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Microsoft set to unleash Internet Explorer 8

The software maker says the new version of the browser will be available for download beginning at 9 a.m. PDT on Thursday.

LAS VEGAS--Aiming to better compete against a growing list of rivals, Microsoft on Thursday is launching Internet Explorer 8, the latest version of its Web browser.

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IE 8, as the browser is known, was first shown a year ago and has been in testing for months. The new browser adds security improvements, a private browsing option, as well as the ability to save pre-defined "slices" of a Web page for at-a-glance viewing.

But perhaps the biggest change in the browser is one made behind the scenes--the decision to make the browser better adhere to Web standards. That should make life easier for Web developers in the future, but also poses compatibility challenges for sites that are optimized specifically for older versions of IE. In part to address this, Microsoft has a "compatibility" mode that lets Web sites indicate if they would prefer to be run by an engine that is more like older versions of the browser.

As expected, Microsoft is using the Mix 09 conference for Web developers as the launchpad for IE 8.

The release of IE 8 comes as Microsoft has been losing share to leading rival Firefox and also seeing stepped-up competition from Google and Apple, among others. The global market share of Internet Explorer, which was more than 90 percent in 2004, ended last year at just above 70 percent, according to Net Applications.

Both Google and Apple have been touting the performance of their new JavaScript engines, but Microsoft has sought to downplay speed concerns. The company last week released a video it says shows that, in many cases, IE 8 is just as fast as other browsers in loading popular Web sites.

"In most cases the difference could literally be measured by a blink of an eye," said Microsoft Senior Director Amy Barzdukas. "That kind of speed becomes almost a push."

Despite IE's waning share, the European Union has said it is considering sanctioning Microsoft for bundling a Web browser into its operating system in the first place, a move that it says appears to violate its antitrust laws.

As for IE 8, Microsoft will make it available for download beginning at 9 a.m. PDT on Thursday, but will wait a while before it begins to push it to Windows users who have their computers set to get the latest updates automatically.

A version of Internet Explorer 8 will also be built into Windows 7, though it is one of many Windows components that users will be able to turn off if they wish.

As for the future, Microsoft isn't saying much about its browser plans, but corporate vice president Mike Nash did seek to quash speculation that IE 8 will be the end of the road.

"I can't say what it will be called," he said of the next version of the browser. "But we're not done."