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Four weeks ago Microsoft released Internet Explorer 8. I’ve used the software just about every day since. Here are my thoughts.

Until now Microsoft Internet Explorer has been a necessity not my browser of choice. Explorer is a necessity because a limited number of sites and online services, including a number from Microsoft, are optimised or in some cases restricted to Explorer.

For the past four years Mozilla Firefox has consistently performed better than Internet Explorer. It was always faster and less bloated. Add-ons give Firefox a flexibility older versions of Internet Explorer simply could not match. And, while Microsoft’s browsers were better integrated with Windows and certain key desktop applications, Firefox was still able to deliver a better all round user experience.

In practice I’ve needed to run the two browsers alongside each other. Explorer has always played second fiddle. Can the upgrade to IE8 change that?

What’s good about Internet Explorer 8?

IE8 is fast

IE8 loads pages considerably faster than Firefox 3.0.8. One heavy-duty Web 2.0 page I frequent is ready in around 28 seconds with IE8. The same page takes 52 seconds with Firefox. The difference isn’t always as pronounced, however I did the anal retentive thing and timed a number of pages to discover they all loaded faster with IE8.

Once Firefox loads into memory, it can restart in seconds. But the first load in a session can run to as long as five minutes. That’s just plain awful. In many cases Firefox takes so long to fire up, I wonder if it is loading at all. I often find my self opening two or more instances. IE8 always fires up in seconds. However, there’s a down side to this as we shall see later.

Fabulous developer tools

Developer tools are geeky, but one of the truly great improvements in IE8. Hit F12 and you can view a page’s source code and CSS. This is great for fixing up problems with your own pages. To get similar features in Firefox you need to install the Firebug extension.

Internet Explorer 8 is cleaner than earlier versions

Explorer is now web-standard compliant, has a tidy user interface and most of the time renders pages beautifully with crisp text.

I also like:

  • Colour-coded tabs Open a new tab and its colour will match that of the parent page.
  • Tab grouping Tabs are grouped with their parent tab.
  • Smart address bar Similar to the Firefox’s new address bar, it remembers where you’ve been and your most visited sites.
  • Useful new tabs Open a new tab and you get links to the sites you’re most likely to want to visit.
  • Tab view A quick tab feature allows you to see thumbnails of all open tabs.
  • RSS Internet Explorer does a better job of handling feeds than Firefox.
  • Search bar Sure Firefox has the same feature, but I like the way the IE8 search bar works and I especially like the way it can be used to search the current page as well as the entire Internet.
  • Smooth integration Microsoft gets nervous when people talk about the way its products integrate, but IE8 works smoothly with Windows and Office.  The software also downloads and installs without a hitch.
  • Security See the anti-phishing feature kick in for the first time is impressive.

Bad things about Internet Explorer 8

Within hours of installing and running Microsoft Internet Explorer 8 on my Windows Vista Ultimate system I quickly discovered some negatives. Let’s look at them one by one:

1. Key features simply don’t work or are erratic

There are two pre-installed items on the favorites bar: Suggested Sites and Get More Add-ons. Neither of them work. Clicking either opens a windows that says “Internet Explorer cannot display the webpage” and there’s a button labeled Diagnose Connection Problems. This doesn’t happen all the time, just most of the time.

Some basic things simply don’t work at all on some sites. For example I tried joining Chi.mp using IE8, but the Captcha feature didn’t show up making it impossible to use. I had to switch to Firefox to enroll.

While we’re on the subject, Microsoft hasn’t bothered to localize spellings. Outside of North America the word is favourite, not favorite.

2. Crashing

After one month of use I experienced three major Internet Explorer 8 crashes. In each case I’ve had to reboot the machine and lost work because of the crashes. I’m not certain what causes the problems, but there’s something weird happening. I’m running IE8 on a Windows Vista Ultimate system with 2GB of Ram. Firefox has its problems, but it never crashes in such a spectacular and worrying fashion. I’ve also experienced a number of less serious crashes which can be fixed by closing and reopening IE8. Frankly this instability is the biggest barrier to my switching from Firefox to Internet Explorer. Presumably Microsoft will fix up the bugs over the coming weeks, but this does not fill me with confidence.

3. A lot of pages look strange

Internet Explorer 8 may be standards compliant, but it won’t display all the pages you throw at it. Ironically the biggest problem come when you view a page designed for IE7 or IE6. There’s a compatibility button in the address bar to ‘fix’ odd-looking pages by reverting the browser to IE7 mode. Nevertheless some pages still struggle. And curiously the button doesn’t always appear when you need it.

There are other anomalies. For example, if I visit the dashboard at WordPress.com, IE 8 frequently struggles to display the stats graph, even though it shows up perfectly well in Firefox.

4. Unable to automatically reload settings on start-up

One Firefox feature I love is the way it opens up with all the tabs exactly as they were left when you closed down. IE8 doesn’t do this. Apparently it was designed this way.

5. Active X is still a pain in the bum

Sorry Microsoft, I know Active X is your baby, but there’s a good reason everyone whinges about it. Here’s a simple explanation of why it is so awful for non-technical readers.

6. Spell-checking missing in action

Yes I know I’m supposed to be a professional writer and I shouldn’t need a spell checker. Generally I don’t. A spell checker is a way of a avoiding red faces.

And the ugly?

Despite the headline, there’s nothing ugly. I claim poetic licence. Internet Explorer 8 is a good all-round browser. It will meet most people’s needs most of the time. It comes close to meeting mine. I’m certain the majority of users will happily browse away using IE8 without giving the technology a second thought.

However, Internet Explorer’s shortcomings mean, at least until the next iteration or service pack arrives IE8 remains on my machine by necessity for those IE only sites rather than because it is the best browser. If it was more reliable, this decision could change. This is a pity because there is much to love about IE8 – and that’s not something I would ever have said about IE7.

Mark Shead at Productivity 501 writes about the Hawthorne effect:

The Hawthorne effect refers to some studies that were done on how training impacts employees’ productivity at work. The studies found that sending someone to training produces employees that work harder. The funny part about it is that you still get the productivity increase even if the training doesn’t teach them how to be better at their jobs. Sending someone to training helps them feel like they are important, like the company is investing in them and they are valuable. Because of this, they work harder.

An explanatory note at the bottom of Shead’s post points out the original tests were to do with changing light levels. You can read Shead’s original story at Hawthorne Effect : Productivity501.

It’s also worth reading the Wikipedia entry on the Hawthorne effect. There’s also a good definition of the effect at Donald Clark’s site: The Hawthorne effect.  Clark writes:

The Hawthorne effect – an increase in worker productivity produced by the psychological stimulus of being singled out and made to feel important.

Clarke links the effect to work done by Frederick Taylor who gave birth to the idea of industrial psychology.

My own common sense experience as a manager says you should pay attention to workers as a matter of course. Sadly this isn’t obvious to everyone. It certainly wasn’t back in the 1920s and 1930s when these ideas were fresh and new. If the effect is clear among knowledge workers at your workplace, it’s a sign you aren’t managing people correctly.

See also: Taylor’s scientific management doesn’t apply to knowledge work

Computerworld reports we added 281 exabytes of data to the global information total in 2007.

An exabyte is a billion gigabytes. So this adds up to 800MB of data for each of the world’s 6 billion people. As much data as a 30 metre high stack of books.

It’s a lot of information.

Or maybe not. Storage experts believe that anywhere from 80 to 90 percent of stored data is anything but valuable.

Worthless storage, junk information

In 2002 I spoke to Rob Nieboer, who at the time was StorageTek’s Australian and New Zealand storage strategist. He revealed the vast bulk of data stored on company systems is worthless.

He says, “I haven’t met one person in the last three years who routinely deletes data. However, as much of 90 percent of their stored data hasn’t been accessed in months or years. According to the findings of a company called Strategic Research, when data isn’t accessed in the 30 days after it is first stored there’s only a two percent chance it will get used later.”

At the same time companies often store many data files repeatedly in the same file system. Nieboer says it’s not unusual for a single system to hold as many as 15 separate copies of the same file.

Storage Parkinson’s Law

According to Rosemary Stark (also interviewed in 2002 when she was Dimension Data’s national business manager for data centre solutions), storage obeys a version of Parkinson’s Law.

She said, “It’s a case of if you build it, they will come. Put together a system with 2GB of storage and pretty quickly it will fill up with data. Buy a system with 200GB of storage and that will also fill up before too long.”

Like Nieboer, Stark said there’s a huge problem with multiple copies of the same information but she estimates the volume of unused archive material to be closer to 80 percent. But she said 80 percent isn’t all junk: “It’s like the paper you keep on your desk. You don’t want it all, there may be a lot you can safely throw away but sometimes there are things you need to keep just in case you need them again later.”

Needles and haystacks

Although many companies focus on the economic cost of storing vast amounts of junk information, there’s a tendency to overlook the performance overhead imposed by unnecessary data. In simple terms, computer systems burn resources ploughing through haystacks of trash to find valuable needles of real information.

There are other inefficiencies. Stark said she has seen applications, for example databases, that use, say, 300 Terabytes of storage  even though the actual data might only be 50 Terabytes. This happens when systems managers set aside capacity for anticipated needs. The situation is a little like a child’s mother buying outsize clothes on the grounds that the youngster will eventually grow into them.

Nieboer said there are inherent inefficiencies in various systems.

Mainframe disks are typically only 50 percent full. With Unix systems disks might only be 40 percent full, with Windows this falls to 30 percent.

Drawing parallels between the music industry and the newspaper business is not new.

Both industries are in free fall. Both are leaving skilled career-committed professionals struggling to find ways to carry on doing what they are good at while putting food on the table.

Although the newspaper industry may now be collapsing faster than the music business, the record companies started their decline earlier. Which means musicians have had longer to work out ways of coping.

And some of them are coping quite nicely thank you.

David Byrne’s Survival Strategies for Emerging Artists suggests journalists can adapt some lessons already learnt by professional musicians.

Byrne’s article starts with a description of what happened to the business that is optimistic from a musician’s point of view:

What is called the music business today, however, is not the business of producing music. At some point it became the business of selling CDs in plastic cases, and that business will soon be over. But that’s not bad news for music, and it is certainly not bad news for musicians. Indeed, with all the ways to reach an audience, there have never been more opportunities for artists.

You could make an equally uplifting argument about the opportunities for journalists. Although there is one huge difference between the two industries: no-one is going to pay to see journalists perform live.

Later Byrne looks at possible distribution models – most of which have analogies in the newspaper world.

David Byrne’s Survival Strategies for Emerging Artists

Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs first appeared in 1954. The world has changed over the past 55 years. We’re not the same and critics have challenged Maslow.

You can read more about Maslow and his hierarchy of needs in Motivation and the hierarchy of needs. Some criticism is covered in Challenging Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Maslow’s hierarchy is often shown as a pyramid. There’s an implication people move up the pyramid as their lives improve.

Take a knowledge worker. The person will gain skills, win responsibility and in turn earn extra income. This takes care of the lower levels of the hierarchy.

Self-actualisation

According to Maslow this makes it possible to move up to self-actualisation. Think of this as a kind of western nirvana.

Today’s global financial crisis means many workers are moving in the opposite direction.

Being laid off is traumatic. In some cases people can be at the pinnacle of the hierarchy one day and slide all the way to the bottom the moment the pink slip appears. This can also happen when disaster strikes. Finding food, shelter and warmth are once more the most important things on the agenda.

Many redundant workers pick themselves up and climb back up Maslow’s pyramid. The journey is easier the second time around. Knowing the route and recognising the landmarks along the way helps.

Maslow’s theory works well enough on the four bottom stages. You only have to look around and see people at each level. And occasionally you’ll notice people moving up or down.

You don’t see many self-actualised pyramid toppers.

Even in the good times before the economy nose-dived, Brahmins were thin on the ground. This would be especially so in the higher levels of the economy (which is where you might expect to find them given the pyramid).

What does this tell us?

Maslow’s hierarchy is a useful theory, but it’s not a pyramid. It is a four-step ladder. At each step up the ladder there’s a slide that could take you back down again. In other words, it’s a game of snakes and ladders.