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Tuesday, 3 February 2009

How the World Will See Your Website in 2009

Internet Explorer 8Microsoft Windows Internet Explorer 8 "Release Candidate 1" is now available to download. The term Release Candidate means it's near to completion, might still have a few bugs, and moreover it's not too late for Microsoft to make changes once millions of us have tried it out.

Why should you care?

Principally because this is how your customers will be seeing your website for the foreseeable future. When the IE8 beta came along last year, it looked like bad news for web publishers. Many web pages - even on high-profile sites such as the BBC News - looked a mess.

The Beta software had an option to switch from IE8 mode to "Emulate IE7 mode" if the page was completely illegible. Unfortunately, this required you to shut down your browser and open it up again. And most of us probably don't have the patience to do that. So, when looking at the BBC News website, for instance, the links one would usually expect to see along the foot of the page were found half-way up, obliterating the middle part of the article.

Fortunately, there is good news. On the Release Candidate, "Emulate IE7" has been replaced by a new smart function that allows you to switch between standard view and "Compatibility View" with a single click. So, in the event that your website does look a bit wrong, there's still a chance that customers will be able to see it the way they used to.

What IE8 Can Do

The Microsoft website has a plenty of information about what IE8 does and doesn't do to enhance your browsing pleasure, so no need to go into it all now. Personally, the things I was most pleasantly surprised by were small details, like the improved "Find in page" function (Ctrl+F) and the addition of line numbers along the margin when you select View Source. The website has a quick overview in pictures that tells you much of what you need to know about the big functional enhancements.

Slicing Up Your Site with Web Slices

From a designer and developer's point of view, one potentially interesting addition to IE8 is the introduction of web slices. These are intended to allow visitors to your site to "grab" a little piece of it and stick it onto their IE8 toolbar where it can be checked for occasional updates, a little bit like a glorified RSS feed. Of course, it can't be done with any old snippet of HTML - the content needs to be enclosed within a hidden tag like this:

<div id="footy_scores" class="hslice"></div>
where the id is a unique identifier (in other words, if you've got 20 slices on the page, each one needs a unique ID). The slice also has to be tagged with an entry_title, which is not hidden, something like

<h2 class="entry-title">Live Premiership Scores</h2>
Whether you'll want to include web slices on your website will very much depend on how often the site gets updated. If you've got content updating every five minutes or special offers with limited availability, then there's an obvious advantage. Microsoft have provided a style guide download which explains exactly how it's all done.

I can't imagine my clients all clamouring for Web Slices just yet. But it will be interesting to see if they become popular amongst developers or just fall by the wayside. They might even go the way of Microsoft's Active Channels, which pre-dated RSS at a time when the general population really weren't ready for them.