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Microsoft opened up testing of Internet Explorer 8 beta 2 on Wednesday, putting the company on track for releasing by the end of the year what will be only the second major overhaul of Microsoft's Web browser since 2001.
Internet Explorer 8 adds a plethora of security, usability, and manageability features over previous versions aimed at keeping Microsoft on top of the browser market share list ahead of surging Mozilla Firefox, and the new beta builds on those new features with several new usability and security capabilities that weren't available in the previous beta.
"If you look back 10 years ago, the Web was a very static place," Microsoft senior product manager James Pratt said in an interview, reiterating Microsoft's new policy of regular releases of new versions of Internet Explorer. "Fast-forward and we've seen this amazing change in the Web."
Security has become an important feature of Internet Explorer in the last two versions, as Microsoft had been attacked for gaps in Internet Explorer 6. The beta includes a number of new security features, including protection against cross-site scripting attacks and a phishing and malware filter called the SmartScreen filter.
Two other features, InPrivate Browsing and Blocking, allow users to cover their digital tracks when browsing by ensuring that history, cookies, and temporary files aren't stored on the computer and that third parties can’t track online behavior. The features have caused some controversy as "porn mode" because they eliminate traces of browsing history, but they're also useful for avoiding behavioral tracking by third-party Web sites that users don't know or want tracking them. Companies can turn InPrivate modes on or off to prevent unauthorized browsing.
If the browser crashes despite IE's new security features, Microsoft has included improved crash recovery in the new beta. If a crash is detected, the affected browser tab or tabs automatically reload, including any information that had been filled in on forms on the crashed pages. Users can even reload lost tabs or an entire browser session if accidentally closed, because IE keeps track of the most recently closed tabs.
Microsoft has also implemented better search and search-like features into Internet Explorer 8. Much as Mozilla has done by including the Awesome Bar in Firefox 3.0, Microsoft has added a Smart Address Bar that automatically completes URLs as they are typed, drawing on previously visited sites, favorites, and RSS feeds. However, Smart Address Bar lacks Firefox's ability for users to tag visited Web sites with whatever name or description they choose.
The search box at the upper right-hand corner of IE's browser screen has been significantly improved in beta 2. It includes automatic suggestions, so that a user typing "Counti" might see "Counting Crows" in the suggested search list. It also includes the ability to show graphics in the suggestions area, so that someone using the search box to search Amazon.com for Counting Crows CDs would be greeted with additional information like CD cover images.
In the earlier test version of IE8, Microsoft worked around incompatibilities and broken Web sites caused by the browser's newfound adherence to standards by including a button labeled "Emulate IE7" that required users to shut down and reload the browser if they encountered a Web site that didn't render properly in IE8. In the new version, an icon of a torn page in the URL bar will automatically reload and re-render a site under old IE7 rules without having to shut down the browser. Clicking the icon will automatically add the site to a list of those to be loaded in "compatibility view," and companies can set the browser so that all intranet sites, many of which were designed with older versions of IE in mind, load in compatibility view.
IT shops get a number of new features in IE8 beta 2 as well to test before they deploy the final version when it comes out. These include the ability to wrap IE8 and customizations into a Windows Vista configuration that can be automatically deployed to employees when needed, improvements to the user interface of IE's Administration Kit, new group policy settings, and developer tools that come as part of the browser rather than with a separate add-in toolbar.
While Microsoft continues to release new features in IE8, Mozilla isn't standing still. Earlier this week, it announced a project called Ubiquity, which would allow users to create their own Web "macros" to share with others or find information. Using Ubiquity, a user could highlight the name of a business on a Web site, right-click and bring up a command line, type "map" and generate a map of the surrounding area around the business, and share that map with others. The feature is similar, though a bit more extensive, than the Accelerators feature (which used to be known as Activities) found in IE8.