Thursday, March 19, 2009-- Microsoft plans to ship a major update to its Internet Explorer Web browser today -- and it's either arriving just in time or far too late. A huge chunk of Microsoft's user base has yet to upgrade to the version it released in the fall of 2006, while many other people have long since switched to competing browsers.
After months of testing a public-beta release and a week's trial of an almost-final version provided by Microsoft's public-relations department, the new Internet Explorer 8 seems a welcome upgrade to the program that most people still use to browse the Web.
But it also brings quirks unlikely to please people who have already defected to Mozilla Firefox, Opera, Google's Chrome or Apple's Safari (that company previewed an updated Safari 4 three weeks ago).
Microsoft's new browser, a free download for Windows XP and Vista (microsoft.com/ie), suffers in part because it tries to meet so many goals. As the default browser in Windows -- it should start showing up as an automatic update next month -- IE 8 must stay accessible to beginners. But to win over users who run other browsers, it needs to match the advanced features they offer. And because so many companies have built proprietary software on old versions of IE, Microsoft feels obliged to ensure that its updates don't break any of those Web applications.
IE 8's best aspects relate to "tabbed browsing." This convenient feature lets you view multiple Web pages in one window. But if you open too many links from too many pages into new tabs, it's easy to get lost (as I type this, my copy of Firefox has 21 tabs open). To help users keep track of where they're going, IE 8 color-codes each page's tab and any links opened from it.
Each tab runs as a separate computing task, so a malfunctioning page doesn't have to derail the entire browser. When one page imploded, IE 8 explained that it had a problem with its Adobe Flash plug-in, suggested downloading the latest version of Flash and then let me get back to work.
If you open a blank tab, you now get helpful shortcuts to recently viewed pages and the "InPrivate Browsing" mode in which IE 8 keeps no record of where you've been. This new-tab page is a smart way to introduce users to these features -- and it loads a bit faster than in IE 7, though slower than competing browsers.
When you right-click on a link to open it in a new tab, an "Accelerators" sub-menu connects you to a set of Web services. For example, you can select a street address, then pick the "Map with Live Search" accelerator for a map of the place. But these extra menu items also crowd the screen a bit.
Microsoft has also -- finally -- made it easier to manage this browser. You can prune away unwanted toolbars by clicking a red "x" at the left of each, while IE 8's display of browser add-ons reports how much time each takes to load.
Unfortunately, some of the more prevalent add-ons to IE constitute virus and spyware attacks. IE 8 expands on IE 7's defenses against these threats, but some of its latest countermeasures risk becoming the Web equivalent of Windows Vista's "User Account Control": a nag that people see so often that they ignore.
For example, IE 8 needlessly warned that opening an unread message in Google's Gmail site might "compromise the security of the entire webpage," and a barrier to "cross-site scripting attacks" repeatedly interrupted the add-a-link function in The Post's blogging interface.
The worst parts of IE 8 result from Microsoft's attempts to support sites written for older editions of Internet Explorer that disregarded Web standards. The new release, like version 7, offers a "compatibility view" for those cases. But IE 8 suggests that far more sites need this help, as indicated by a broken-page icon in its toolbar.
I can't identify any visual hiccups caused by this. But it's disturbing to have a browser falsely suggest that so much of the Web -- including the home pages of IE's major competitors -- needs repair.
This compatibility-mode option also compounds the clutter of IE 8's interface: Two distinct menus provide the same commands to regulate this feature. They join such head-scratchers as a Developer Tools submenu, which should have been hidden by default, and a menu item for "inPrivate Filtering" privacy settings that belongs in, but is missing from, IE 8's Internet Options window.