Spoutin' Off: IE 8 provides versatility to web surfing

By Michael Rau

September 8, 2008

Now this is what I've been talking about all along.

Microsoft is doing what I've always said they could do if they just set their sights in that direction. They're using their talent pool to punch back at the competition.

A public beta version of Internet Explorer 8 has been released, and it's obvious from MS's developmental direction that they're more than aware of the erosion of their browser market share, mostly to Firefox.

IE 8 seems to not just be a reworked version of a previous version. Some folks obviously sat down and put a lot of thought into how to provide some added versatility to the Web surfing experience.

There are a lot of new features that sound pretty cool, particularly in terms of navigation, that you'll probably appreciate.

An example is a tab navigation system called "Groups". In this mode, when you open a new Web page from within an existing Web page, it opens in a tab directly to the right of the originating page's tab, and takes on the same color. This keeps associated pages grouped together amongst the tabs.

Pretty cool.

But here, I also have to point out my favorite thing about Firefox. Its open-source nature has led to an absolute plethora of third-party add-ons and plugins that extend the capabilities of Firefox far beyond what you get in the basic browser you download from Mozilla.

Because of this, it's likely that whatever cool navigation feature Microsoft comes up with for IE, some coder will come up with an add-on for Firefox that will accomplish the same thing.

Conversely, the closed-source nature of IE keeps "outsiders" from developing cool features for the world's most common browser, so MS has to rely on a finite talent pool for improvements.

Having said that, let's move on.

The most interesting feature of the new IE 8 Beta has to be something called "InPrivate Browsing". When you choose this mode by launching a so-called InPrivate Browsing session, and visit Web sites that use cookies and gather other information about you from forms or other information such as passwords, all of this is deleted when you exit out of this session.

Ironically, the Websites that are the most egregious abusers of this information are sites that operate on the fringes, anyway. Because of this, InPrivate Browsing has been dubbed by some commentators as "porn mode".

While I find this appellation rather amusing, I have to say it really isn't fair. I've never made any bones about my belief that Microsoft itself is responsible for many of the Internet's security issues because of the manner in which they've conducted their business. But let's give them credit for trying to plug those holes, even if they won't publicly take responsibility.

This brings me to the new feature of IE 8 that strikes me as being most impressive. It's called "InPrivate Blocking", and it addresses a subtle, but huge security problem that's aggravated me for years, but continues to go largely unaddressed.

I've railed for years against the practice of many Websites in their collection of private information about you and your Web surfing habits. The methodology employed to gather this information has become astonishingly sophisticated and has made me have second thoughts about going to some sites (I haven't gone to Yahoo in over two years owing to their unabashed and unapologetic use of Web beacons).

Even worse, almost all commercial Web sites now pull in outside Web content through the employment of iFrames and other forms of embedded code. Each one of these embedded pages could itself, employ something like a Web beacon to gather information about you, which the owner of that site could then share with or sell to a third party.

IE 8's new InPrivate Blocking promises to throw a big ol' monkey wrench into the gears of this practice. When surfing in this mode, IE 8 promises to block these sites from gathering information from your system.

That's huge.

I can't deny the fact that I'm a Firefox fan and proponent. I work in a mostly-Mac environment, so IE 8 isn't even a factor for me. I like Opera - always have - but it still has it's issues. I'm not a huge fan of Safari as I find it limited in its versatility. More than anything else, I believe in the open-source philosophy embraced by the Mozilla Foundation in the development of Firefox.

But Internet Explorer remains the dominant Web browser, and will remain so for at least some time to come.

Thus, because of the interconnected nature of the World Wide Web, any effort to plug hole in the security of the Internet benefits every single one of us who utilizes it.

It's only fair that I offer props to Microsoft for recognizing that there actually are problems out here in the "real" virtual world.

Hey Microsoft! With Macs making a lot of headway in terms of market penetration, don't you think that maybe it's time to re-examine your lack of interest in providing a version of Internet Explorer for Mac?

Michael Rau is a mass-communications consultant in Virginia Beach. To send feedback or view past columns, go to http://dailypress.asoundidea.com.

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