Microsoft reveals IE8 Beta 2

Adds smart bar and boosts search detail; final ship date not yet set

With several days to spare before its self-imposed deadline, Microsoft Corp. today launched the second beta version of its upcoming Internet Explorer 8 (IE8) browser but would not commit to a ship date for the final version.

In early June, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, then still a full-time employee of the company, promised that it would post IE8 Beta 2 before the end of August.

Today's preview includes several new features introduced since March's Beta 1 debut, but only two of them haven't been openly discussed already, said James Pratt, a senior product manager in the IE development team.

"About 80% of the time, when people are on the Web, they're browsing to sites they've visited before," said Pratt, pointing to what Microsoft has dubbed IE8's "smart address bar."

Much like the revamped location bar that Mozilla Corp. added to Firefox 3.0 -- which it calls the "Awesome Bar" -- IE8's address field now can be used to search for previously-visited sites by typing in words or phrases.

Unlike Firefox's tools, however, IE8's doesn't rely on an integrated database to store and then retrieve those URLs. Instead, said Pratt, Microsoft relies on its Windows Desktop search application, which is bundled with Windows Vista but is a separate download and installation for Windows XP users.

Last month, Microsoft warned users that it would soon begin pushing out an automatic update of Windows Desktop 4.0 to Vista users. People running XP, however, would see it only as an optional update.

Windows Desktop must be present in order to use the new smart address-bar functionality, Pratt acknowledged. "They're dependent, yes," he said.

The other feature he stressed in Beta 2 -- search suggestions -- has also been held until today, Pratt said. "We've introduced a way to search more quickly," he said, pointing to search bar, which now that lets search-engine and Web site developers add more functionality to searches. Pratt demonstrated a search using Inc.'s engine in IE8 Beta 2 that provided not only item results from the online store, but also artwork, such as album-cover art for CDs, as well as prices.

Rather than offering developers a new application programming interface (API) for IE8 to take advantage of the new search-bar skills, Microsoft will offer the tools via extensions to the open-source OpenSearch standard.

Microsoft has talked up other IE8 Beta 2 additions and enhancements in recent weeks, including several advanced privacy tools, which some have tagged as "porn mode" in a nod to the most obvious use of a private browsing session.

Last month, Microsoft also spilled the beans about new security measures it would introduce in IE8 Beta 2, including antimalware protection and a filter it said would block the most common cross-site scripting attacks.

Pratt refused to name a release date for IE8, or even discuss a time frame that Microsoft is shooting for. The most specific he would get was to say the new browser would ship "sometime before the next release of Windows." Windows 7, the name of Vista's successor, will launch in late 2009 or early 2010, Microsoft executives have promised.

Although other company managers have been quoted as saying that the final version of IE8 will launch this year, Pratt declined to confirm that, saying at one point those reports were just "speculation when we might launch." Later in the interview, he said that 2008 "would fit within that [before the next release of Windows] time frame."

Unlike the first beta, today's release is aimed at a bigger audience. Beta 1 had carried the tag "Developer Label," something that Microsoft wants to avoid this time around. "Beta 2 is suitable for all users," said Pratt, who encouraged both consumers and business users to download and try the browser. "In that respect, it's a much broader beta."

IE8 Beta 2 can be downloaded from its own page or from Microsoft's Download Center.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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