Web Apps

Microsoft Gives Web Devs New Tools in IE8 Beta

Microsoft has released Internet Explorer 8 beta 1, four months ahead of schedule. The browser is aimed at developers, the software giant said, but anyone can download the beta from its sites. It was originally scheduled to be released in June.

Microsoft announced the release at its annual Mix 08 conference, which runs through Friday at the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino in Las Vegas.

Together with that announcement, it also released betas of Silverlight 2 and Expression Studio 2.

Silverlight is Microsoft’s cross-platform application for building and delivering Web-based multimedia applications, and Expression Studio 2, designed to work seamlessly with Visual Studio, lets designers and developers collaborate on creating better user experiences.

All About the Web

“The Web is at the center of everything Microsoft is doing,” Ray Ozzie, Microsoft’s chief architect, said at the launch. The new products will let developers and designers work together to deliver “a range of seamless, connected experiences across the continuum of Web applications, rich clients, mobile and other devices,” Ozzie said.

For example, IE8 beta offers much better support for Web standards and increased interoperability with other vendors’ browsers. It includes integrated developer tools for quickly debugging HTML, CSS (cascading style sheets) and scripts visually and will feature full support for CSS 2.1 at release to manufacturing, when the CDs are burned and boxed.

CSS is a stylesheet language used to describe the presentation of a document written in a markup language such as HTML and XHTML, defining colors, fonts, layout and other aspects of document presentation.

The standards-compliant mode is the default setting. Originally, IE8 had this mode turned off by default, and developers had to code for it by including a meta tag.

Standards-Based Approach

“We started from a simple statement of ‘enable (and encourage) interoperable web development, but don’t force IE to break pages that work properly in IE today,'” IE platform architect Chris Wilson wrote in his blog.

That being said, all the new styling and layout changes introduced into IE8 to make it more standards-compliant means “that’s a lot of potential breakage,” he pointed out.

“I’m excited by all the standards work we’re doing in IE8; I’m even more excited that we won’t cause a lot of compatibility problems for our users and Web developers,” Wilson said.

Is IE8 fully compliant with Web standards? Hard to say.

“The problem with any kind of standard is it can be open to interpretation, and, short of the technical implementation being exactly identical with the standard, it’s hard to have two browsers complying with standards behaving exactly the same way,” Forrester Research analyst Colin Teubner told TechNewsWorld.

“I think Microsoft’s trying to be standards-compliant but, in terms of full compliance with W3C, it’s hard to say if any browser is fully compliant.”

W3C stands for the World Wide Web Consortium, the main international standards organization for the World Wide Web.

Other IE8 Features

  • Facebook integration: IE8 users can get status updates through their browser toolbar from Facebook, which partners with Microsoft for advertising syndication.
  • WebSlices: lets users get updates from other sites through IE8, without having to actually visit those other sites. This will provide a connection to eBay, which will also offer WebSlices, so IE8 users can track their auctions from the browser toolbar.
  • Integration with Microsoft Live Maps.
  • Integration with Me.dium: A social discovery mechanism that lets users browse Web sites together with their friends who are also on the Internet.

Working together better with Ajax, a group of inter-related Web development techniques used for creating interactive Web applications. Ajax stands for Asynchronous JavaScript and XML.

Rich Internet Apps

IE8 will enable rich Internet applications — RIAs — which have the features and functionality of traditional desktop applications and make for a better user experience on the Web.

This will tap the capabilities of Silverlight, but “for that to be successful, Microsoft will have to offer RIA on other platforms as well,” Teubner said. “I think it would be very hard to tie RIA to a specific browser.”

Microsoft’s expansion of Office Live will help its move into RIA and boost adoption of IE8 because “some of the technologies for RIA help Microsoft deliver those kind of things, and some of the people who are willing to buy Office Live from Microsoft will be happy to use Internet Explorer 8,” Teubner added.

IE and Firefox

There is some speculation that the release of IE8 was advanced from the original June date because the new beta of Firefox 3, the main competitor to Internet Explorer, was released last week.

Not so, Microsoft contends. The IE8 Beta was slated for the first half of 2008, as noted by the IE Team Blog, the company pointed out.

Interoperability, rather than the competition, weighs more heavily on Microsoft executives’ minds: “They made an announcement recently about their commitment to interoperability, and the improved standards support in IE8 is proof of that,” Forrester’s Teubner said.

“It’s part of trying to show more compliance with the EU going forward, and trying to avoid more legal trouble with the EU.”

The EU recently slapped Microsoft with a record US$1.3 billion fine for its anticompetitive activities.

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