Can Microsoft's msft Internet Explorer Web browser reclaim chunks of market share swiped by upstart Firefox?
The arrival last week of Internet Explorer 8 (IE8), just two years after Microsoft's last major browser upgrade, IE7, should help answer that question.
IE8, which can be downloaded free, has cool new features: "Web slices" let you quickly call up selected content from a Web page — such as updates from an eBay auction page — via the IE8 favorites bar; "accelerators" make it easier to cut and paste text from one page and insert it on another.
Beyond that, IE8 has restored some of Microsoft's lost bravado. Mike Nash, corporate vice president of Windows product management, insists IE8 is uniformly faster at loading Web pages than Firefox 3, despite debate in tech circles about this claim.
"I feel very good that IE8 will be a reason to keep using IE," Nash said in an interview. "And for our previous customers, who may not be using IE today, IE8 will be a compelling reason to come back."
Web browsers were once so mundane that Microsoft took five years to upgrade IE6, introduced with Windows XP in 2001, to IE7. Millions still use IE6. Meanwhile, Firefox, introduced in late 2004, has racked up significant market share and popularized features, such as tab browsing, which lets you quickly click back to several open Web pages.
As of last month, Firefox commanded a 22% global market share vs. 68% for IE, according to Net Applications. Meanwhile, Opera, Apple's Safari and Google's Chrome are staking out potentially huge new turf for browsers on computing devices other than laptops and desktop PCs.
Web browsers have emerged as the doorway to an interactive Internet, which people are increasingly accessing on mobile devices, cars, TV recorders, even video gaming consoles. "We're really happy to see Microsoft isn't standing still anymore," says Mike Beltzner, Firefox director of development. "But we're not standing still, either."
Firefox 3.5, due this summer, will up the ante by supporting HTML 5, a new Web standard that makes it easier to embed videos on Web pages, and "canvas," which lets artists hand draw images on Web pages.
Apple and Google are moving aggressively in browsing on cellphones, while Opera is gaining a foothold with its Opera Mini, a free cellphone browser popular with BlackBerry and Windows Mobile users. And Opera is the browser that connects Nintendo's Wii gaming console to the Web. "Our browser runs on any platform or device," says Rod Hamlin, Opera senior vice president.
Microsoft supplies a version of IE for Windows Mobile devices, and a separate Web interface for Xbox 360.
IE8 could help the software giant regain ground in these browser wars. "So long as IE8 delivers as advertised, I believe it could help slow or even largely halt Windows users moving to alternative browsers," says Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT. "Whether that will be enough to draw back customers who have already migrated remains to be seen."