At the first day of the Mix08 conference, Microsoft demonstrated the first beta release of its Internet Explorer 8 Web brwoser, and also made the beta avaliable for download to developers and Web authors. The industry has been watching the development of EI8 carefully, since inconsistent and missing support for Web standards developed by the W3C mean many serious Web sites essentially have to build every page twice: once for standards-complaint browsers like Firefox and Safari, and once again (or the same pages riddled with tweaks) for Internet Explorer.
IE8’s main feature will be better standards compliance, and Microsoft announced last week that IE8 will default to a standards-compliant mode, rather than a “quirks mode” that renders pages designed with all of IE5’s previous shortcomings in mind. The result may be that pages specifically authored to work in existing, non-standards-compliant versions of Internet Explorer may not work or display properly in IE8…but pages that comply with Web standards should only need to be written once to work in all major browsers.
The first beta release of IE8 is aimed at developers and Web authors who need to prepare their products and pages for the new browser; it is not a consumer-ready release, and still has many rendering and interface quirks. The IE8 beta features a selection of built-in debugging and testing tools, touts CSS 2.1 compliance (the browser passes the Acid2 test, which previous versions failed miserably). However, developers are already complaining that IE8’s standards mode is significantly slower than it’s quirks mode.
The browser also sports a new feature called “Web slices” that enables a user to subscribe to a portion of a Web page (like abox with traffic info), rather than the whole thing. IE8 also offers “Activities” that enable users to perform common actions on data in Web pages, like look up addresses or exerpt for a blog, without having to copy-and-paste information.
By defaulting IE8’s rendering engine to standards mode, Microsoft may be heading off criticism (and future antitrust action) from the European Union and other organizations that Microsoft’s dominance of the browser market interferes with interoperability and third-party products. It’s not much of an exaggeration to describe much Web development over the last several years as working around shortcomings in Internet Explorer. Nonetheless, even if Microsoft were to release IE8 today, it will take a considerable amount of time for a standards-compliant version of Internet Explorer to gain significant market share: worldwide, about one Web user in three still uses IE6…and that means sites will have to develop with IE6 in mind for some time to come.