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Microsoft and Google Give The Browser a Rewrite

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By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, September 11, 2008

Your Web browser is probably the most important program on your computer, and it's now getting the competition it deserves.

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Mozilla Firefox, the most successful challenger to Microsoft's incumbent Internet Explorer, is an outstanding piece of work and more than deserving of the raves it has won since its debut four years ago. (I made it my default browser in Windows even before its 1.0 version arrived.) But its developers don't have a monopoly on all the bright ideas in browsing; people looking for better ways to the Web have two new options.

One comes from Microsoft, which two weeks ago shipped an impressive, but unfinished, release of IE's next version. The other comes from Google, which last week offered a preview of its own browser.

Internet Explorer 8 Beta 2 ( http://microsoft.com/ie) and Google Chrome ( http://google.com/chrome) each show thoughtful attention to the ways busy people who don't read manuals try to read the Web.

Both browsers are free downloads for Microsoft's Windows XP or Vista, though Google says it's working on Mac and Linux versions of Chrome.

IE 8 looks like the disappointing IE 7 Microsoft released in 2006, but it's considerably more useful. It catches up with two of Firefox's best conveniences -- the auto-complete function that takes you to recently visited pages whether you type their address or their title and the "find as you type" searching that jumps to matching text on a page as you type your query. It also adds useful tweaks of its own.

One deals with tabbed browsing, the feature that lets you flip among open Web pages in a single window as if they were tabbed folders in a drawer. Microsoft's developers noticed how Web readers will open a set of links from one page in new tabs, then not read these pages until later; to help you keep your place, IE 8 dyes the tabs of pages opened from one site in one color.

The blank page that loaded when you opened a new tab in IE now features links to pages you've viewed before and such options as "accelerators" -- shortcuts to Web services such as mapping and word-translation sites that you can invoke with a right-click. There's also "InPrivate browsing," an option that, like the "private browsing" in Apple's Safari, lets you visit sites without the browser keeping any record of your activity there.

IE 8 also adds sturdier defenses against hostile Web sites and some performance tune-ups, though it's still slower and it uses more memory than Firefox.

This browser has looked stable in a couple of weeks of testing. But some sites that tweaked for old versions of IE look off-kilter in this version -- a side effect of earlier IE editions' weaker support for Web standards.

Google's Chrome shares some features with IE 8 and Firefox, such as smart address auto-completion and find-as-you-type searching. But it's far simpler than either, tossing aside many browser traditions.

Chrome dispenses with the usual lineup of address bar and search bar; here, you type either a site's address or words to describe the site you want, and Chrome's smart enough to know the difference. The program then condenses the standard lineup of menus to two small drop-down items and retires the bookmarks menu in favor of a new-tab start page that presents your bookmarks and thumbnail images of recently visited pages.


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