Wednesday, February 1, 2006

Early IE7 thoughts

I downloaded beta 2 of Internet Explorer 7 yesterday, and I’m stunned. In less than two hours, it had replaced Firefox as my default browser, and I’ve been a Firefox bigot for more than two years.

In no particular order, some thoughts on what IE7 does well:

Tabbed browsing. Firefox had this before IE, of course. It’s a must-have for anyone who spends a lot of time in a browser. My favorite implementation of tabbed browsing in IE is by far the tiled view of your tabs (click pic for full-size screencap):

I know that there’s a Firefox extension that does this, but IE’s implementation is fast (switching from tab to tile and back again is instantaneous) and elegant. (Another nice tweak: the thumbnail views you see are live windows, so if pages auto-refresh you’ll see the results of the refresh; a right-click gives you an option to refresh all as well.)

RSS. This is an area where IE almost completely nails the user experience, with one unfortunate misstep. First, the good: whenever you visit a site with a feed, the orange feed icon lights up. Clicking on it gives you a view of the feed, and makes subscribing in IE a one-step process. Up to that point, it’s a seamless and well-presented integration that makes the value of RSS more apparent: like this website? Subscribe to it so that the new stuff is delivered to you! It’s presented as a counterpart to bookmarks; feeds are sites that deliver stuff to you, bookmarks are sites you go to visit. As widely anticipated ever since the IE7 announcements at Gnomedex last year, this will no doubt drive mainstream adoption of RSS. That’s good.

Here’s the misstep: like Apple, Microsoft chose to apply a stylesheet to the feed, so that users don’t see raw XML when they click the feed icon. That’s an altogether good idea, since the vast majority of feeds out there show you far more angle brackets than any individual should have to confront. The misstep is that Microsoft pays no attention if the feed already has a stylesheet — in other words, if the publisher has chosen to decide how their feed should look in a browser, Microsoft ignores those instructions and applies their own. Several publishers have already complained about this, and I expect Microsoft will hear a lot of similar feedback in the near future.

It should be noted I have a horse in this race: FeedBurner’s “browser friendly” service creates these stylesheets for tens of thousands of publishers, and our work (and their choices) are rendered moot by Microsoft’s approach in IE7 beta 2. A simple configuration option — letting a publisher’s stated preference at least getting equal billing with Microsoft’s stylesheet — would alleviate much of the publisher community’s concern on this point.

That complaint aside, I’m very impressed with what I see so far. It’s a clean interface (I like how the traditional “File | Edit | View | Help” menu is hidden from view, and most configuration options are highlighted more prominently), pages load quickly, and I’ve noticed only a few formatting incompatibilities with pages — no doubt a result of IE7 still being a beta product. Search integration is tight (my default search engine is Google, which IE7 doesn’t mind a bit), and all of the keyboard shortcuts I’ve grown used to in Firefox work in IE7 (ctrl-t to open a new tab, ctrl-w to close a tab, ctrl-e to search, alt-d for the address bar; hint: hit ctrl-q for the thumbnailed view of all your open tabs).

I don’t know if any additional functionality is planned before IE7 is released, but I’m very impressed with what I see so far. IE7 could easily compete with other web browsers available for the PC today, and given the lack of innovation with IE over the past 5 years, that’s saying something.


  1. Dunno whether IE is going at it literally by just applying a stylesheet, like we did during Firefox's brief flirtation with that, but if they are then they're probably stomping on publisher stylesheets for the same reason we did, and Safari does: once you decide to put your subscription and search and whatnot browser chrome into content, you want to render the rest of the content as inert as possible. If IE allows feed producer stylesheets through, and really is just applying a stylesheet of their own, you just know I'm going to use mine to completely break their display and subscription mechanism first thing, and then start poking for openings to get up to more mischief (since that sort of combining content with things with browser chrome privileges isn't done much, it's much more likely to be done poorly).

  2. Okay, so IE7 understands web feeds. I don't particularly care how it renders the raw feed. What I care about is how it operates as a feed reader. Is it any good?

  3. Rick, one of the reasons I'm stuck on Firefox is the availability of browser extensions like Greasemonkey that start to let me really hack away at what I see on my screen independent of what the web site author wants me to see. I've used this to stick links to our local library into Amazon and into Google Books. Do you know if IE 7 has anything similar?

    Bummer about it stepping on Feedburner.