I didn't originally expect to write a full review for Internet Explorer (IE) 8 Beta 1, released last week at the MIX'08 trade show in Las Vegas. But truth is, there's a lot going on here. More interesting, perhaps, there's a lot more to come as well.

Also, I'm a bit distressed by the wrongheaded reaction this release has gotten in certain quarters. Microsoft could have helped matters, dramatically, by calling it a "developer preview release" instead of Beta 1, for starters. But people who should know better--including some who work on Mozilla Firefox--were a bit too quick with knee-jerk reactions to this release, betraying, perhaps, a lack of confidence in their ability to keep Microsoft down for too long. Fair enough: Even in this early version, lacking as it is in end user niceties, it's clear that major changes are afoot.

Yep, all in all, the release of IE 8 Beta 1 has been quite interesting. Let's take a look.

IE 8: What will be, what could have been

IE, of course, has had a checkered history, beginning with the first few Spyglass-flavored versions from the mid-1990s. With IE 3 and 4, of course, Microsoft turned the tables on market leader Netscape and established its domination of the industry. But as competition dropped off, so did Microsoft's competitive zeal. IE 5.x and 6 were minor functional upgrades, after which Microsoft essentially halted IE development and pondered dropping the product as an ongoing concern. The rise and popularity of Mozilla Firefox changed all that. So Microsoft reinstated the IE team, which created the surprisingly potent IE 7 release, combining backwards compatibility with a rich feature set and strong security. But Firefox kept nipping at IE's heels and today, the competition is alive and well. Microsoft needs another home run if it hopes to stave off further usage share losses.

That brings us to IE 8, currently in a developer-oriented public beta release. The mile high view is that IE 8 will be a major upgrade to Microsoft's venerable browser. What we know today is, of course, mostly developer oriented. But I have some information from sources at Microsoft that suggest a lot more is on the way. For example, there will be a new user interface, one that's not here today in Beta 1. This UI will be based on customer feedback, which told Microsoft that the discovery of Favorites and adding to Favorites was too difficult in IE 7, that users want to resize the search bar and move the Stop/Refresh and Home buttons to new locations. Users requested more consistency to the tabbing functionality, and wanted better exposure for help and the Send Mail feature.

Unfortunately, Microsoft can't respond to all of the requests it got for IE 8. Some items that will be passed along to the next release, I'm told, include more discoverable menus, full customization so that any command can be placed at the top level of the browser UI, more room for tabs, a full extension UI (similar to that in Firefox), and better discoverability for "deep" commands (i.e. those that are well hidden in the current UI).

And I have several prototypes of IE 8 user interface that Microsoft explored but dropped. The earliest was a ribbon-based design like that is used by several Office 2007 applications and has proven popular with users. Microsoft felt the ribbon UI was good for command discoverability, customization, and exposure of Activities, a new IE 8 feature (see below). But the ribbon was too big and inflexible, with a poor size to value ratio. It was considered pretty ugly by users and, more important perhaps, promoted commands over navigation, which doesn't make sense for IE, as it is a navigation-based application. In any event, the ribbon almost certainly won't be making an appearance in IE 8. But I know you're curious. Here's what it could have looked like.


Microsoft experimented with the ribbon UI in IE 8 but abandoned that work.

It's more likely that IE 8 will physically resemble the prototype I created last fall, which moves navigational buttons from the Command Bar to the top level of the browser UI, where they belong. Microsoft is exploring a so-called "outspace" area at the top, also similar to that used in Office 2007, where users could add their own commands. This design would feature a somewhat awkward "e" button, like the Office button in Office 2007 applications.


Only some features from this mockup have been added to the IE 8 ... so far.

The problem with this design is that the 'e' button clashes with the Back and Forward buttons and that allowing users to put their own commands into the outspace isn't a long-term solution. This design doesn't help with extensions either.

The other primary concern Microsoft has about whatever UI it settles on is the height issue, which also raised its ugly head in IE 7: Many users feel that the IE 7 UI is "too tall" when compared to previous IE versions or competing browsers, especially when an addition toolbar (like those provided by Google, Yahoo!, and Windows Live) is installed. Microsoft has concluded that since most people are browsing at 1024 x 768 or higher and browsing with at least one toolbar installed (or just using the Links toolbar), that it must utilize a design that minimizes vertical space and accounts for navigation, commands, links, and toolbars. It has analyzed the relative height of Safari (118 pixels), Firefox 2 (137), and IE 7 (121) to various IE 8 designs. As of late last year, the IE 8 for Windows 7 design (seen in the previous screenshot) takes up just 118 pixels and is preferred. Add the Windows Live toolbar and the size jumps to 138 pixels. IE 8 with a ribbon UI is about 187 pixels, however. It's just too tall.

New features in IE 8 Beta 1

Looking at the Beta 1 release of IE 8, we can see exactly two major new features: Activities and Web Slices. These were introduced in Beta 1 because Microsoft wants Web developers to get going implementing these features. But since they're interesting to users, I think it makes sense to call them out first here. I'll also look at some other emerging changes in IE that we can see in Beta 1.

Activities

Several years ago, Microsoft developed a UI feature called Smart Tags that it planned to incorporate in Office XP and Internet Explorer 6, part of Windows XP. Smart Tags were added to Office XP as planned and they still exist today in subsequent versions of that product. But the company's plans to include Smart Tags in IE 6 were scuttled after Web developers and users complained long and hard about the feature, which many saw as anti-competitive. So IE 6 shipped without Smart Tags and the feature, presumably, was dropped for good.

Nope. Smart Tags are back, baby. Only this time they're called Activities and to prove their not exclusionary or anti-competitive, Microsoft is even stocking the first beta version of IE 8 with a number of Tags, er, Activities that are made by its competitors. See, they're completely different!

Except, of course, that they're not. Activities, which are indeed a renamed and rejiggered version of Smart Tags, provide contextual menus on Web pages that can provide 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. Put another way, the functionality is not provided by the underlying Web site at all. It is instead provided by the browser via this new feature.

On one level, Activities are interesting and useful, as we'll see in a moment. However, they also allow users to completely bypass whatever facilities the Web site itself has provided. So, for example, you might use the IE 8 Activities feature to find a Yahoo! Map for a selected address on a Web page. But that page may supply its own map, one that you have now chosen to bypass. My suspicion is that this feature will cause the same consternation among Web developers that Smart Tags did seven years ago. What may offset these complaints is that many Activities are now created by Microsoft's competitors, and many more are sure to come in the days ahead; with Smart Tags, the default tags were all Microsoft-specific, raising privacy and exclusivity concerns.

OK, so let's see how this feature works. If you select a word or any other text in a Web page in IE 8 Beta 1, you'll see a small green Smart Tag appear. Click this tag and a menu will appear, loaded with Activities that may (or may not) apply to the selected text. What you see will, of course, depend on what's selected (that is, it is contextual) and on which Activities are loaded in your browser. By default, IE 8 ships with several Activities, including Define with Encarta, Map with Live Maps, and Translate with Windows Live. But you can also visit a Web page to add new Activities from Microsoft and companies like eBay, Facebook, and, yes, Yahoo!. The process of adding Activities is much like adding search providers in IE 7.

So what might one do with Activities? You can highlight an individual word and get a definition. You could select a full address and get a map (Figure). You could highlight a word in a foreign language and get a translation (theoretically; this won't work for me). By design, most Activities trigger a small pop-up window, but many also provide a link so you can load the information in a separate window or tab.

You can also use Activities to send information from a Web page to another location, triggering a Google search, perhaps, or blogging about the selected text in Windows Live Spaces.

WebSlices

The other major new IE 8 feature in Beta 1, 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 you'll be sprinkling liberally around a site anyway.

So what's it good for? Developers can mark portions of a Web page as "WebSlices" which can be automatically monitored for changes and saved as mini-Favorites in the new IE 8 Favorites Bar which, in Beta 1, exists between the main toolbar and the Tabs/Command Bar. A weather-oriented Web site might mark the forecast portion of a page as a WebSlice, so that any user who saved this slice could then view just the updated forecast at any time. Pre-built WebSlices are already available for Facebook friends' status updates, eBay item monitoring, and MSN news headlines. I'm considering adding a WebSlice to the SuperSite for Windows home page, so that you could get just the "What's new" section.

Unlike RSS feeds, which are typically saved somewhat like IE Favorites, but in the Feeds folder, WebSlices are normally saved to the new Favorites Bar, which is enabled and displayed by default. When you save a WebSlice, an RSS Feed-like dialog appears (Figure) and then the new slice appears in this toolbar (Figure). When you click the link to the slice, however, a new page doesn't load. Instead, you see the information in a pop-up window (Figure). To get more information, click on the item you're viewing.

So. Does this feature offer anything truly new? I'm not sure yet. Yes, it's simpler than RSS feeds, both conceptually and in use. But I can see open standards purists being up in arms over what will likely be seen as Microsoft subverting existing content subscription methods. We'll have to see how the feature evolves and whether enough sites implement it before we can intelligent debate the issue. But I like the visual nature of WebSlices. And Microsoft has made the specifications for WebSlices available to one and all via the Creative Commons license, so other browser makers can implement this feature too.

Other things to look for in Beta 1

Microsoft is again changing the way that we interact with browser add-ons (plug-ins) in Internet Explorer, and you can see an attractive new Manage Add-ons window in this release, via Tools - Manage Add-ons - Enable or Disable Add-ons (Figure). Now, add-ons are segregated by type--Toolbars and Extensions, Search Providers, and Activities--and you can easily filter the view by currently loaded, all add-ons ever used, those that run without permissions, and downloaded ActiveX controls.

The default view is OK, but if you dig a little deeper, you can get in over your head pretty easily. For example, I see a 32-bit GUID for a Skype add-on instead of a plain English name, which I'm sure would blow some people away. And though you can click a Disable button for any add-on, the Delete button is often grayed out. We should be able to delete add-ons from this UI. It is, after all, called Manage Add-ons.

In the IE 8 Beta 1 address bar, you'll see a new domain name highlighting feature in action: This is designed to help people understand when they're being spoofed, but it makes me think I have eye problems. If you load a URL like http://www.microsoft.com/windows/ie/ie8/welcome/en/default.html, most of the URL will be grayed out, but the domain name part (microsoft.com) will appear in black and be thus emphasized. (So it appears as http://www.microsoft.com/windows/ie/ie8/welcome/en/default.html.) (Figure). I may just need time to get used to this one.

Also on the security front, Microsoft is adding a new Safety Filter feature to IE 8. The Safety Filter is basically an expansion of the Phishing Filter from IE 7 that adds additional protection against evolving threats. It analyzes the full URL string loaded into IE 8 and provides more granular protection than was possible with the Phishing Filter, Microsoft tells me, leading to greater protection against more targeted and sophisticated attacks. I suspect we'll learn more about this functionality when the company ships a consumer-oriented beta of IE 8 in the future.

Developer-oriented changes in IE 8 Beta 1

In addition to the features noted above, Microsoft has made numerous developer-oriented improvements to the browser in IE 8 Beta 1. Much of this information will be too technical for typical readers and too general for developers. I apologize for this, but feel that it's worth at least stepping through this information to get a grasp of what is, frankly, the focus on this Beta 1 release.

Standards rendering mode by default

IE 8 features a a new "super standards mode" rendering mode, enabled by default, that should place IE 8 among the rarified company of such standards-friendly browsers as Firefox and Apple's Safari. This is a huge change from Microsoft's previous backwards compatibility fixation, and an early version is available in the current Beta 1 release. As is an awkward "Emulate IE 7" Command Bar button that, fear not, won't be in the final release (Figure). This is for testing purposes only: By the time IE 8 ships, developers will need to have placed special META tags in their pages that will require IE 8 to render in IE 7 mode.

Acid2 compatibility

IE 8 will render the Acid2 standards compatibility browser test, Microsoft says. This is apparently a big deal in the Web development community, but I see it mostly as a bullet point Microsoft can place in an IE 8 overview. It won't impact end users per se, though it's part of the interoperability work that's going into Microsoft's support of true Web standards.

CSS 2.1 support

Finally, IE 8 will fully support the Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) 2.1 specification which, if I'm not mistaken, was ratified about 225 years ago. The goal here is as simple as it is lofty: A Web page written with a properly-formed CSS style sheet should render identically on all major browsers now. Halleluiah. In a relate vein, Microsoft is also working with the W3C on certifying what it means to be truly compatible with CSS 2.1.

HTML/DOM improvements

IE is infamous for its quirky support of HTML standards, so IE 8 will fix this by fully supporting the latest HTML standard, HTML 4.01, and correcting bizarre past behaviors that have bedeviled Web developers for years. IE 8 will also support upcoming standards like the HTML 5 Draft DOM Storage standard and the Selectors API. Note that this isn't full HTML 5 support. Instead, Microsoft sees IE 8 as the beginning of its support for the HTML 5 spec.

IE 8 Developer Tools

Microsoft previously shipped a separate Developers Toolbar for IE that, apparently, few people knew about. Now, as with Firefox, Microsoft will build the tools right into IE 8, though they'll be hidden by default. To enable them, simply add the Developer Tools icon to the Command Bar. From this button, you can view the HTML, CSS, or scripts in the currently loaded page, switch between IE 8's three rendering modes (Quirks, Strict/IE 7, Standards/IE 8), select on-page elements, and add visual outlines around structural on-page elements like tables. Most intriguingly, the Developer Tools include a full debugger so you can set watches and run through the execution of pages to see where problems and bottlenecks are (Figure).

AJAX navigation features

One of the problems with so-called AJAX Web applications is that they don't tie in nicely to the global browser navigational tools (like the Back and Forward buttons). IE 8 fixes this by providing programmatic support for the browser's navigational features, including various buttons and the address bar. So, for example, a Web developer could reprogram the Back button so that it doesn't load the previous page when clicked but instead redirects you to the previous task in the currently loaded Web application.

Platform performance improvements

Microsoft has fine-tuned the performance of numerous IE subsystems, including those for HTML rendering, CSS rules processing, markup tree manipulation, the JScript parser, garbage collector runtime, and memory management. These changes should improve IE performance overall, but the company notes that future performance work is planned for upcoming betas as well. For Beta 1, performance of scripts is a priority, so expect big changes there.

IE 8 in the real world

I've been using IE 8 for the past week and haven't run into any major issues, aside from Google Calendar, which renders rather poorly (Figure), and an IE plug-in I use at work to upload articles; it mostly works, but the button for changing text into a hyperlink curiously does not. That said, most of the sites I visit work just fine in IE, a fact I credit to Firefox's wide successes.

From a user's standpoint, it's too early to worry about compatibility issues, however, and this is precisely why Beta 1 is aimed at Web developers anyway: Microsoft wants to ensure that developers have the time they need to update their sites to work with the new browser. On that note, while IE 8 seems to work surprisingly well even in Beta 1, I don't feel that typical users should be installing it, as it completely replaces IE 7. (You could always put the browser in Emulate IE 7 mode, but what's the point?)

Put simply, IE 8 Beta 1 is aimed a Web developers, not end users.

Final thoughts

It's far too early to judge what IE 8 will be like from an end user's standpoint since so many changes are coming down the road. What we see in Beta 1 is a new browser inside an old shell, with a few new and mostly useful features and a ton of internal changes. As the browser that will ship with Windows 7 and replace the world's most popular Web browser, IE 8 is interesting on a number of levels. I just don't think it's ready for prime time. But then, that's the plan anyway, so it's not a dig at all. In fact, IE 8 Beta 1 is surprisingly usable despite the rough edges.

Web developers should be all over this release, as it points to a simpler future where managing the quirky features of each browser will no longer be necessary. If Microsoft can deliver on its promise to fully support modern Web standards in IE 8, this will be a watershed release of the browser. In Beta 1, we can already see the beginnings of that important work.