Executive Summary: Internet Explorer 8.0 includes hundreds of improvements and small efficiencies. The Internet Explorer 8.0 search box has been dramatically improved. The new Smart Address Bar presents an organized drop-down list that changes as you type, providing you with quick access to your relevant browser history, Favorites, and subscribed RSS feeds. Tabs, a strong point in IE 7.0, become more intelligent and useful in Internet Explorer 8.0, which automatically collects related tabs into groups, each of which has its own color scheme. A major new feature called InPrivate Browsing lets the user open a separate IE window that won't later reveal any of the browsing history or information that was transacted while open. Internet Explorer 8.0 is enterprise-friendly, despite massive changes to the compatibility model. The tricky question is whether you should upgrade; the answer varies from business to business.

With the Beta 2 release of Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) 8.0 delivered to customers in August 2008, Microsoft is on track to ship the final version of its next browser. IE 8.0 delivers on the key tenets of its predecessor, IE 7.0, with advances around day-to-day usage, trustworthy computing and safety, and developer features. But IE 8.0 also includes the biggest technological break with the past yet seen in Microsoft’s browser platform: Unlike previous versions, IE 8.0 will render web pages in a standardscompliant mode that’s similar to how browsers such as Mozilla Firefox render web pages, a change that could lead to compatibility issues for businesses. Here’s what you need to know about IE 8.0.

Improved Browsing
With the industry moving to a cloud computing model where more and more of our work is performed through the web browser, products such as IE are more important than ever before. This increased reliance on the web requires new levels of performance, reliability, and functionality, and, for the enterprise, suitability for missioncritical applications, manageability, and compatibility.

From a raw performance standpoint, Microsoft has tweaked IE 8.0 to make it perform faster. The browser starts up quicker than its predecessor, as do new tabs and secondary windows. Sites with JavaScript will run more quickly as well, Microsoft says, thanks to an overhauled JavaScript parser. Microsoft has also dramatically improved memory management.

Dean Hachamovitch, Microsoft’s general manager for the Internet Explorer team, told me that the performance improvements in IE 8.0 go well beyond pure benchmarks, however. “With IE 8.0, the sum is greater than the parts,” he said. “We’ve looked holistically at how users actually use the browser. And we’ve made sure that IE 8.0 performs better in day-to-day use, making users more efficient and placing them in control.”

To this end, IE 8.0 includes hundreds of improvements and small efficiencies. “Accelerators” pop up as needed, giving users contextsensitive actions (formerly called “Activities” in IE 8.0 Beta 1), while “Web Slices,” also introduced in Beta 1, provide a way for users to subscribe to portions of web pages that change frequently. (To learn more about IE 8.0 Beta 1, see “What You Need to Know About Microsoft Internet Explorer 8.0 Beta 1,” InstantDoc ID 98795.)

The new IE 8.0 Smart Address Bar presents an organized dropdown list that changes as you type, providing you with quick access to your relevant browser history, Favorites, and subscribed RSS feeds. And if one of the search results contains a typo, you can now remove it from your history and thus any future search results. “Our research shows that 80 percent of navigation is to previously visited places,” Hachamovitch said.

Tabs, a strong point in IE 7.0, become more intelligent and useful in IE 8.0, which automatically collects related tabs into groups, each of which has its own color scheme. Thus, when you CTRL-click on a link on the current page, the new tab opens next to that tab, and not at the end of the list of tabs; the two tabs also match in color.

“This seems like a small thing, but it’s important,” Hachamovitch told me. “Tabs open near their source and are grouped according to what the user is doing. They’re not just a bunch of tabs, because the user has a task in mind.”

And if you open a blank new tab, you’re presented with a useful UI that provides access to lists of recently closed tabs (in case you mistakenly closed something important), Accelerators, and other features. You can also bookmark a tab group and then display the group as tabs again later.

Answering one of my long-standing complaints about IE, Microsoft has finally replaced the Find dialog box—which could often obscure the content on the very page you were trying to search—with a new Find On This Page toolbar that appears right below the tabs and Command Bar in the browser’s UI. This toolbar offers the option of highlighting search results and works much like a similar feature in Mozilla Firefox. (Now if Microsoft would only add a similar feature to its Office applications, they’d really be on to something.)

The IE 8.0 search box has been dramatically improved, and it applies whether you use Microsoft’s Live Search engine or not. The box provides a plug-in model for search providers to create visual search results, so images can appear in-line in the box’s drop-down list box, which Figure 1 shows, a feature that’s used to great effect by Amazon, among others. And thanks to this new drop-down list, you can easily redirect a search to different providers, moving from, say, Google to Wikipedia with the click of a button. As always, Microsoft lets you keep your default search providers, so if Google is the default before you upgrade, it will still be the default.

On the reliability front, IE tabs and windows now all run in their own processes, so if something in one tab crashes, the crash affects only that one tab. “Crash recovery is great,” Hachamovitch said, “But why not just contain the crash and not end up in that situation in the first place? We think of it as Browser NT,” a comment that should draw more than a few smiles from the enterprise crowd.

The Links toolbar, widely misunderstood by users of previous IE versions, has been revamped and renamed the Favorites toolbar. It’s now used to save RSS feeds and Web Slices, two content types that update frequently and are now more discoverable. Aside from being readily available in the IE 8.0 UI, items in the Favorites toolbar are also bolded when they’ve been updated.

Enterprise Features
Unlike Mozilla Firefox, IE 8.0 is enterprisefriendly. It can be deployed using standard Microsoft products such as Active Directory (AD), Windows Server Update Services (WSUS), or System Center Configuration Manager 2007 (SCCM), and it can be slipstreamed into Windows client and server installation images. A new version of the Internet Explorer Administration Kit (IEAK) provides pre- and post-installation management of the application, including the ability to configure hundreds of new IE 8.0–specific features via over 100 Group Policy settings. You can also manage compatibility issues by using IE 8.0’s new version of the Application Compatibility Toolkit (ACT). And on intranets, IE 8.0 defaults to IE 7.0 rendering mode.

Microsoft will support IE 8.0 with updates for the duration of the life cycle of the OS on which it’s installed. And unlike with other browsers, IE 8.0 updates can be managed and configured centrally using existing Microsoft management technologies such as AD, SCCM, and the like.

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Safety and Security
Some IE 8.0 security features were revealed with Beta 1, such as the SmartScreen Filter, Cross-Site Scripting Filter, enhanced Delete Browsing History, domain name highlighting, and data execution prevention (DEP) support. Beta 2 shows more changes made since then as well. (See “What You Need to Know About Microsoft Internet Explorer 8.0 Beta 2,” InstantDoc ID 99754 for more information.)

Many new security features can be accessed via a new Safety menu item in the IE 8.0 Command Bar. “There are just so many safety enhancements, we had to add that,” Hachamovitch told me. “For example, Delete Browsing History is good functionality, but it can be frustrating if you don’t want it all wiped out. Now, we protect web site data for sites in your Favorites list by default. But you can also configure exactly what gets wiped out when you use this feature.”

A major new feature called InPrivate Browsing lets the user open a separate IE window that won’t later reveal any of the browsing history or information that was transacted while open. Hachamovitch called this “over the shoulder” security: The browser history, temporary Internet files, forms data, cookies, and any usernames and passwords aren’t stored after the window is closed.

InPrivate Browsing is for those times when you want to keep your activities secret, such as when you’re buying a present for the boss. “Buy the present and then just close the window,” Hachamovitch added.

InPrivate Browsing also enables a secondary safety feature called InPrivate Blocking that prevents web sites from sharing cookie data about the user with third-party sites. This feature is aimed at protecting the privacy of the user and can be enabled separately from InPrivate Browsing as well.

IE 8.0 also makes it easier than ever to remove browser toolbars, with an always-on “close” box on the left of every toolbar. If you suddenly find that an unrelated software installation has added a toolbar, just close it: IE 8.0 will even prompt you to disable any related browser helper objects as well.

New Developer Features

IE 8.0 will run in a standards-compliant mode by default, which could cause compatibility problems. It has a Compatibility View, which replaces the temporary Emulate IE 7 toolbar button from Beta 1. Exposed as an icon on the right side of the IE 8.0 Smart Address Bar, this feature lets you run IE 8.0 in backward compatibility mode on a site-by-site basis, without requiring browser restarts.

Additionally, developers can specify which of IE 8.0’s three rendering engines are used by adding a small bit of code to their sites. In this way, web sites and intranets can force IE 8.0 to render correctly based on their own needs.

Recommendations
My pre-release testing of IE 8.0, using a late beta version, has revealed many compatibility issues, but it’s likely Microsoft will resolve them. Most businesses would be wise to at least begin evaluating IE 8.0; however, I would advise enterprises to delay deploying it and to utilize a schedule that’s similar in length and scope to that used for an OS service pack.