Microsoft Internet Explorer 8 Seeks Dominance

Unfortunately for Microsoft, its most recent release isn't the only solution for using the Web today.
Microsoft on Thursday officially released Internet Explorer 8, calling it "the best solution for how people use the Web today."

It is, unfortunately for Microsoft, not the only solution for using the Web today.

Microsoft has been steadily losing market share to Firefox and Safari for the past few years. Internet Explorer 8 represents the company's bid to reverse that trend, but it faces stiff competition as Apple, Google, and Mozilla continue to develop their own browsers with an eye toward a future full of Web-based software and services.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer touted IE8's speed, ease of use, and security, stating that it "provides protection that no other browser can match."

That protection turns out not to be good enough to guarantee security. On Wednesday, a security researcher identified as Nils used an undisclosed exploit to compromise Internet Explorer 8, running under Windows 7 on a Sony Vaio, at the CanSecWest security conference in Vancouver, British Columbia. He managed to hack Safari and Firefox, too. Only Google's Chrome remained unsullied.

If IE8, like the competition, isn't 100% safe, it's safer than its predecessors. Microsoft claims it blocks two to four times more malware attacks than other browsers. The company points to a report issued on Thursday by NSS Labs indicating that IE8 blocks 69% of malicious URLs, which is significantly better than Firefox 3.07 (30%), Safari 3 (24%), Chrome 1.0.154 (16%), Opera 9.64 (5%), or IE7 (4%).

"It became obvious as the results were tallied that Microsoft has made considerable achievements in adding protection from socially engineered malware into Internet Explorer v8 (SmartScreen)," the NSS report states. "With a protection rating of 69%, Microsoft IE8 was by far the best at protecting against socially engineered malware and adds an excellent layer of protection on top of other endpoint protection solutions. We were impressed by the stability of IE8 (RC1)."

Google didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. Microsoft last week issued a white paper that claims IE8 loaded 12 of the top 25 Web sites faster than Chrome 1.0 or Firefox 3.05. But tests of more current competing browsers -- Chrome 2.0 beta, Firefox 3.1 beta, and Safari 4 beta -- produce different results. Apple, Google, and Mozilla have all spent considerable effort on their browsers' JavaScript engines, and each has claimed to have the fastest browser at one time or another.

Microsoft is critical of its competitors' focus on JavaScript performance. "End users don't just run JavaScript or load test pages, so testing 'micro-benchmarks' does not translate directly to the end user experience and can be a misleading indicator of overall performance," the company explains in its white paper. "End users are more properly aligned with tests that measure overall 'page load times,' which represent the completion of a task, not isolated operations."

If the security and speed arguments for IE8 are more complicated than Microsoft suggests, then the same can be said for competing browsers. Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, Chrome, and Opera all have strong points and failings. But IE8 isn't pushing the envelope with features like the Ubiquity command-line interface being developed by Mozilla.

While IE8 may stabilize Microsoft's browser market share, Microsoft's new browser doesn't offer anything so revolutionary that those who have defected to Firefox are likely to reconsider their change of allegiance. And IE8's selection of add-on software has a way to go before it matches what's available for Firefox.

Even so, if Windows 7 receives a warmer reception from consumers and businesses than Windows Vista, IE8 could recapture some lost market share. IE8 is by most accounts a solid piece of software and will doubtless find many fans.

It remains open to question, however, whether Microsoft can recapture its lost dominance by shoring up IE8's market share. The current browser war may not be something Microsoft can win. The company stands to gain more by encouraging people to use software other than the Web browser, as Apple has done with iTunes.

For Microsoft, victory in the browser war may mean holding the line until it can find a way to bring customers back into a more proprietary environment, where fees can be extracted without disruptive competitors who give things away for free.

If your enterprise is considering running critical applications on Internet Explorer, are you courting disaster? InformationWeek has published an independent analysis of this topic. Download the report here (registration required).

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