A few brave souls are now downloading the new beta 2 version of Internet Explorer 8, which brings quite a few changes. Some of them, of course, are catching up with Firefox, but the extra security and continued move towards standards makes IE8 an important release. In this case, it includes Acid2-compliance and moves to support draft standards such as HTML 5 Draft DOM Storage standard and the Web API Working Group's Selectors API.
Beta 2 includes Web Slices, which arrived in beta 1. Microsoft says:
Developers can mark parts of Web pages as Web Slices and enable users to monitor information they rely on as they move about the Web. With a click in the Favorites bar, users see rich Web Slice visuals and developers establish a valuable end-user connection.
For example, eBay is using Web Slices. The basic idea is that when part of a page changes -- eg someone makes a bid -- a notification button lights up. You don't have to go to a page to see if it has changed, and it's less geeky than subscribing to an RSS feed.
The main changes for ordinary users include greatly enhanced Find (with, at last, results highlighted) and the so-called "porn mode," InPrivate browsing. This lets you visit your bank account or whatever without storing any URLs, passwords, temporary files etc -- though you can opt to retain the cookie. Another welcome if late addition is Reopen last browsing session, for which many multiple-tab users have adopted IE7Pro crash-protection.
There's a Compatibility View button for use with sites designed to work with IE7.
Another welcome feature is Per-site ActiveX, which includes Per-user ActiveX. One reason why Firefox was more secure than IE was that Mozilla never implemented ActiveX support, and therefore Firefox failed to work with any ActiveX sites. (This is like avoiding car-jacking by leaving your car in the garage. It works, but still....) Unfortunately, ActiveX is too heavily used on intranets for Microsoft to be able to dump it, but per-site control is a good compromise. Users will be able to block it everywhere except for the couple of sites that may still require it.... and parents will be able to block it on their kids' accounts.
The enhanced security features include a Smart Screen filter to improve phishing protection (Safari please copy), a Cross-Site Scripting (XSS) filter, and Data execution prevention (DEP) turned on by default.
Finally, corporate users get "more than 100 new Group Policy settings" to provide even more fine-grained control of their users' browsers from the DP centre.
Microsoft fell a long way behind in browser features and standards support by taking five years off, but IE8 beta 2 seems to get it more or less back in the pack. Since it's over two years since IE7 came out (October 19, 2006), one can only say "about time, too". But there are still plenty of sleepyheads on IE6. It makes you wonder what the final release will be like and if it will be out in time for windows 7.