3 reasons IE 8 won't close the door on Firefox or Chrome

On Tuesday Microsoft announced the availability of Release Candidate 1 of Internet Explorer 8. Nick Mediati does a nice job describing many of IE 8’s new features in the article IE8 Focuses on Improved Security and Privacy. I’ve been using the IE 8 beta for some time now, most recently the special IE 8 beta included (and compatible) with the Windows 7 beta. IE 8 has a large number of new features, from more robust tab browsing to new security features for private browsing and stopping malicious Web sites. (See Nick’s article for details about all the new IE features.)

There are several improvements in IE 8 I particularly like, including the new security features, drag-able tabs, tab isolation (so runaway JavaScript doesn’t crash the browser), non-popup Find (a little thing, but this fixes an annoying UI design in IE 7), and easy-to-manage favorites. Features like Accelerators are interesting, but it’s not clear they’ll be tremendously useful. (Maybe I just need to use them more, I don’t know.)

But IE 8 brings back old headaches we’ve dealt with before in each new release of Microsoft’s IE browser: Web-site compatibility problems and subpar performance (compared to competitors). IE 8 adds support for W3 Web standards, but once again, breaks when displaying many sites designed to support the idiosyncrasies introduced with IE 7. To deal with this, IE 8 adds a compatibility option you can enable when a Web page doesn’t display correctly. That’s like closing the barn door after the cows are out. Again, we have to deal with Web-page compatibility issues.

Those of us developing Web applications or products now have yet another browser version we have to design for and test (IE 6, IE 7 and now IE 8). Why do we have to experience this yet again with the introduction of a new browser from Microsoft? Firefox has far fewer HTML-rendering issues, and even the newer Google Chrome browser imposes fewer compatibility issues on its users than IE 8 does. This is one of those nagging issues Microsoft drags us through again and again -- one of many reasons users become disillusioned and switch to an alternative like Chrome or Firefox.

Performance is the second big issue in IE. Yes, Microsoft claims again to have made performance improvements in IE 8, but it’s still slower and less responsive than its Firefox and Chrome counterparts. Again, another repeated issue that disillusions users. It sends the signal that Microsoft doesn’t care what hardware users run on today -- they should just upgrade to hardware that can support new software versions. Creating high-performance software that delivers a very positive user experience must become a higher priority.

My third reason isn’t actually a problem or design issue in IE 8. It’s Google Chrome. The Chrome browser has very rapidly engendered a committed community of users. Whatever faltering that’s happened with Firefox has resulted in emblazing Chrome as a rising-star alternative to Internet Explorer, much like Firefox was in years past. Chrome very much appears that it could take over as the stronger alternative to Internet Explorer. And let's face it, Google is a much more formidable competitor because of its application ambitions to unseat Microsoft’s application dominance, and Google’s deep pockets to do so. (And that’s no slight to Firefox, which benefits from its open source and cross-platform advantages.) Much like Microsoft wants IE to usher in the era of Software+Services, Google wants Chrome to empower Google’s Web applications to help unseat the Microsoft Office apps.

So, while I see many good things in IE 8, its lingering compatibility issues and slower performance create room for Chrome to increase its market share and Firefox to hold onto the counterculture non-Microsoft crowd.

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