Microsoft has launched Internet Explorer 8, describing the new version of the browser as offering enhanced security and usability.
The finished version of Internet Explorer 8 (IE8) is expected to be made available to the public on Thursday, a year after the first beta version of the browser was released. Enhancements over earlier versions of Internet Explorer include a privacy mode, added safeguards against malware and phishing attacks, and grouped tabbing.
Speaking to ZDNet UK last week, John Curran, the head of the Windows business group at Microsoft UK, said testing had shown IE8 was technically faster than rival browsers including Firefox and Google's Chrome.
However, he admitted the browsers all "rendered at about parity", and any differences were only measurable in "fractions of seconds".
Tests comparing IE8 with the beta of Safari 4 had not taken place because the latest version of Apple's browser had not been available at the time, Curran said.
Many of the new features in IE8 are already available in rival browsers. One example is the InPrivate browsing mode, which opens up a fresh window that does not store the user's browsing history. This feature already exists in Chrome and Safari. The Smart Address Bar, which adds search functionality to the address bar at the top of the browser, resembles Firefox's "Awesome Bar" and Chrome's Omnibox.
If one tab in the browser crashes, it now no longer takes down the whole application. Again, this feature of running each opened tab as a separate instance can be found in Chrome.
A major new feature of IE8 is what Microsoft calls "tab groups". Related tabs, for example where one tab has been opened from another or both tabs are from the same site, are colour-coded to make their relationship immediately apparent.
So-called "accelerators" are also new to IE8. This feature allows users to select text on a webpage and then click on the selected text to bring up a list of possible actions, such as translating the text, using the text as a search string for Live Search, or looking for a selected post code on Live Search Maps. Accelerators also allow selected text to be shared instantly via social networking tools such as Twitter.
A "compatibility view" mode has also been added. This mode can be activated for websites designed for older browsers, which may cause them to render badly in more modern browsers.
The "favourites" bar in IE8 also includes what Microsoft calls "web slices", which are similar to RSS feeds in that they show real-time updates of certain information without the need to visit or refresh the relevant site.
These updates are generally created in co-ordination with Microsoft's commercial partners so, for instance, the progress of a selected eBay auction can be constantly monitored without having to visit eBay itself.
The browser's beefed up security is, however, the key area of difference from earlier versions of Internet Explorer.
Where earlier versions put up warning pages through which the user had to pass to access an untrusted site, such passage has now been made more difficult, with the option to visit the site despite the warning now buried in a list of options in the "SmartScreen filter".
In IE8, URLs displayed in the address bar now have the main website name, such as "zdnet.co.uk", in bold with the rest of the address greyed out, to make it easier to spot phoney web addresses that may have been linked to in phishing emails.
Microsoft also says it has tackled the issue of cross-site scripting, which refers to a browser attack vector that uses compromised web sites. Using this vector, malicious code injection in a website can allow a browser session to be hijacked without any external indication to the user, allowing sensitive data to be harvested and providing unauthorised access to the user's system.
IE8 includes a cross-site scripting filter that runs in the background, detecting such attacks and supposedly sanitising the script in the vulnerable webpage to neutralise the attack.
IT managers in organisations using Windows Vista have two choices for installing IE8 in the enterprise: a standalone installation keeps the browser independent of Windows installations, while a "slipstream" installation ties it to the deployment of Windows images. With IE7 and Windows XP, system administrators had to install the operating system image and browser separately.
According to Curran, more than 1,300 group policies are available for IE8. These policies include the centralised management of functionality, such as the deletion of browsing history, or the addition or deletion of sites in specified security zones.
An Application Compatibility Toolkit is also available, to let organisations check IE8 for potential compatibility issues with their deployed applications.