Review: Internet Explorer 8 Beta 2 offers some nifty new features

Microsoft's IE8 now includes better tab management, services such as Web Slices and Accelerators, and the new 'porn mode.'

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InPrivate Browsing and InPrivate Blocking

IE8 includes several new privacy and safety features, but the one that will get the most press is what's called InPrivate Browsing. When you launch an InPrivate Browsing session, all traces of your browsing session vanish when you close that instance of the browser. Cookies, temporary Internet files, browsing history, form information, and usernames and passwords -- they all vanish.

In other words, what happens in that InPrivate Browsing session stays in that InPrivate Browsing session, and goes away once the session is over.

When you choose the menu item Safety --> InPrivate Browsing, a new browser instance launches, and you see an InPrivate logo in the Address Bar. Browse to whatever sites you want, and when you close the browser session, all information vamooses.

Microsoft claims this feature is designed for people who use Web-based e-mail on other people's computers, or for people who want to browse the Web to buy a gift and don't want the person to know about it. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink. Since it's likely that it'll be used by people who browse less-than-respectable sites -- such as porn sites -- and don't want any traces left behind, some people are calling it porn mode.

Whatever it's used for, though, it's a nifty, useful feature, and exceptionally easy to use.

Microsoft has also introduced a somewhat confusing privacy feature called InPrivate Blocking, which is designed to prevent Web sites from sharing information about your browsing without your knowledge.

Sites commonly share content with each other -- for example, a site may include an interactive map or stock data that comes from a partner site, or may put another site's ad on its page. This is certainly useful, but has privacy implications as well.

When you're on a site, it may gather information about you, such as your IP address, screen resolution and operating system. This information can be gathered even if cookies are turned off. When Web sites share content, this information about you is shared as well. So you may be on one site, but the information is sent to another site, commonly called a third-party site. This can be particularly problematic when a content provider or ad supplier provides content or ads across the Web, because then it can track your travels across numerous sites.

InPrivate Blocking is designed to stop that; it won't allow the site you're visiting to send information to third-party sites. However, in the beta, InPrivate Blocking is available only when you're using InPrivate Browsing, which is too bad, because it would be a useful safety feature when normally browsing. Microsoft is considering making InPrivate Blocking available even in non-InPrivate Browsing sessions in future versions.

Internet Explorer 8 beta
When you launch an InPrivate Browsing session, all traces of your browsing session vanish when you close it.

There is one potential drawback to using InPrivate Blocking. To stop sites from sharing information about you, the feature may block the third-party content from being displayed. So a stock ticker, for example, may not appear when you're using InPrivate Blocking.

In addition to InPrivate Browsing and InPrivate Blocking, Microsoft has added several other new security features. For example, Microsoft has tweaked its antiphishing filter, called the SmartScreen Filter, by having the filter warn you not just about antiphishing sites, but also about sites known to distribute malware. It has also added a safety feature that blocks the most common type of cross-site scripting attack. In addition, it claims that it has improved protection against malicious ActiveX controls.

Accelerators and WebSlices

Two of the more intriguing new features in the IE8 beta are Accelerators (which were called Activities in the developer's beta) and WebSlices. An Accelerator is a kind of mini-mashup that delivers information from another Web site to your current browser page, or that interacts with another Web site or service. For example, if you're on a page with a street address, you can highlight the address and choose an Accelerator such as Live Maps or Google Maps. The Accelerator will then display the map in a pop-up or open another tab, depending on how the Accelerator has been written for that site.

Not surprisingly, many of the Accelerators that ship with the beta are for Microsoft services, such as Live Maps, Encarta and Windows Live Spaces. But there others as well, including from Amazon, Wikipedia, Google and Yahoo. Any site can write an Accelerator using basic XML, so many other sites may eventually write them as well.

Another intriguing feature is WebSlices, which are like RSS feeds pumped up on steroids. WebSlices deliver constantly changing information to IE -- and as the name implies, they don't deliver it via text, but instead via graphically rich, interactive content. Essentially, a WebSlice delivers a fully functional slice of a Web page to you.

Internet Explorer 8 beta
Accelerators are mini-mashups that deliver information from another Web site or service to your current page.

When you're on a page that has one or more WebSlices available, a WebSlice icon on the Favorites bar turns green. Click the down arrow to its right, and you can choose a WebSlice to subscribe to. A listing for the WebSlice then appears on the Favorites bar, and when its content changes, the title turns bold. Click the title, and it drops down and displays the content. You can then click through to go to the Web page that houses the slice, or simply view it in the drop-down.

For example, if you're following an auction on eBay, you can subscribe to a WebSlice of the auction page. When an event happens in the auction, such as someone posting a new bid, you'll be immediately alerted.

In theory, WebSlices are useful, but it's not clear how they will be in practice. At the moment, there are very few WebSlices available, and even those that are available aren't easy to find. Developers have to write code for them, and if they don't, WebSlices will become just be one more nifty-but-useless feature.

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