It’s surprising: So much has been said about Windows 8, and yet one of the most important aspects — web browsing — has hardly been tackled at all. The vast majority of all time spent in front of a PC is spent inside a web browser, usually surfing Facebook, YouTube, or Google — and yet here we are, judging a beta product on the interaction between the legacy Desktop and newfangled Metro Start Screen, andthreatening to leave it all behind in favor of Ubuntu Linux.
Now, for the most part, the combined browser-and-OS experience is very similar across the board. Hardware acceleration is a little bit iffy on OS X, and Chrome definitely works better in Windows, but for the most part there isn’t a major differentiator. That all changes with Windows 8.
Standards compliance and features
Windows 8 is odd because it’s a desktop operating system, but with all sorts of mobile-friendly (tablet) tweaks thrown into the mix. As a result, there’s that sparse, full-screen Metro interface of course, with a full set of navigational gestures — but also, in a rather odd twist, Metro web browsers won’t be allowed to run any plug-ins (Flash, Silverlight, Java, and so on) to ensure that the Metro interface is reliably responsive. Furthermore, on the Desktop side of things, Windows 8 has Reset and Refresh, two features that will be positively awesome for mom-and-pop computers that get bogged down with malware, toolbars, and the like. The ability to pin websites to the Start Screen as live tiles is neat, too, providing a new and exciting way of accessing your favorites/bookmarks.
Feature-wise, IE10 looks like it be comparable to the latest versions of Firefox and Chrome (though still with less support for the full HTML5 spec, and no WebGL), and with the whole Microsoft Account, automatic-synchronization-between-all-Windows-8-devices, IE10 finally brings bookmark and password sync to the table. IE10 also supports most popular CSS3 features, Web Workers, Cross-Origin Resource Sharing, and more.
Metro vs. Desktop
One of the bigger FUD bubbles surrounding web browsing on Windows 8 is the Metro/Desktop divide. Windows 8 will ship with a Metro version of IE10 and a Desktop version — but except for the user-facing interface, they are actually identical browsers. Now, there was some confusion about whether other browsers could also be “hybrids” like this, but recently Microsoft confirmed that it would be possible in an MSDN white paper [PDF].
Basically, assuming Google and Mozilla (and Opera and Apple) provide a suitable Metro interface, they will be able to provide one installable package that puts their browser both on the Desktop and in Metro. IE10 will be the default Metro browser in Windows 8, but just like on the Desktop browsers will have the option of becoming the default handler for all HTTP and HTTPS content.
The only problem is, that white paper was the first sign that Microsoft would even allow other browsers into the Metro interface. Mozilla has stated that it wants to produce a Metro version of Firefox, but it couldn’t begin work until now. Google is in the same boat; it will have to produce a Metro version of Chrome. In short, the third-party browser vendors now have about six months to develop a Metro browser, while Microsoft will have had more than 18 months to polish Metro IE10 until it shines. If the Metro versions of third-party browsers aren’t available for the retail release of Windows 8, Microsoft could have some antitrust issues on its hands (especially in Europe).
With specific regards to the Desktop, all browsers will continue to work with Windows 8 in the same way that they worked with Windows 7; they’ll just be slightly faster, thanks to the underlying tweaks made to the Windows kernel and system services. I have tested the stable and beta versions of all major browsers, and they all work fine in Windows 8.
Finally, a word about one of the hottest but most confusing topics: web apps. IE10 does not support web apps in the same way that Chrome does (packaged apps through the Web Store), nor does Microsoft have any plans to support Mozilla’s Open Web Apps (which are packaged in a different way to Chrome). With IE10, all you get is pinned sites, just like IE9. Now, in some ways this is good — different packaging is a pain in the ass for both consumers and developers — but it also means that developers can’t sell web apps to IE10 users (and yes, while we’re at it, IE10 still doesn’t support add-ons like Chrome or Firefox).