Internet Explorer 8 Promises Better Standards Compliance...and a Whole Lot More

Developer release lauded as "sweet!" but puts the focus on security, interoperability and better programming features rather than the user experience.

Yesterday, at the MIX08 conference, Microsoft released the first beta of Internet Explorer 8 (IE8), which is available for immediate download (Internet Explorer 8 beta). It promises several technical enhancements—as well as several philosophical improvements. After a session demonstrating the technical underpinnings of the beta release, the initial community response was, in the words of one developer, "Sweet!" (Read more on Web Browsers of Tomorrow.)

MORE ON CIO.com

Web Browsers of Tomorrow

Is the Enterprise Afraid of Web 2.0?

ABC: An Introduction to Web 2.0

Beyond Ajax: Software Development, Two Years from Now

Microsoft is swift to point out that Beta 1 is a developer release, rather than one meant for end users to test. "It's very early; we're not done," said Chris Wilson, the IE Platform Architect, during the technical breakout session introducing the new browser version. "We're not talking (yet) about the user experience." This Beta version puts its attention on security, interoperability and better programming features. Among the enhancements are CSS 2.1 support, CSS certification, performance improvements, HTML 5 support, built-in development tools and two new user features—Activities and WebSlices—that developers will want to explore.

Renewed Commitment to Web Standards

A key change in Microsoft's plans is—just announced this week—that IE8 will default to standards-compliance mode, rather than legacy support for previous browser versions. "Compatibility is key," said Wilson.

"We will give you the best approximation of the standard that we can," said Wilson. But if you've written apps to work only with certain versions and features, all is not lost. Authors can upgrade their content when they're ready; in the meantime, they can tell the browser to use "old rendering."

Importantly, IE8 is complying more with CSS standards. "We have the goal of having full and complete support for CSS 2.1," said Wilson. "This is a big goal." To that end, IE8 has a new layout engine with a great typographic foundation that's designed with CSS 2.1 in mind, and clear principles of compliance and interoperability. "Yes, this is the end of hasLayout," said Wilson to audience applause, "Though we still have it in 'quirks mode.'"

With IE expecting Web applications to conform to W3C standards, and the commitment to full CSS compliance, says author and Web standards activist Molly Holzschlag, "It will make life easier for everybody." Developers will be easier to develop, to scale and to maintain since less time will need to be invested in making an app run in a particular browser instead of writing great software. "You won't have to train people to do things to get around IE," said Holzschlag, who also pointed out that IE6 will still be around for a long time (so the cussing will continue for a while).

Down 'n Dirty Developer Details

Security was a major issue addressed with IE7. That hasn't changed. In IE8, said Wilson, "We continue to invest heavily in security." For example, work has been done on ActiveX, to make it more targeted. "Most of the problems we've had with ActiveX is with things being misused," said Wilson, so IE8 will permit both per-user ActiveX installs without admin privileges and per-site ActiveX controls. With the latter, for example, the browser can be set to allow one site to use an ActiveX control, but not all sites. IE8 also has DEP/NX code execution prevention by default, leveraging Windows Vista, said Wilson.

Security is an element of what Wilson called "the mash-up dilemma." The most interesting Web apps mash up data and components across domains—which is not safe. "I don't want anybody mashing up data from my Bank of America account!" he said. IE8 is implementing a new object to ensure that cross-domain requests require mutual consent so that both sites OK the exchange of data. Similarly, IE8 can enforce limitations on cross-document messaging.

IE8 is also unlocking the Web for accessibility reasons, said Wilson, to support W3C ARIA specifications and make advanced Web content accessible. Many Web 2.0 and Ajax applications, explained Wilson, are hard or impossible to use when using an assistive technology like a screen reader.

That's not to say IE8 has no eye candy and just plain neat stuff. They've put a lot of work into improving the Zoom experience. The new Activities feature lets developers use an OpenService format (available under a creative commons license) to create contextual pop-ups to connect users to existing services. For example, Wilson demonstrated, everyone uses tons of Web services such as maps. But unless someone stuck a map on the page it's hard to get to the information. For example, a scuba shop's website might list an address. Normally you would have to create a new tab, navigate to a mapping service, copy and paste—several annoying steps.Activities are designed to connect users to their existing services. In IE8, a contextual pop-up gives a list of options, including "map with live maps" and get a pop-up or a new tab showing the shop's location.

WebSlices let users subscribe to the data as defined by the site's developer. For this feature, too, Microsoft is turning to open standards, beginning with the hAtom microformat, which describes a feed and items but is meant to represent static content. WebSlice builds on hAtom: "If you have your content as hAtoms, it's really easy to build on it and make WebSlices," said Wilson. Also, the Windows Feed Platform now supports both feeds and WebSlices (and, incidentally, also supports authentication), he added.

Toward the Reduction of Developer Teeth-Gnashing

The best way to get Web interoperability, said Wilson, is comprehensive, unbiased test suites: "a test suite that tries to test everything." So Microsoft today has contributed to the W3C more than 700 tests offered under the BSD open license. "Anyone can take them and use them for nearly any purpose today," he said.

Also, there's a CSS, HTML and JavaScript debugger "in the box." Explained Wilson, "All I installed on this [computer] is IE8—it has the debugger in the browser." You don't need to download a component to get it to work; you can trace styles and layout and anything else you need. "The point of the tool is not to be a replacement for any other tool you may use," he said. "It's part of the browser while we're debugging."

There's plenty more, but that's a brief overview.

The most important message for IT managers, says Holzschlag, is Microsoft that has scrapped the old IE engine and is building a new one for IE8. "This is where the fresh start begins—and that's exciting!" said Holzschlag.

Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies