May 30, 2008, 12:00 AM

Retail Explorer

With Microsoft’s new Internet Explorer 8, consumers can shop ‘til they drop, then take a ‘webslice’ along for the ride.

Cutting-edge e-commerce technology is all about giving online consumers more freedom in how they shop. Well, to be honest, it’s also about giving e-retailers more ways to stay in front of shoppers.

That’s what Microsoft Corp. is doing with Internet Explorer 8. Among the new web browser’s new features are “webslices” that let consumers click to take part of a retail web site-a dynamically changing product page of a favorite pair of pricey shoes, for example-and insert it into their IE8 browser for viewing whenever they happen to be on the web, even if they’re shopping another online shoe store. With a quick glance at the webslice, which users can store in a menu in the Favorites toolbar, a shopper could check if the to-die-for shoes had dropped in price before deciding to buy something else.

IE8 is also designed to load multiple images on web pages more quickly, a feature that presents challenges to e-retailers whose sites may not be primed to support the faster downloads, says Imad Mouline, chief technology officer of Gomez Inc., provider of web site performance monitoring services. “Internet Explorer 8 presents a lot of opportunity to retailers, but also a lot of pitfalls if they’re not ready for it,” he says.

Calling on retailers

Microsoft is hoping retailers won’t wait to start preparing their sites to offer webslices and other features available to IE8 users. Although introduced in a beta version intended for experimentation by site developers, Microsoft intends to soon launch a more user-friendly beta 2 version to let consumers take it for a ride. “It’s not too soon to begin developing web sites for IE8 so that sites will be ready when consumers want to begin using its features,” says Matt Lapsen, director of Internet Explorer 8 product management, adding that Microsoft is making the software code to IE8 available for free. “We expect to see a strong adoption of IE8 beta 2 by consumers.”

The new browser’s webslices are similar to popular RSS feeds, which let consumers subscribe to information updates sent to their computer desktops. But webslices are designed to be easier for site developers as well as consumers to deploy, and users can constantly monitor them for dynamically updated content from the IE8 browser, Lapsen says.

Internet Explorer 8 comes with a built-in developer’s toolkit for deploying webslices and other features such as “activities,” which include shopping tools such as online maps that shoppers can access from any web page through their browsers. Instead of coding each page where a map or a feature like “send-to-a-friend” would appear, for example, a site developer could build one code for each feature to make it work through IE8, Microsoft says.

A shopper, for example, could use her mouse to highlight a product name on any page, triggering an icon she would then click to produce a pull-down menu of activities including a send-to-a-friend e-mail form. Microsoft figures most consumers are already accustomed to highlighting and copying text from a web page and transferring it off the page to separate applications like their Google Maps or personal e-mail system, and will naturally adjust to taking similar actions though IE8 without having to leave the web page on which they’re shopping, a spokeswoman says.

Creating a webslice requires entering a few lines of software code into a web content management system, and a consumer can make a webslice icon appear in the webslices section of a browser by simply clicking the webslice icon that appears on a web site, Lapsen says. “The beauty of IE8 is its out-of-the-box functionality,” he says.

Many connections

EBay.com, one of the early developers of web pages designed for IE8, for example, lets a visitor using the new browser click a webslice icon on an auction page to make it appear in the visitor’s webslices section of IE8, Lapsen says. As the consumer then visits other pages of eBay or other web sites, she can click the eBay webslice icon at any time to see the latest bids.

Site developers can also design webslice icons to alert consumers when new information is available. A webslice icon in a browser could change color when a retailer changes the price of a product, for instance, freeing the consumer from having to click the icon for an update, Lapsen says.

While IE8 promises to make multiple images load faster on web sites, it also presents retailers with the challenge of managing a big increase in server connections, Mouline says.

A major part of the new technology in Internet Explorer 8 relates to the browser’s ability to increase the number of simultaneous connections with web servers, so that a site visitor can download more images in less time, Mouline says. Designed to take advantage of broadband Internet access, IE8 can support up to six connections per server on up to three servers simultaneously, for a total of 18 connections, compared to a maximum of six simultaneous connections for the currently available Internet Explorer 7, he adds. “Getting all the images at the same time is great news for end users,” Mouline says.

A single web page or section of a page, for instance, could have multiple product images and related HTML content, which a retailer could store on one or more web servers as well as third-party servers like ad networks. By making more of these files appear faster and simultaneously, IE8 provides a better viewing experience for visitors, Mouline says. But to make them all appear through a browser can require separate connections to each server for each image or content file, he adds, and that means web site operators must ensure their servers are capable of handling a higher volume of connections with the browser.

IE8 also is designed to support the growing use of web design technologies like Ajax, which relies on constant connections between a site visitor’s web browser and back-end web servers.

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