When Pete LePage was still a teenager growing up in Mississauga, Ont., he and his friends used to love driving down to the Harbord Bakery in downtown Toronto. After seven years working with Microsoft in Seattle, however, you can’t blame him if he needs a little help finding his way down there again.
“That’s when something like this really becomes useful,” says LePage, a product manager with the software giant’s Internet Explorer division, pointing to a screen that offers a sneak preview of version 8’s second beta edition. He’s using a search box that gives suggestions on what he might be looking for based on his chosen content providers (in LePage’s case, of course, this is Live Search rather than Google).
Once the bakery’s Web page comes up, LePage hovers over the address and highlights it. A blue glyph comes up, which offers him a series of options that he can take advantage of with a click of a button. This includes getting a map that could instantly help him get to his chosen spot. “We would see it all the time in our usability test labs: More often than not, people would highlight a piece of text, put it in another tab, and so on. They would be at five or six clicks to get what they wanted.”
IE8 aims to do what a browser should – ease navigation for harried users. It also includes a number of features designed specifically for enterprise IT departments. Beta 2, for example, offers group policy enhancements designed to simplify desktop deployments of the browser, as does a beefed-up administrator kit. Slipstream installation will allow admins to deploy IE8 as part of an OS image, and application compatibility tools will bring management of policy settings to a more granular level.
But most of what LePage showed off in an interview with ComputerWorld Canada were the kind of eye-catching features that would most interest consumers. These included add-ons with names such as Accelerators and Web slices. LePage thinks they should interest corporate customers, too.
“I can tell you from working at Microsoft that in an organization of that size you’re trying to find things all the time,” he says. “The Accelerators, the Web slices – these are all tools you can absolutely use to your advantage as an organization.”
Matt Rosoff, an analyst with independent analyst firm Directions On Microsoft, says it may take some doing to get IT professionals to see IE as anything more than an entranceway to Web-based business processes.
“A lot of organizations when they have Web apps, they write them for a particular browser. Is it strategic? Not per se,” he says. “The Web application is strategic and the programming language you’re using on the server is. I think the browser is a means to an end.” Part of the problem may be that companies take their Web browsers for granted, says Sheri McLeish, an analyst with Forrester Research. This is despite the innovations from Mozilla’s Firefox or even Google’s recently-announced Chrome browser.
“My sense from speaking with customers and coworkers is that people are fairly limited in terms of the functionality they use for the tools that they have. The way people learn is often through accident or learning from a friend,” she says. “There is really no formal training in best practices around browser usage. It’s an untapped area.”
With that in mind, we asked LePage, the analysts and a couple of Canadian Web developers to talk about how IT managers could get more out of IE8 when it’s finished.
The feature: Accelerators
What they do: Originally introduced in Beta 1 as “Activities,” the technology lets users choose to feed highlighted text into a search engine, a map program, a translator or a social networking site.
Your move: Enhance your browser-based customer relationship management or field sales force automation suite by creating shortcuts to mission-critical data.
“You could have it so every time you hover over a customer record on an intranet site, one of the options could be to look up information about that customer in another application,” says Rosoff. McLeish adds that Accelerators could also dovetail with the massive adoption of Microsoft SharePoint portals in many corporate enterprises. “The browser could end up tying into a variety of content sources,” she says.
Christopher Frederico, president of Toronto-based Concept Interactive, agreed. “People are realizing that at the end of the day, a document is the end result of a process,” he said. “A component of this has been to go back to centralizing document and records management and having an easy, accessible way to get to that information and collaborate with it, not just within the corporation but wherever you need it to be.”
LePage said Accelerators would be useful to anyone trying to speed up a process. “We’re giving one-click access back to the users.”
But before you deploy: Make sure the options you offer users are the ones they really need. Stuffing commands into an Accelerator won’t necessarily change the way people work overnight. “There is a difference between what enterprises use and what consumers do,” says McLeish. “I think there’s not a good enough understanding of how people are using browsers today to even start to think about how they might look to leverage some of these features.” Figure out what users know about IE, then think about Accelerators.
The feature: Web slices
What they do: Instead of leaving certain tabs open to your favourite Web sites, Web slices are like widgets that embed pieces of data from various sources directly into the Favourites Bar, and updates changes on the fly. “You’re taking a page that changes regularly and marking it up,” says LePage, giving consumer-oriented examples like the status updates of your Facebook friends. Third-parties such as eBay are already working on Web slices that would allow, for instance, users to keep track of an auction in which they’re bidding, he adds.
Your move: Think about using Web slices to fill the need for dashboard-style information which is often being pulled out of data warehouses or business intelligence applications. Provide the marketing department with the results of an ad campaign, or just give admin staff a quick way to check Web-based e-mail or look up additions to a product catalogue.
“It may be more efficient, rather than bouncing around, to have one sort of entry point to them that is seamless,” McLeish says. “It’s really just the UI.” Frederico says there may be no better place than IE. “Workers spend their whole day inside Internet Explorer. They’re not mixed up in other applications.”
But before you deploy: Not all Web-based information is meant to be sliced, says Sing Chan, user experience developer with Vancouver-based Habanero Consulting Group.
“When you create a slice, you are capturing a part of a live Web page. If anything ever changes on that page, your slice UI may no longer be the same. It may be off slightly,” he says. “In some cases it may be better for these widgets to be standalone.”
The feature: Visual Search
What it does: Saves users the trouble of relying on a search en