Users hidden by the fog of browser wars

Internet Explorer 8 is tracking user concerns on privacy and security. Putting features first may not be for the best

The introduction of Internet Explorer 8 beta 2 marks another round in the browser wars.

The market is surprisingly vigorous, with IE, Safari, Firefox and Opera all promoting their own particular mix of performance, features, speed and compatibility.

This might seem good news for users: a competitive market at work focuses a developer's mind wonderfully. But that focus may not be on the user at all.

Usability gets the short straw in the race for the biggest feature list. Typical of this is the conflation of different technologies and ideas under one banner, without the sort of proper integration that makes sense to the user.

This is very apparent in IE8's new emphasis on privacy and security: although it has various tools to decide on the legitimacy of a site and the safety of its contents, its findings are presented in a variety of formats. It is up to the user to absorb this disparate and sometimes contradictory intelligence, weigh it and come to a conclusion — a job that typically defeats skilled intelligence assessors, let alone the laity.

Take IE8's InPrivate feature, which does two largely unrelated jobs. One is managing browsing sessions where all local traces are removed on exit — a good idea, as Safari and Firefox users have proved for years. The other is monitoring pages visited for content delivered from third parties, which can be used to track cross-site activity. Malicious uses exist for this — so do legitimate ones. Again, many users won't understand or be able to make informed decisions on what they're presented with. It's a marketing and publicity-friendly feature that may not produce much happiness.

Now would be a good time for all combatants to go back to the drawing board, and ask themselves not what they can add but what they can remove, what they can simplify and how they can help users cope with an increasingly complex and incomprehensible web.

Warfare may inspire great efforts from the generals, but it's all too easy to forget what you're really fighting for.