SEATTLE - Microsoft last week released a broadly available test version of its latest Web browser, Internet Explorer 8, including a tool to cover one’s tracks across the Web.
Its browser was largely unchallenged in the early part of this decade, but since the arrival of the Firefox browser from Mozilla, Microsoft has accelerated development of new versions of Internet Explorer to stabilize its eroding market share and address the central role the Web has assumed in computing and daily life.
As recently as 2004, Internet Explorer had more than 90 percent of the browser market.
In July, IE’s market share was 73 percent, Firefox had 19 percent and Apple’s Safari had 6 percent, according to Net Applications.
The increased competition comes at a time when more people are using the Web for more sophisticated and sensitive activities, and demanding more from browsers.
“People are now more than ever participating in the Web,” said James Pratt, Internet Explorer product manager. “Everybody has their suite of sites and services that make the Web unique to them.”
Microsoft has added several features to the so-called beta 2 test release of IE8, which is available in English, German, Simplified Chinese and Japanese, and can be downloaded free by anyone at www.microsoft.com/ie8.
A finished version of the browser is due by January, two years after the launch of IE7.
IE8 includes new navigation features, tools to gather bits of content from around the Web and privacy enhancements that have caused concern among advertisers and Web publishers.
To improve user privacy on the Internet, Microsoft is introducing “InPrivate Browsing.”
The feature allows a user to start a browsing session during which the history of sites they view, temporary Internet files and so-called cookies - small pieces of code added to a browser for tracking purposes - will not be recorded.
“An example might be you’re searching for a surprise gift for a loved one, you’re using a shared PC in an Internet cafe,” Pratt said.
Some bloggers have nicknamed the feature “porn mode.”
A complementary feature is “InPrivate Blocking.” It allows a user to see when a third-party content provider might be tracking their activities on the Web.
Many sites include content, such as stock prices, advertisements or weather information, from third-parties.
“That’s the business model for the Web. That’s how the Web is funded today in many cases,” Pratt said.
Those third parties, which commonly provide content to many different Web pages, can track and aggregate an individual’s browsing habits to better target advertising to them.
The feature allows users to block that third-party content, and, by extension, the tracking.
Online privacy advocates welcome the features, some of which are available in the Safari browser and as add-ons to Firefox.
“It’s a great step forward in terms of giving users more control,” said Ari Schwartz, vice president of the Center for Democracy and Technology. “... This adds a level of transparency.”
But the blocking, in particular, is cause for concern among Web publishers and advertisers, said Mike Zaneis, vice president of public policy for the Interactive Advertising Bureau, which counts Microsoft as a member.
“If you’re blocking the content than you’re also potentially frustrating the business model of Web publishers and advertisers online,” Zaneis said.
Blocking could also hamper efforts to measure page views and other statistics the online advertising industry needs to do business, he said.
In addition to the privacy features, IE8 includes:
An address bar that searches the browsing history and favorites lists as a user types in a Web address, offering suggestions to help people quickly return to sites they’ve already visited. Pratt said 80 percent of the time, users are returning to sites they’ve been to before.
Text and visual suggestions in the instant Web search box on the top right of the browser.
For example, if the search box is set to Amazon.com and a user types “Counting Crows,” it would offer album covers, price information and other relevant results in a drop-down window below the search box, Pratt said.
Search-engine providers have to develop this function specifically to work with IE8.
Tools to gather content from various Web sites and aggregate it in the browser. Think of it as an enhanced form of the RSS feeds people use to keep track of blogs.
With “Web Slices,” as the feature is called, a user can pull a weather forecast from Live Search, for example, and store it on the browser’s favorites bar.
It will be regularly updated and the user can see the information without repeating the search or visiting the Web site again.
Web developers are able to control the content users can aggregate in this way.
These features and several others represent the latest development in a back-and-forth horse race with open-source Mozilla, which released Firefox 3 in July and recorded more than 8 million downloads of the browser the first day.
Mike Shaver, a founding member of the organization in 1998 and currently interim vice president of engineering, said Mozilla doesn’t feel it needs to match Microsoft feature for feature.
“Counterintuitive though it may be, we’re definitely excited to see Microsoft continue to invest in the browser,” he said.
“That the browser market is interesting to so many different groups right now is, I think, an important indicator for the health of the Web.”