If Google is focusing on making the browser’s UI transparent to the user, Microsoft apparently wants to make it opaque. At first look, the most striking new feature in Internet Explorer 8 is, in fact, the way the browser is integrating web content into its own UI. This becomes apparent when looking at functionalities like Web Slices and Accelerators. Internet Explorer 8 offers more than just that. The browser now caught up with the competitors and now sports a “smart” address bar with integrated search, as well as a “private-browsing” mode. Here are IE 8′s new features in a quick tour.
This are basically RSS-feeds embedded in a dedicated drop-down window in the browser. It reminds me a lot of Firefox’s Live Bookmarks, except that in IE the feed items are simply not presented as a list of text entrie, but instead display images as well as hyperlinks.
Accelerators are yet another way of integrating various Web 2.0 services, typically search engines, maps and e-mail clients, directly into the browser. Particularly, they allow to select any text in a web page and pass that text on to a service to use it as search terms or as body of an e-mail.
Essentially, this means having a browsing session that does not leave traces of the websites you have visited, without having to manually clear the history, web page cache or cookies afterwards. Google Chrome has this feature already built-in and is called Incognito mode while Firefox users can achieve it through the Stealther add-on.
This is probably the first real innovative feature of IE 8, and with that I mean I personally haven’t seen it in any other browser. When ever you open a link in a new tab, that tab will have the same color as the tab the link originates from. It is indeed useful to visually associate tabs that are somehow related to each other, like for example the results page from a search engine and a group of pages the results link to.
Internet Explorer 8 and Google Chrome are right now the only browsers that isolate each tab in a separate process. The obvious advantages of such an architecture over single process browsers is of course isolation, meaning a tab can crash or hang without taking down the whole browser, better memory management because when a tab is closed all data that’s in memory gets immediately clean up, and and sometimes performance whenever the tabs can run on multiple CPU cores.
What’s interesting here thought, is the fact that Chrome and IE 8 have slightly different approaches to this architecture. In fact, while Chrome spins off a new process for every new tab you open, IE 8 manages multiple tabs in a few number of processes. The exact relation between the number of tabs and the number of processes is not clear, however the goal is obviously to limit memory consumption by avoiding to have an excessive number of running processes.
Smart address bar
Last but not least, IE 8 integrates search into the address bar, just like a modern web browser should do. Nothing specially exciting to report here, a part from the fact that the drop-down box is taking a lot of space in my opinion, but I hope that’s something that will be adjusted by the time Internet Explorer 8 gets released.
In conclusion, I would say Internet Explorer 8 is doing much better that its predecessor, providing many of the features modern web users have come to expect, and even innovating in some areas, like the tab groups and the multi-process architecture.
In any case I personally doubt the IE 8, once released in the wild, will be a so good product to make people switch away from their currently favorite browser.
However it will certainly make current IE users happy, and let’s not forget that they still represent the majority of Internet users on the planet.
In a previous post I wrote about how Mozilla Firefox during the last 4 years slowly grew in popularity among Internet users, until it finally became a threat to Microsoft, who finally decided to refresh good old Internet Explorer by releasing version 7 in late 2006.
Obviously Firefox wasn’t that much of a threat after all, since Internet Explorer managed to maintain the biggest slice of the browser market share to date. Most likely for the same reasons that put Microsoft in trouble with the antitrust case against the US Justice Department in 1998: bundling with the world’s most popular operative system.
However, when Google releases a browser, it’s a completely different story. Google’s solid position on the Internet market combined with its business model of free services give the company a great marketing potential. This potential can be used as a highway to mass-distribute software, much in the same way Windows served to put Internet Explorer on the majority of PCs in the world during the 90′s. And Microsoft must have sensed that threat.
I am currently giving IE8 a spin, and I will soon post my impressions. In the meantime, have someone already tried it? What’s your opinion? I’m curious to hear.
I’ve been using Google Chrome as my primary browser for a few days now. As a side note, I almost feel bad about having abandoned Firefox so quickly. I mean, I’ve been using Firefox since version 0.5 (back when it was still called Phoenix), for all my daily browsing, both at work and at home. For 4 years, I’ve always been satisfied with the experience. Then Google comes out with its own browser, and in a blink of an eye away goes Firefox and Chrome suddenly gets to be my default browser. Incredible!
To be honest, I am not really sure why that is. Maybe it’s the fact the perception that everything Google touches becomes gold, or maybe it’s because I am particularly attracted by the idea of a browser built from scratch, free from the burden of design choices made in legacy code bases, and instead designed with the modern Internet in mind.
Anyway, I thought I would share some of my initial impressions about Chrome. And since I’m still a big fan of Mozilla’s browser, I am going to make an (implicit) comparison with Firefox 3.0.
The first thing that became obvious to me after just a few minutes of using Chrome, is that it’s fast at rendering web pages. I mean, really fast. Faster than Firefox! It kind of reminded me of Safari, and maybe that’s not too strange, since Google chose to use Apple’s WebKit as HTML rendering engine.
I really like the way Chrome’s looks and feels. The browser’s tries not to occupy too much space with its own UI, giving web pages the largest possible display area. The team’s mission statement is to “make the browser invisible”, meaning the user should focus on the web content when browsing, rather than the browser itself. And I have to say they have partially succeeded with that. I say partially because in my opinion the download bar really doesn’t have to be that big.
Google Chrome offers many of those features, standardized by other browsers, that make navigating the Web a more pleasant experience. Among these I especially like the possibility to search through the browser’s history and bookmarks when typing in the address bar (Google calls it Omnibar, Mozilla Awesome Bar). But Google goes a step further and integrates search through a search engine of choice (by default www.google.com, of course) right into the address bar. It’s even possible to receive Google’s suggestions about which keywords I might want to type in order to get highest number of matches as possible.
What I’m missing
After my initial (and slightly exaggerated) enthusiasm for Chrome had cooled down, I started to realize that my new default browser is missing some features I really appreciated in my old one, like:
- Integrated support to view and subscribe to RSS/Atom feeds on a web page
- A bookmark manager to organize, tag and export/import my bookmarks
- History in a sidebar, where the URLs can be grouped and collapsed by day
Google Chrome is still a (incredibly good) beta product, so I expect the development team to fill in the gaps sooner rather then later. It will be interesting to see which impact Chrome will have on the browser market, once it has matured a bit.
We often hear the phrase “history repeats itself” when talking about the evolution of mankind. Well, it seems that this principle is equally true for the evolution of technology. When it comes to browser software, it’s 1996 all over again! Well, that’s not completely true. Let’s roll back for a second to see what has happened in the last 3-4 years.
Since Microsoft’s Internet Explorer won the first installment of the browser war over Netscape’s Communicator during the late 90′s, we haven’t seen much innovation in the browser’s market. Microsoft succeeded into making Internet Explorer the “universal” web browser on Earth, and, with version 6, it decided there was nothing more to invent in that space.
But in 2001, just like a Phoenix bird is born again from its own ashes, a new browser was born from the ashes of Internet Explorer’s old rival Netscape Communicator, called Mozilla. But Mozilla was more than just a browser, it was an “Internet suite”, composed by a web browser, an e-mail client, a web page editor and an IRC client. Unfortunately Mozilla didn’t gain wide adoption, mostly because it was big and slow and offered too much functionality that ordinary Internet users simply didn’t need. At that point Internet Explorer was still the king of the browsers.
But the efforts put into the development of Mozilla weren’t totally wasted. A few years later the browser resurrected once again from its ashes, in the form of a new project ironically called “Phoenix”. Sadly that name didn’t last long because of trademark issues, and neither did the second one, “Firebird”. The final choice landed on “Firefox”. Firefox has been developed since the start in 2003 as an open source project, and is backed up by the same company that was behind the original Mozilla called Mozilla Corporation.
Firefox’s initial mission statement was to be a “lean and mean browsing machine” with the minimal functionality required for navigation (address bar, bookmarks, history) and strong focus on achieving high web page rendering speed. These features, together with better W3C standard compliance, feature innovation, multi-platform support and a large community of add-ons developers to extend its functionality, became a key selling point for Firefox.
The browser’s diffusion among the Internet users grew constantly since it’s initial release in 2004, slowly corroding Internet Explorer’s hegemony. This finally got to Microsoft’s attention, which reacted by (finally) releasing a new version of its aging browser, Windows Internet Explorer 7, trying to keep up with the many innovations introduced by Firefox.
A new browser war was started, with two main contenders, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer once again on one side, and Mozilla’s Firefox on the other. Until now.
Google Chrome is a beta release, but from my experience with it so far, I would say it’s in a good position to permanently replace Firefox as my main day-to-day browser. I’ll write more about my thoughts on Chrome as I spend more time with it.