The new Explorer will appeal to ordinary mortals

Microsoft unveiled Internet Explorer 8 at its Mix conference in Las Vegas last week and became a victim of bad timing, when its “secure” new browser was hacked during the Pwn2Own competition at the CanSecWest security conference in Vancouver.

But my experience with IE8 suggests it will survive this initial stumble. IE8 is much snappier and far more secure than IE6 and IE7, has many usability improvements, and some innovative features that are not available elsewhere.

But — and this is important for a new Microsoft program — IE8 doesn’t really look any different from IE7, and it happily picks up bookmarks, toolbars and other plug-ins you have already installed. IE7 users should find IE8 feels just as comfortable.

IE8 is a 16MB download (including Microsoft’s Malicious Software Removal Tool) and easy to install. However, it does want you to go through a long series of screens about two new features: Accelerators and Web Slices .

Accelerators let you do things quickly from a web page. For example, you can highlight a block of text, wait for the blue arrow to pop up, and select an option from the drop-down menu. The option might be to blog the selection, look it up on Google, find it on a map, share it on Facebook, translate it or whatever: it depends on the Accelerators you have installed.

Web Slices let you see information from websites without going to them. You can, for example, watch things on eBay, the top 10 items from Digg, the Most Twittered Videos, or the latest news from actor Jake Thomas. Not many Web Slices have been developed so far, but if Jake Thomas can have one, they can’t be beyond most big companies.

Where IE8 can run into trouble is in displaying websites that have been written to deal with the quirks of IE6 and IE7. IE8 represents a big step forward in terms of Microsoft support for current web standards, but it also has a Compatibility View to handle the quirks. At least this should encourage support for standards over quirks, which will be good for everyone in the long run.

IE8 doesn’t compete with Firefox on geeky scripts, it doesn’t compete with Chrome for JavaScript speed, or with Safari for eye-candy. What it does do is provide a quick, usable, standards-based browser for ordinary mortals who really don’t care about the browser wars, but just want to get stuff done. –

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