Microsoft has launched a beta of Internet Explorer 8 (IE8) that is available for everyone - even thought the download page is called Beta 1 for developers.

"I am pleased to announce that Beta 1 for developers is available now," said Dean Hachamovitch, the IE group's general manager. IE8 Beta 1 will be available in separate versions for Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows Server 2003 and Windows Server 2008.

Although Hachamovitch pegged Beta 1 as fit for developers, there's nothing to stop the general public from downloading and installing the browser. "This beta release is available to everyone," Microsoft's download notes read, "but is primarily for web developers and designers to test the new tools, layout engine, and programming enhancements."

Among the new features Microsoft touted in other sections of the sub-site dubbed "Internet Explorer 8 Readiness Toolkit," were tools called "WebSlices" and "Activities." The former somewhat resembles the "Web Clip" feature introduced in Apple's Safari Mac OS X 10.5 "Leopard"; the latter appears to be a small-scale mash-up tool. Both will be developer- rather than user-created.

WebSlices (IE8) and Web Clip (Safari) let users designate content within a page - dynamically-updated stock prices, for example, - and then monitor changes to that content. But while Safari's Web Clip lets users create desktop widgets for easier access, IE8's WebSlices only allows users to add them to the Favorites bar or to a new row below the browser's address bar. In other words, IE8 users must still click to see the content after they're notified that changes have occurred.

Activities, meanwhile, are pre-designed mash-ups that Microsoft and third-party sites and services will offer free of charge. A dedicated Activities page currently lists a dozen samples, ranging from one that helps users find and preview items on the eBay auction site to another that maps addresses on Windows Live Maps.
"Activities are how developers can integrate the content of their sites with the web," said Hachamovitch.

Other enhancements and additions to IE8 include a revamped Favorites bar, automatic crash recovery and an improved anti-phishing filter. By comparison, Mozilla's Firefox and Apple's Safari both currently offer crash of one sort or another, while Firefox also sports anti-phishing protection.

Earlier this week, Microsoft's IE development team announced that IE8 would support a new "super standards" mode by default , rather than optionally, to stress web standards over backward compatibility.
"The web gets better when developers spend less time on interoperability [problems] and more time on innovating," said Hachamovitch. "Long term, this is the right thing to do for the web."

"We're only part way done with IE8," said Hachamovitch. "But you can see where we're focused."