If you know anything about me, you know I have no fondness for Microsoft. If you really know me, though, you know that, much as I like open-source software and dislike proprietary programs, I'm a pragmatist. What I really like best in technology is what works best. That's why I put up with Apple's closed door policies and use an iPod, and why I now have to say that Microsoft Internet Explorer 8 is better than Firefox 3.0.7.
How can I say that? I can say it because I've been using Internet Explorer 8 on my Windows XP SP3 and Windows 7 systems for several months now and it Just Works Better. Of course, working better than IE 7 wasn't much of a trick. IE 7 was a dog. But after years of lagging behind Firefox, IE has finally caught up with Firefox's current production version.
Specifically, IE 8 does a great job of handling tabs. I can all too easily get lost in a forest of tabs with Google Chrome or Firefox. With IE 8, when you open one tab from a link in another, the 'related' tabs have the same color. By automatically organizing the tabs by color-coding, managing tabs just became a lot easier. This is one of those incredibly useful ideas that, after it arrives, you wonder how it ever could have taken so long for it to appear.
Microsoft has also included three useful new privacy tools in IE 8. The one that I've no doubt will see the most use is InPrivate Browsing, aka "porn mode." With it, you can launch a browsing session that will leave no traces behind of where you've been-cookies, browsing history, temporary files, etc-after you ended the session.
InPrivate Filtering sounds like InPrivate Browsing, but its purpose is quite different. With it you can block the site you're visiting from accessing other sites. While this will make many mash-up sites blow up, it helps make sure that your information is going to only the site you think you're visiting.
Finally, the anti-phishing filter, now named SmartScreen, has also been improved.
IE 8's overall performance has also been enhanced. It can now keep up with Firefox 3.
Internet Explorer 8 is far from perfect. I find it more than a little amusing that it can't render sites that have been 'enhanced' for IE 7. All of which goes to show, as I've long thought, that anyone who writes a site specifically for a version of Internet Explorer is an idiot. Web sites should be usable to anyone with a standards-compliant Web browser.
That said, IE 8 actually is, I think, better than Firefox 3. I'm not, however, switching from Firefox as one of my main two Windows browsers.
Why not? First, while Firefox has been lagging lately in its upgrades, it still has dozens of powerful extensions that make it more useful. In particular, Firefox with the Google Toolbar and Foxmarks goes from a good Web browser to being a great Web browser. Google Chrome, while it doesn't have Firefox's extensions, is the fastest Web browser around.
So, I think, we have a real three-horse race in Windows Web browsers: IE 8, Firefox 3.x and Chrome 2.x. For the first time in ages, Microsoft has a real contender. I'm looking forward to seeing how Mozilla and Google's developers address this challenge.