NEW YORK Many people now create and share content on the Internet or blend services from various sites in their daily tasks, reflecting the medium's clear evolution from a place for simply consuming websites.
The upcoming version of Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Explorer, version 8, embraces those trends by adding an “Activities” feature that makes all that easier for PC users. Although it's still in a “beta” test mode meant mostly for Web designers to try out, I'm liking what I'm seeing so far.
Internet Explorer's main competitor among browsers for PCs, Firefox, also has been testing an update, although the most promising features await implementation by Web sites. More on that later.
With Activities, one of several new Internet Explorer features, Web services like Facebook, eBay and Yahoo can write tools that users can install with just two clicks.
For example, Microsoft links a slew of Activities to its e-mail, blogging and news services, among others. Yahoo Inc. has one for maps, and auction site eBay Inc. has one to search its listings. The online hangout Facebook, of which Microsoft owns 1.6 per cent, offers tools for finding friends or sharing content on its site.
Say you are reading a news article you'd like to e-mail to friends. Simply right-click and choose Microsoft's Hotmail, and the e-mail service opens in a new browser tab with that item already added to the subject line and message body. If you'd rather blog about the item, simply right-click and choose Microsoft's Live Spaces.
Mapping is initially the only service where there is choice of providers: Yahoo or Microsoft. In either case, you also get a thumbnail image of the map if you select an address and right-click. You can expand the map in a new tab with another click.
Other uses for Activities include looking up definitions of selected words or translating phrases to and from other languages.
Anyone can write an Activity, and each developer can choose whether to offer the thumbnail. You don't need Microsoft's permission beforehand.
Once Activities are available for the services I use most, including Google Inc.'s Gmail and search, I can see saving a lot of time in not having to manually open new tabs and copy words or paragraphs to launch other services.
That said, I encountered a few frustrations.
For one, a new tab pops up every time I want to send an article or map, even if Hotmail or Yahoo Maps is already open, quickly cluttering my browser.
And clicking a “mailto” link in a Web page — the ones you might come across clicking on a name or a “contact us” link — opens a standalone, desktop e-mail program rather than Hotmail, meaning you have to manually copy and paste in the recipient's e-mail address to use a Web-based e-mail service.
Microsoft says these two issues will be addressed before the final release, a date for which hasn't been announced. At least one more “beta” test is expected this year.
Firefox also has a “beta” out for developers.
Firefox 3, available since November, offers a number of improvements related to bookmarks. The new version lets you add keywords, or tags, to sort bookmarks by topic, and a new “Places” feature lets you quickly access sites you recently bookmarked or tagged and pages you visit frequently but haven't bookmarked.
The two most notable features, however, still need enabling by developers of the Web services. One promises offline support, which would let you compose Web mail without an Internet connection and send it once you're back online. The other allows Web-based “mailto.”
I look forward to seeing those in action. Until then, I consider the Firefox improvements largely incremental.
I'll note that an obscure browser called Flock already supports “mailto” links through Gmail and Yahoo and has a wealth of good features meant to foster sharing and connections with friends on Facebook, Yahoo's Flickr, Google's Picasa and other services.
But Flock, which is built on top of the same open-source Mozilla code that Firefox uses, isn't as widely used as Internet Explorer or Firefox, meaning many Web sites haven't been tested on it and they may not work well.
The new versions of Firefox and Internet Explorer both have security improvements. Previous versions warned users when they were about to reach a “phishing” scam site. The new versions also protect against sites that attempt to exploit known security flaws to automatically install malicious programs on your computer.
The new Internet Explorer also highlights the domain name in Web addresses to help you spot scams. In the Web address “paypal.com.scamsite.com,” for instance, the “scamsite.com” part is highlighted so that you don't mistakenly believe you're on PayPal and can safely enter your password.
The new version also adds “WebSlices,” which quickly alerts users to updates on their eBay auctions, Facebook friends and other frequently viewed services. The concept is similar to the Really Simple Syndication feeds that major Web browsers now permit, except those tend to be text headlines, while WebSlices can incorporate photos and interactive features.
Of course, unless you're designing a Web site and need to test Firefox 3 or Internet Explorer 8, you shouldn't upgrade to either yet. But the new Internet Explorer does show a lot of promise, and despite being a longtime Firefox user, I plan to keep tabs on its future.