- 19 Mar 09, 08:39 GMT
A new version of Internet Explorer is always a major event in the browser wars.
With each iteration Microsoft is striving to hold market share, play catch-up in the technical stakes, convince the doubters that IE is now safe and find something innovative to add to the mix.
While the Internet Explorer range of browsers dominate the market, the arrival of IE8 and the likely shift of many IE7 users to the new version, it will leave the landscape in a state of near equilibrium.
Arun Ranganathan, from Mozilla, said this week: "There is no real single majority browsing engine now."
We've certainly come a long way since the days when the browser wars was a struggle between Netscape and Internet Explorer; a fight that was always going to go Microsoft's way once IE was bundled with Windows.
That relationship between IE and Windows is called anti-competitive by some (Opera and Google), and essential by others, well, one other (Microsoft).
According to Net Applications, a company that monitors the browser types users are running when they are online, the IE family fell to 67.4% of the market lat month from 74.9% a year earlier.
Mozilla's Firefox jumped to 21.8% from 17.27%, and Apple's Safari rose to 8% from 5.7%.
But choice and choosing are not always the same thing: Opera and Google remain very unhappy that Microsoft is able to pipe new versions of IE to Windows users directly and have complained to the European Union.
Whenever a new version of IE comes out many people immediately compare it to Firefox, the second most popular browser in the online space.
Chris Wilson, Microsoft's chief architect for all things IE, told me this week that Internet Explorer remained the browser for the mainstream.
IE8 will not adopt the the deep configurability of Firefox, but it will start to add features related to what the mainstream user does when online.
Chief among them is the accelerator, which lets users highlight text on a page and automatically search for those terms on sites such as Facebook and eBay, or blog directly on Microsoft's services.
Microsoft is also putting an emphasis on speed, not least because Google Chrome and Safari 4 are much faster at rendering pages than IE7.
Chris Wilson told me: "One of the big focuses in IE8 is performance."
"We looked at pages people were looking at on the web, standard apps like Gmail, MSN and Live and did profiles.
"The experience we have is super fast. It's amazing how smooth and natural it feels when browsing with IE8."
Wilson wouldn't say directly that IE8 is faster than Chrome or Safari 4, but he did say that out of the top 25 websites in the world, IE8 was noticably faster at displaying about half of the sites.
For the other 12 or 13 there was little difference between the browsers, he said.
IE8 will need to be fast: the beta of Google Chrome 2 is apparently twice as fast as the previous iteration.
Microsoft will hope that IE8 will halt the slide in its browser market share, and more crucially will give businesses an incentive to upgrade; enterprise is much slower than consumers in moving to new browser versions.
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