Just back from Microsoft's London Internet Explorer 8 beta 2 briefing, held in the very nice Soho Hotel in the heart of London's West End. It was a valuable experience, and one that had everyone talking afterwards. "Don't go", a pal at work had advised, "It won't be worth it." How wrong he was. For the six of us from ZDNet, Silicon and CNet who went – as well numbers of our opposite numbers from other sites – it was an extremely memorable experience.
Which is not to say it was pleasant, useful, informative or exciting. It was the opposite of all those things. It was being asked by Microsoft to attend a six o'clock event for an unknown reason, which finished at eight having really started at seven. The period between six and seven was filled with drinking nice-enough wine, trying to stave off hunger through the intermittent acquisition of homeopathically-sized canapes – only one each every five minutes, please – and the slow realisation that nothing was happening because nobody was allowed to talk about what was going to happen.
Why might that be? We were about to find out.
At seven, we were shown into a large screening room with cinema seating: there was to be no escape. On the large screen was a picture of the BBC home page. That stayed there for some time, during which we learned that Microsoft had done extensive usability testing, which had revealed that people used the Web for searching, buying things and talking to each other.
Things went downhill from there: a variety of features were shown off, most of which triggered a "Hold on, I've been doing that for months with Firefox" reaction (Select text on a page and right-click to search the Web?). There was a guy from Digg who gave us a short talk on what Digg was "for those of you in the audience who haven't encountered Digg". There was a guy from eBay who showed how wonderful it was to be only one click away from searching eBay – and he did, really and truly, search for Zunes.
Digg. eBay. Mmm.
We were now at around half-past seven. We were an audience of sceptical tech journalists. We had also learned that there had been briefings earlier in the day, under embargo, for other journalists – who had now presumably filed and were waiting for the 8pm embargo to be lifted so they could post. We were stuck in a room. We had been lectured on what Digg was. We were hungry and bored and, so far, had been shown our worst suspicions, and we knew that in Web news terms, we had been stitched up like kippers.
Oh, and one of the speakers showed us how easy it was to find maps of places online by picking the venue he was going to take his girlfriend to when he got home to Seattle in a couple of days' time – he was looking forward to that after this long European tour. Geez, how many people have you told already while telling us you couldn't tell us anything? Hey. we'll find out when we get home.
There were nice comedy moments, to be sure – and not just learning that you could buy a Zune on eBay for fifty quid (I must admit I'd never thought to look). There was the compulsory appearance of the warning message that "This installation of Windows has not been authorized. Do you wish to authorize it now?". There was a two-stage amusement, where Microsoft showed us that IE8 could highlight the real part of a URL to prove that it was safe, and then showed a cross-site script attack (with evil hacker in mask and trilby) going on, with the real part of the URL still highlighted, to still prove that it was safe. (The cross-site script attack protection is on by default, however: it, like most of the options, are buried in an acronynmic swamp of tick-lists deep in the bowels of the browser. Usability testing?)
There was the much-anticipated privacy enhancement, part of which showed a long list of URLs embedded in a page so that you could decide whether you could trust that page – which may be useful if you're extremely web-savvy but would confuse the bejeezus out of anyone likely to be confused anyway. We were assured that Beta 2 was 'feature complete'. We were assured that Microsoft was anxiously seeking feedback. We weren't told how much use that would be for something that wasn't going to change before release. I contemplated trying to educate my father about IE 8, and resolved never, ever.
At about the time many of the hacks were negotiating via text message about exactly when to stand up en-masse and walk out – and the journo sitting next to me had demonstrated how to write all of the major swearwords in shorthand -- it came to an end. The marketing spiel, for that it had been, finished. As we poured out of the basement in which we had been held hostage – a feeling that a number of hacks spontaneously volunteered – we were handed thick ring-bound 'reviewer's guides". "Is that available on the site?" we asked. The hander-out had to go and check – but yes, it was. Ok, well, we'll pass on the dead trees. But thanks for thinking of us Internet journalists.
Annoyed, starving, patronised, cheated of a story and two hours of our mid-week evening, we ran to the Sony Ericsson party that was going on down the road. There we were poured large gins, fed copious bowls of lovely sticky rice with Thai curry, fish, and chicken concoctions (which were devoured in seconds – as you might expect after having the appetisers an hour and a half earlier), and left alone to talk to who we liked about what we liked.
You'll have plenty of time to learn about exactly what IE 8's got. You can download it now – it was released to the world at 8pm, after all, when only the hacks at the event were unable to try it – and we'll be writing about it, testing it and generally kicking the wheels. We will give it a fair hearing, because that's what we do. We did all the swearing between 8 and 8:15 this evening.
For me and everyone else in our mob who went, it was a valuable lesson in why never, ever, to go to a Microsoft event where they won't tell you why beforehand. It was a team-building experience, much like when you're forced to ford a sewage plant using nothing but rhubarb leaves while being shouted at by steroidal gnomes with clipboards.
We came curious: we left angry.
Way to go.