Executive Summary:

Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) 8.0 will ship in a standards-based rendering mode by default, breaking hundreds of Web sites—and possibly even more intranets. IE 8.0 will more fully support existing and emerging Web standards, including Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) 2.1, the HTML 5 Draft Document Object Model (DOM), and the Selectors API. For end users, IE 8.0 includes a modernized version of the Smart Tags feature that Microsoft first tried to add to IE 6.0. This feature, now called Activities, provides contextual menus on Web pages. A second major new feature, WebSlices, provides a way for Web sites to more easily let readers "subscribe" to information.

After using Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) to further its Windows dominance over the past several years, Microsoft announced in early 2008 that it was trying a different tack with IE 8.0. Now, the browser will ship in a standards-based rendering mode by default, breaking hundreds of Web sites—and possibly even more intranets—that purposely or accidentally rely on quirks in the way that earlier IE versions rendered pages. This change and many others can be seen in the first beta of IE 8.0, which is aimed almost solely at Web developers. Here’s what you need to know about IE 8.0 Beta 1.

For Web Developers
Reversing course from its previous strategy, Microsoft’s next browser will render Web pages in a Web standards mode that closely emulates the way that browsers such as Mozilla Firefox and Apple Safari work. This is a huge change for Microsoft, and its customers might need to make changes to their existing sites, both internal and external. For this reason, the first IE 8.0 beta is aimed solely at Web developers and comes with numerous advances for this market.

The biggest change is the aforementioned rendering mode. IE 8.0 will also support two other rendering modes for backward compatibility: IE 7.0 Quirks Mode, which makes the browser work like IE 7.0, and Quirks Mode, which forces it to render pages similar to earlier (IE 5.x and 6.x) versions of the browser. In IE 8.0 Beta 1, Microsoft includes an “Emulate IE 7” toolbar button, but this won’t be available in the final version of the browser.

IE 8.0 will more fully support existing and emerging Web standards, including Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) 2.1, the HTML 5 Draft Document Object Model (DOM), and the Selectors API—three technologies meaningful to Web developers but not to anyone else. It will also pass the controversial Acid2 browser test, which is considered a benchmark for standards compatibility, and it will support Asynchronous JavaScript and XML (Ajax) navigational features.

Unlike previous IE versions, IE 8.0 will also include a full-featured set of integrated developer tools, which will help Web developers view the HTML, CSS, or scripts in the currently loaded page, switch between IE 8.0’s three rendering modes, select in-page elements, and add visual outlines around structural in-page elements such as tables. The new developer tools also include a full debugger to see where the problems and bottlenecks are.

For End Users
While IE 8.0 Beta 1 is aimed largely at Web developers, a few new end-user features did sneak in, two of which can be considered major new features. IE 8.0 includes a modernized version of the Smart Tags feature that Microsoft first tried to add to IE 6.0. This feature, now called Activities, provides contextual menus on Web pages that can display additional information via Web services that will lead readers to new locations. The contents of these contextual menus are determined by what’s selected on the page and which Activities are available in the user’s browser.

Microsoft wisely includes a few thirdparty Activities in IE 8.0 Beta 1. Activities are added in IE 8.0 much in the same way that search providers were in IE 7.0, using a Web-based library of Activities from companies such as eBay, Facebook, and Yahoo!. Presumably, businesses could create their own Activities as well.

A second major new feature, WebSlices, provides a way for Web sites to more easily let readers “subscribe” to information in a manner that is simpler and more obvious than RSS feeds. In sharp contrast to Activities, WebSlices requires some support from the underlying page. That is, to enable this feature, a Web developer will specifically have to add some code to a Web page’s underlying HTML. Fortunately, it’s not much code, and given the point of this feature, it’s not the type of thing developers would be sprinkling liberally around a site anyway.

WebSlices are saved as mini- Favorites in the new IE 8.0 Favorites Bar which, in Beta 1, exists between the main toolbar and the Tabs/Command Bar. A weatheroriented Web site might mark the forecast portion of a page as a WebSlice, so that a user who saved this slice could then view just the updated forecast at any time. Pre-built Web- Slices are already available for Facebook friends’ status updates, eBay item monitoring, and MSN news headlines.

Other new end-user features include a new Manage Add-Ins window, domain name highlighting in the Address Bar, and a new Safety Filter feature. But clearly, much more is coming down the road. I expect IE 8.0 Beta 2 to include more new end-user features and, most likely, a completely new UI.

Scheduling
Microsoft will likely ship a Beta 2 version of IE 8.0 sometime this summer, followed by another prerelease build by the end of the year. IE 8.0 will likely be included as the default browser in Windows 7, the successor to Windows Vista that’s due in late 2009 or 2010. But I expect to see the Windows Vista and Windows XP version of this browser finalized early next year.

Recommendations
Right now, it’s too early to worry about IE 8.0 deployments, and there’s precious little in Beta 1 for businesses to get excited about. That said, businesses that rely on Microsoft platforms should get their Web developers up to speed with IE 8.0 immediately: Many of the underlying changes that are coming in this browser are available in the first beta.