The success of the Windows 7 Beta programme has clearly been a shot in the arm of sorts for Microsoft. Not only has the way in which the firm went about opening up the development of one of its core products won favour, but people tended to like what they saw when they got there.
Thus, the company spotlight has now switched to the latest test edition of its upcoming browser, Internet Explorer 8. The earlier beta releases have offered cautious optimism for the much-maligned browser, not least in its handling of Flash content, which avoids the lock-ups that continually plague the likes of Firefox in this department.
Now up to Release Candidate 1 and edging ever closer to its formal, final release version, Internet Explorer 8 has certainly smartened its game up, and not just in the slightly polished user interface.
This is Microsoft’s big play towards standards-compliant browsers, many years after web developers wished it had been done. This, inevitably, is causing stability issues of its own, with sites optimised to run in the likes of Internet Explorer 7 having a little trouble getting up and running in the new IE, but this is still an important step that Microsoft needed to take.
The lock ups that Internet Explorer 7 and the early beta of IE8 generated aren’t completely cured, but at least the software recovers from them quite well. It can recover browsing sessions on a tab-by-tab basis and we were quite impressed by how quickly and smartly it did this. Sadly, when fiddling with Google Analytics, we did end up feeling like we were playing Jet Set Willy on the Spectrum, as each recovery led to the same crash, but the feature still works well for the majority of the time.
The main new attractions, though, come in the form of a handful of key features. Chief among them is the InPrivate browsing idea, where for once you can use Internet Explorer without it scattering your Internet history right across your machine. You can enable InPrivate on a window-by-window basis if you want, meaning it’s entirely feasible to have nine windows on the go, and only one set to private.
There’s also an Accelerator feature, which is designed to quickly help you out with common tasks like translating words, finding locations, searching eBay and so on. The idea is that you highlight the word in question and then click on the accelerator icon. This then gives you one-click access to what you want to do, in theory. You can add fresh accelerators as you so desire, and it’s a nice idea that we can see ourselves potentially relying on more in the future.
That said, we can’t yet imagine turning our attention back to Internet Explorer over its faster-moving rivals. Its interface still seems to lag behind something like Firefox, and this later release candidate does seem to have slowed things down a little.
It’s a sizeable overall improvement, and a step in the right direction from Microsoft, but there’s still work clearly to be done. It’s likely, ultimately, not to be enough for us, at least this time around.