse to the actual website. “It’s about making it as easy for sites to extend and blur into the browser,” Hachamovitch told Ars. This is a brilliant feature but it is completely lost if developers ignore it. So far, few sites actually do, but Microsoft is hoping that with IE8 going final, that will all begin to change.
The third one is an improvement to the search box in the top right: users can get their answers without ever hitting enter, thanks to the drop-down menu that grabs information from the search engine without ever going to the site. The address bar also looks through favorites and history, and opening a new tab shows you a list of tabs you’ve closed recently, making it easier to find the site you visited earlier.
There are currently about 1,200 add-ons available for IE8, and while Microsoft emphasizes that they are very easy to develop and that it made sure the developer tools are not a separate download, that number is nowhere near as close as the number of extensions for Firefox. Again, enough users have to adopt IE8 before these add-ons have a chance of taking off.
Security in IE8 is very different from its predecessors. Internet Explorer is still by far the most targeted browser for security exploits. Microsoft has again made improvements to reduce the attack surface for ActiveX controls, added ClickJacking prevention, and made sure that Data Execution Prevention (a security feature that can help prevent damage to computers from malware by preventing certain types of code from writing to executable memory space) is on by default in Windows Vista SP1.
InPrivate Browsing (aka, porn mode) ensures that history, temporary Internet files, and cookies are not recorded on a PC after browsing. Further, InPrivate Filtering allows the user to filter content coming from third parties that are in a position to track and aggregate their online behavior. At the same time, the domain of the current website is now highlighted in bold text to help clue users in as to what site they are visiting. There’s also a SmartScreen Filter which takes IE7’s Phishing Filter to a new level by taking the user to a page that warns them the page they were trying to get to is a confirmed badware site.
In terms of improved standards support, IE8 now passes the Acid 2 test completely, although it still fails Acid 3 miserably. Microsoft is brushing that aside for now though, touting that out of the 7,200 CSS 2.1 tests that are on the w3.org, IE8 passes more of them than any other browser.
That said, Microsoft still has to deal with the realities of IE6 and IE7, which are significantly less standards-compliant. Even if the company could get all of its users to move to version 8, there would still be the problem of websites detecting Internet Explorer and trying to use hacks that are no longer needed—and often detrimental to correct rendering in IE8. Microsoft’s solution is a compatibility button that users can press to make IE8 render the page similarly to how IE7 would.
During IE8’s development, Microsoft compiled data for the button and made up a list of sites that genuinely looked and performed better in compatibility-mode (IE7-like) as opposed to the standards mode in IE8. Hachamovitch told Ars that there are a couple of thousand sites on the list today (which you can download now) and that Microsoft is in discussion with these sites so that once they make the changes necessary to no longer require the compatibility button, Microsoft can take them off the list.
While this is an annoying process both for end-users and website authors, it’s a necessary evil if Internet Explorer is ever going to make a comeback in standards-support. It’s one thing to support standards, and it’s a completely different thing to support standards after having neglected them for years.
It’s a different game now
As we mentioned earlier, IE7 was a catch-up release, adding tabs and filing in holes that were left open for years as Microsoft ignored the browser landscape. In the 30 months since IE7’s October 2006 release, the browser landscape has undergone a seismic shift. Firefox isn’t just a small threat anymore, it’s a competitor that Microsoft acknowledges and supports in most of its services and online offerings. Google has entered the market with Chrome, and the search giant not only has the obvious advantage of plastering links to its browser via Google.com and its online services, it also had the benefit of writing its browser completely from the ground up. Even Apple is competing against IE, releasing the solid Safari for Windows last year.
All of that adds up to a browser market in which Microsoft no longer sets the standard; the company might still have the largest market share, but it’s no longer Redmond’s way or the highway. Microsoft is still only starting to get a grip on this new market, so it’s little surprise that company isn’t confident that it will be able to regain lost market share. As if that wasn’t enough, the mobile browser space is still completely up for grabs, and Microsoft’s position there is even more mournful.
Microsoft’s has tethered Internet Explorer to long development cycles with huge changes. This strategy is driven in part by the fact that it has businesses to keep in mind; the company does not want to overwhelm them with frequent minor releases. The leaps Microsoft has taken between IE6 and IE7, as well as between IE7 and IE8, are arguably larger than those any other browser maker has made in its major versions. Now that it is back in the game though, Microsoft needs to step it up and start delivering more quickly. The progress that Microsoft’s competitors are making—both in terms of features and standards—is still outpacing Redmond’s development effort. To truly compete with Opera, Safari, Chrome, and Firefox, the software giant is going to have to match their release cycles—early and often instead of slow and steady.