Microsoft Cagey on Details as It Sets IE 8 Time Frame

The next iteration of Microsoft’s Web browser, Internet Explorer 8 (IE 8), will roll out in beta form early next year, the company said Wednesday. The long-awaited news comes just days after the earlier-than-expected launch of the second beta version of Mozilla’s Firefox 3 Web browser.

The eighth version of the browser won’t be hamstrung with the difficulties IE 7 had following its release in October 2006, Microsoft said, due to improvements Microsoft made to IE 7’s Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). The browser passed a significant Web standards milestone, and as of last week, IE 8 now “renders the ‘Acid2 Face’ correctly in IE 8 standards mode,” said Dean Hachamovitch, IE Team general manager.

“Acid2 is one test of how modern browsers work with some specific features across several different Web standards,” he continued. “With respect to standards and interoperability, our goal in developing Internet Explorer 8 is to support the right set of standards with excellent implementations and do so without breaking the existing Web. This second goal refers to the lessons we learned during IE 7.”

Web Standards Focused

With Internet Explorer 8, Microsoft is making a concerted effort on interoperability, ensuring the browser supports certain accepted Web standards. It’s something the software maker did not focus on until it began working on IE 7 in 2005. Before then, Web developers designed their applications with an eye on compatibility with the latest version of Internet Explorer rather than the jumble of industry, de facto and open standards.

The rise in popularity of Web standards such as CSS and Really Simple Syndication (RSS) and growing competition from open source browsers like Firefox and Opera forced Microsoft to rethink its position.

“The key goal … is interoperability. As a developer, I’d prefer to not have to write the same site multiple times for different browsers. Standards are a (critical) means to this end, and we focus on the standards that will help actual, real-world interoperability the most,” Hachamovitch said.

“This is a big push towards standards compliance,” Rob Enderle, principal analyst at The Enderle Group, told TechNewsWorld. “IE is the product that defines how Web sites are built, so its move to standards should be, and initially has been, very well received.”

Passing the Acid2 test developed by the Web Standards Project, an advocacy group, is a significant achievement. Firefox and Opera failed this test in the past, and it is believed to be the most comprehensive third-party test for broad standards in the market, Enderle pointed out.

Browsing Through IE 8

Though the final version of IE 8 will be a full release, Microsoft has remained relatively quiet about what new improvements and features will be included in the final form.

Microsoft trumpets new features early and often, “but they appear to be keeping some of the features under wraps,” Enderle noted.

Judging by Hachamovitch’s remarks, Microsoft’s unusual silence is intentional.

“For IE 8, we want to communicate facts, not aspirations. We’re posting this information now because we have real working code checked in and we’re confident about delivering it in the final product.”

With the software maker keeping mum about what it plans for IE 8, one good sign is that Microsoft is not influenced as much by what its competitors — Firefox, Opera and Safari — are doing, Enderle said.

“Microsoft actually appears to be listening to customers and developers on this cycle, which normally bodes well for the product. Focusing on competitors too much often results in a product that lags significantly behind what the others have to offer. And Microsoft needs to lead with IE, not follow,” he explained.

“I’d expect a big push on media, major security enhancements, and some solid usability work with the final release,” Enderle added.

Tread Carefully

Though he cautioned Microsoft against focusing too much on what its competitors are doing, Enderle suggested the software maker take a look at the mobile version of Apple’s Safari browser. “The big advantage Safari has is on the iPhone, and addressing this shortcoming in the mobile version of IE is critical because it’s crippling their phone effort right now.”

Whatever Microsoft decides to do with IE 8, it is imperative they get it right, Enderle stated.

“[IE] may be one of the major things that define Microsoft in the last part of the decade, as the code is tied to almost every platform they have in some way or other. Getting this right or wrong could have a major impact on Microsoft’s future,” he concluded.

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