I've recounted the history of Internet Explorer (IE) so many times, it's hardly worth the effort at this point. Suffice to say that Microsoft's browser has seen times both boom and bust, alternating between periods of great innovation and sad stagnation.

From a technical standpoint, from a user experience standpoint, we're in a far more positive era now than we were in the early 2000s, when IE was left to wither as new competitors like Firefox arrived, sniping at IE's usage share and adding functionality at a rapid clip. And yet, paradoxically, we're also witnessing the slow, methodical crumbling of the IE empire: Usage share for Microsoft's still-dominant browser fell from over 90 percent at the end of 2004 to about 80 percent at the end of 2006 and then to under 70 percent by the end of 2008. That's a pretty clear downward trend, and IE's competition--most notably Firefox--has risen to take up the slack.

There are, of course, different ways to slice data. Looked at in a more granular way, Microsoft's current IE version, Internet Explorer 7 (see my review), has seen nothing but upside: It's risen from about 30 percent of the market in March 2007 to about 50 percent today. What's fallen, of course, is IE 6, the now-ancient and dangerous-to-use previous IE version. In the same time period, IE 6 usage has fallen from 48 percent to less than 19 percent. In fact, it was only this month that Firefox eked past IE 6 in usage share. That's right: IE isn't just the number one browser. Until this month, its predecessor was also number two.

So, what are we to make of this? My conclusion is simple: Overall, IE usage continues to slide, or creep downward. But most of that creep is due to users finally moving off of the obsolete IE 6. Firefox is gaining share at the expense of IE 6, not IE 7. So as we turn our gaze to the next IE version, Internet Explorer 8, the equation for Microsoft is simple: It must gain IE 8 share at the expense of its competition, not just at the expense of its predecessors. To make that happen, IE 8 must be good enough that users around the world will want to download, install, and use it instead of other browsers.

And that presents the central question here: Is IE 8 good enough to stem IE's steady market share losses? Is it good enough to--gasp--get people to stop using Firefox, let alone previous IE versions?

\[ Read more about the competition: Google Chrome Beta, Mozilla Firefox 3, and Apple Safari 4 Beta. \]

Browsers today: It's not 1995 anymore

One thing I feel reasonably sure about is that the future of computing will be mobile and will be Internet-based. Looked at a bit cynically, then, we might consider the traditional Windows OS as the "past," while cloud-based solutions are the "future." In this world view, Internet Explorer (and other browsers) are the portal between the past and the future, the window through which more and more of our daily computing tasks are completed.

But you don't have to be cynical to see things this way. Even if you believe that cloud computing will never truly take over as our day-to-day computing platform, it's impossible to escape the fact that there will be at least a mix of local (PC- or device-based) computing and cloud (web- and services-based) computing. Going forward, the balance will at least shift somewhat from the purely local PC computing we all performed from the mid-1990s back to the dawn of the PC age.

This, of course, explains why Microsoft continues to evolve Internet Explorer. As Microsoft's Dean Hachamovitch told me in a recent briefing, "We make Windows and we want users to love it. People use the web. So we want them to have the best possible experience, in Windows, out of the box." Microsoft sees, as I do, a future in which the PC (Windows), mobile devices (Windows Mobile/Windows Phones), and Internet services (Live/Kumo/MSN, Windows Azure, Microsoft Online Services) all interoperate and interact in a grand symphony of technology. IE 8, as the latest version of Microsoft's PC-based web browser, is a new attempt to ensure that Windows users--the largest single group of computer users anywhere--has the best possible experience online. This all makes sense.

But the world is ever changing, of course, and many IE versions have been developed as responses to industry or technological trends over the years. The original version of IE was created out of fears that Netscape would establish the platform of the future. IE 4 was a response to push services. IE 7 was about meeting and in some cases exceeding the functional expectations established by browser competitors such as Firefox. These products evolved over a period of many years, and each addressed the needs of the day.

So what are the needs of the day, today? Well, as noted before, the computing public is spending more and more time online. So the interface they use for those activities--the web browser--needs to be fast, stable, and secure. For businesses, it needs to be deployable and manageable, functionality that still eludes all other browser makers. For developers, browsers should adhere to accepted web standards, easing the development of web sites, applications, and services. But as we move into a world where the display of these products becomes a commodity, browsers must also learn to compete "beyond the page," as Microsoft says. And here, IE stands alone in many ways: With IE 8, Microsoft has dramatically expanded the capabilities of the browser outside of the viewable display area, and in the surrounding chrome.

This latter bit pushes some of IE 8's capabilities from the "need" category into the "want" category, and it this kind of functionality, I think, that really sets IE 8 apart from the competition. That's not to downplay IE 8's security, performance, reliability, and manageability advantages, all of which we'll examine here as well. But as you think about how we use the browser, and our increased reliance on information that is found far beyond our PCs, I think you'll agree that IE 8 offers some unique advantages over products like Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome.

Let's take a look.

Next: Internet Explorer 8 Review, Part 2: First Run Experience