Microsoft steps up browser battle
Microsoft has stepped up the battle to win back users with the latest release of its Internet Explorer browser.
The US software giant says IE 8 is faster, easier to use and more secure than its competitors.
"We have made IE 8 the best browser for the way people really do use the web," said Microsoft's Amy Barzdukas.
"Microsoft needs to say these things because it continues to lose market share to Firefox, Chrome and Safari," said Gartner analyst Neil MacDonald.
Recent figures have shown that Microsoft's dominance in this space has been chipped away by competitors.
At the end of last year, data from Net Applications showed the software giant's market share dropped below 70% for the first time in eight years to 68%.
Meanwhile Mozilla broke the 20% barrier for the first time in its history with 21% of users using its browser Firefox.
The beta version of IE 8 was released last March and today the company has put out its first release candidate for the public. This is the last stage for the browser before it is finalised, although very few changes are expected.
Ms Barzdukas told the BBC: "What we are seeing for many consumers in particular is that their computing experience is a browsing experience.
The 'smart address bar' makes finding previously visited sites easier
"The role of the browser has become more and more important. Our focus is on delivering the best experience possible and one that is faster, easier and more secure."
To that end IE 8 offers performance upgrades to speed up page loading, new navigation features and tab isolation so that if you hit a bad site only that tab closes and not the whole browser.
WebSlices will give users a way to keep updated about a particular item on a web page like stock prices, the weather or an eBay auction.
Accelerators let users access Web services like maps or translations in a small window without having to leave the page.
"We believe with IE 8 much of the performance discussion is off the table," said Ms Barzdukas.
Microsoft is making much of its security enhancements, which Ms Barzdukas said makes IE 8 "hands down the most secure browser on the market."
These include "InPrivate Filtering" which means users can see and block when a third-party content provider might be tracking their activities on the Web in an effort to target advertisements.
Intenet Explorer 8 is being touted as faster, easier and safer than ever
Web publishers and online advertisers have in the past expressed concern over this feature because it could "frustrate the business model".
"InPrivate Browsing" is also being touted as a major improvement which allows a user to start a browsing session during which the history of sites viewed will not be recorded.
Some bloggers have nicknamed the feature "porn mode" because it keeps online activity a secret and prevents those with access to a PC from seeing where other users of the same PC have been.
Online privacy advocates like the Centre for Democracy and Technology have called the features "a great step forward in terms of giving users more control".
So will this be enough to persuade defectors to return to the IE fold?
"Microsoft does have the advantage of its browser being shipped with its operating system so people that want to shift have to do a lot of work to shift," said Mr MacDonald, a vice-president of analyst firm Gartner
"It's an area the European Union is looking at and I will let the lawyers figure that out but I don't think this will bring back the defectors. However it shows that competition in the browser space is good for innovation and good for the industry," said Mr MacDonald.
The EU last week accused Microsoft of harming competition by bundling its IE browser with its Windows operating system.
The Redmond-based company has said it is examining the preliminary finding and has not ruled out requesting a formal hearing.
Greg Sterling of Search Engine Land said if the product delivers, users will stick with it and others may well return.
"If this is a truly significant improvement, it will gain users loyalty and lure others back.
"At the end of the day if it has the functionality and features people want, they will respond to it. For those who have an emotional stake in this, and who like the idea of the underdog like Firefox, it's unlikely to sway them," said Mr Sterling.
Microsoft's Ms Barzdukas refused to get drawn into the numbers game but said she is positive IE 8 will hold its own against competitors.
"We have long advocated providing choice to customers and respect peoples' ability to choose.
"You can accuse me of bias, but I believe with IE 8 we will deliver the browser people will want to choose," said Ms Barzdukas.
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