Monday, March 20, 2006

Mix06 - Internet Explorer... seven, eh?

Internet Explorer has a huge skeptic to convince. Ok, aside from me, there's an 11% market share of FireFox users who'll give the "who cares" argument to Microsoft's Internet Explorer release. Right out of the gate, I'm expecting nothing exciting from the next generation browser. After all, Microsoft themselves (Paul H the Microsoft Program Manager for IE himself) declared "We screwed up." Technically the last major release of Internet Explorer was five years ago in 2001, since then Microsoft has failed to demonstrate their commitment to the web, and thus has let the fruit rot on the vine. What's so important about Internet Explorer 7? Frankly, why should we care?

Microsoft puts forward that they've got some great new browser enhancements, and I'll admit, they are pretty cool but there's nothing so dramatic that it won't be available as an extension for FireFox in a few weeks. What Internet Explorer is going to provide is the experience of FireFox rolled out to the non-tech saavy masses; Think of Windows Update as the great equalizer of the Internet, correcting a major wrong and restoring balance that has been rapidly shifting to FireFox.

Though I wouldn't call better or proper css implementation a "feature", it is certainly well received. The real question is how strict is Internet Explorer on proper HTML implementation, since Internet Explorer's greatest weakness is it's ability to forgive bad HTML: it might look ok in IE, but browsers that strictly comply with HTML standards clearly don't render the same markup.

Sadly, ActiveX support is still available for Internet Explorer so "the" wrong has not been removed, but the security settings that support ActiveX will warn the user as they make changes (the configuration section turns bright red), when they run under these settings and they get warned everytime they start the browser. It's kind of the <slap><slap><slap>"Are you nuts?" warning that tells them they are at risk. Whether this warning is perceived by end-users as the car dashboard "DANGER: Car needs Servicing NOW" directive or the "Please fasten seat belts" notification is still yet to be seen, but is a very good step in the right direction. It would appear as though MS is gearing to make ActiveX disabled by default. Ontop of all the excellent security visual enhancements, the low-level stuff is what's changed the most from the previous version. How's this -- even the administrator gets locked down... <head tilt>really? Outside of toolbar plugins, this move feels very much like MS might be planning the obsolecense of ActiveX. (haha, maybe in ten years)

The tabbed browsing experience is not new to FireFox users, but the implementation is very clean: the new tab button appears as a very small tab at the end of the current tabset, making it a very intuitive experience. What is unique is the ability to save entire groups of tabs as a Favourite (which I'm sure will bring new meaning to the copy-n-paste snippet demo) and the ability to preview all the current tabs at the same time.

Also interesting is the removal of the menu bar from the main browser window. It is now conveniently tucked away as a button in the toolbar. As a side-effect, it's as though the site is running in full-screen mode which means that more screen real-estate will become the norm.

While the visual enhancements and features do appear to be borrowed from FireFox, there's a lot of plumbing in the background that represent an interesting shift in the way we think about websites. Most notably is the native support for RSS Feeds. Two important aspects about this: how RSS is displayed in the browser and how RSS feeds are treated.

Regarding native display of RSS, similar to the way the xslt-transform that is applied to XML files in the browser, RSS is given a nice xslt transform so that the data is made pretty when viewed in the browser. As the primary usage of RSS today is to represent blog posts, the standard xslt makes it easy to sort the entries by Title or by Date. While this is convienent, the twist is that IE7 supports the concept of rich-data in the RSS Feed: you'll be able to add some additional meta data within the feed to describe what the feed contains. Some examples include Amazon's top music feed which includes images for the artist and links to download or buy music, plus the ability to sort by many different attributes in the data, such as Artist, Song Title, Genre.

Secondly, RSS feeds are now considered outside the scope of Internet Explorer. Feeds become centralized on the computer as a repository for all feeds, which provides a wide range of new opportunities for web 2.0 integration. Consider the newsgator plugin that automatically synchronizes your feeds with their server, or the Windows Vista desktop gadget that consumes that data in new and interesting ways such as the buddy gadget which displays updates and pictures posted by your online friends.

Now, if only Microsoft had embraced the extension model that FireFox has... I would probably switch.