Microsoft Takes Wraps Off Internet Explorer 8

Microsoft officials confirmed that the latest version of the company’s market-leading browser, Internet Explorer 8 (IE8), will be released as a public download as of Thursday morning.

“Tomorrow, we’ll make available the ‘release to Web’ version of IE8 in 25 languages,” James Pratt, senior product manager for Internet Explorer, told on Wednesday afternoon briefing. Since IE is free, users can freely download it immediately without waiting for it to go through what’s called “release to manufacturing.”

The announcement comes during Microsoft’s MIX09 conference held this week in Las Vegas. first reported that IE8 would be released at MIX09 in early March.

IE8 includes a number of notable changes aimed at retaining current users’ loyalty.

High on the list, in response to long-running complaints over its lack of standards support in IE over the years, Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) added a so-called “Super-Standards” mode that will render Web sites using the latest Web standards. Even that concession to the market comes as a mixed blessing, however.

Given Microsoft’s continued dominance of the browser market over the years, millions of sites have tweaked their code to make sure their pages look best in the latest versions of IE. Those sites had to choose to support Microsoft’s version of standards in order to look their best.

Subsequently, many sites will need to be tweaked by their developers in order to properly display sites in Super-Standards mode, or to signal IE8 to treat them as tweaked for earlier browser releases. For those that have not yet made such changes or rely on older IE tweaks, Microsoft has set up a database of sites that do not conform. IE8 can recognize those sites and display those sites properly.

Tell it to the judge

Adding support for international Web standards, while demanded by Microsoft’s adversaries in the European Union, is not likely to help the company get out from under antitrust allegations made against it by the European Commission (EC), however.

In January, the EC’s competition directorate notified Microsoft that its preliminary findings showed that Microsoft violated EU laws by “illegally tying” IE to Windows going back to 1996. Microsoft has until April 21 to answer those allegations, and request a hearing.

Both Microsoft and the EC have said that the company is likely to be required to include competing browsers – such as Firefox, Safari, Chrome, and Opera – on Windows computers sold in the EU.

In a step that may have been aimed at trying to parry the EC’s thrust, Microsoft decided recently to enable users to easily delete IE8 without hamstringing Windows, which uses some IE services but doesn’t need the browser in order to function.

No matter how the EC case turns out, however, Microsoft’s browser developers are still pushing to make IE competitive with those other browsers. Last week, for instance, the company released a video and white paper purporting to show that IE8 is faster than, or as fast as ,competitors when opening the most popular Web sites.

Smooth transition

Regardless of competing browsers, Microsoft has made sure that the upgrade from IE7 to IE8 will be smooth and painless, officials say.

“A user moving from IE7 to IE8 will have a better time in terms of how fast it is,” Pratt said. IE8 will be available as of 9:00 a.m. Thursday for download.

In addition to English, Microsoft said IE8 is available in Arabic, Chinese (Traditional, Simplified and Hong Kong), Czech, Danish, Dutch. Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Portuguese (Brazil and Portugal), Polish, Russian, Spanish, Swedish and Turkish.

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