Built into Windows 7 or available as a free download for other operating systems, Microsoft's Internet Explorer 8 (IE8) offers a number of improvements and new features to go up against the likes of competing browsers such as Mozilla's Firefox, Google's Chrome, Apple's Safari, and Opera.

IE8 delivers Internet users stepped up security against cross-site scripting attacks, downloads of malicious code, phishing, and other security risks. At the same time, the new browsing platform provides businesses with tools to centrally manage and configure group policies for the office, streamlined browser management, built-in developer tools to help save your developers time, and backwards compatibility with the earlier browser version, IE7.

The question for businesses now is whether IE8 is a game-changer in the battle of the browsers and whether your organization should standardize on IE8 -- or any of its well-regarded rivals.

Browsing issues to consider

There are several ways small and mid-sized businesses use Web browsers. Employees often use browsers to look for information about customers, competitors, or products on the Internet. At the same time, a growing number of companies are using and/or developing Web applications that need to be compatible with Web browsers.

Deciding which browser is best for a small business "is like asking an Italian and a Frenchman which country has the best food," jokes Steve Hilton, vice president of small and mid-sized business research at the Boston-based Yankee Group.

The advice may depend on which computing platform your business uses, PC-based or Mac. "My advice for picking a browser is simple: Internet Explorer 8 is your default, but if you feel like experimenting consider Firefox or Chrome and you might find one particularly appealing from a user-interface point-of-view," says Hilton. This isn't the case for a Mac user, though, he adds. "Apple-heads should just stick with Safari."

So, does it really matter which browser you go with? Not really, say some experts. "For most companies it's the path of least resistance, so whatever is the default on the operating system -- Internet Explorer for Windows or Safari for the Mac OS -- is the first one to try," advises Michael Gartenberg, vice president at Interpret LLC, a market research firm based in New York and Los Angeles.

The launch of IE8 provides businesses with a safe bet for standardization -- sort of. "At the end of the day, you won't have an issue if you go with IE8 as it's secure and stable," Gartenberg says. "Microsoft has done an excellent job to move the product forward over the years, but honestly, any modern browser is going to work pretty well for you."

That said, Gartenberg says Microsoft's dominance of market share in the browser space means some applications might favor IE8 over others in the compatibility department.

A company involved in writing Web apps should also take a browser-agnostic approach, both Hilton and Gartenberg say. "Web builders need to optimize sites for all of these browsers, but at least make sure IE and Firefox work, and then pick-up the Apple-centric products," Hilton advises.

"If you're writing Web-compliant apps, you shouldn't play favorites," adds Gartenberg.

Windows 7's relevance

Gartenberg says IE8, which is bundled in every copy of Windows 7, gives Microsoft a "home court advantage" in the browser wars. But it's not without merit: "IE8 does work better in Windows 7, so the combo helps Microsoft -- and ultimately, its users, too."

But that doesn't mean there isn't room for competition. "While I have not tested all browser and operating system combinations, I can't imagine Microsoft would do anything intentional to impede the use of competing browsers in Window 7," says Hilton.

Referencing antitrust issues, Hilton adds "surely Microsoft, and their legal department, would follow that old adage, 'once bitten, twice shy,' when it comes to their operating system and browser issues."

Quick pros and cons

While some technology analysts take laissez faire approach to deciding which browser is best for your business, there are still some advantages and shortcomings to each of the big players. Here they are:

Internet Explorer 8

  • Pros: Most websites and plugs-ins work well with IE. Faster speeds and handy time-saving tools. Compatibility View helps see older websites easier. Available in multiple languages. Built into Windows.
  • Cons: Security holes still found. Market share leader means more susceptible to attacks. Some crashing.

Mozilla Firefox

  • Pros: Newest version is roughly three times faster than Firefox 3.0. Tabbed browsing works well. Convenient features, including location-aware browsing. Vibrant and passionate development community.
  • Cons: Some bugs and security issues that requires "patching."

Opera

  • Pros: Lean and fast. Secure. Mouse gestures and other extra features in Opera (including Opera Unite) are handy additions.
  • Cons: Doesn't fare as well on heavy multimedia sites. Not as much plug-in support than IE and Firefox.

Apple Safari

  • Pros: Good looking. Fast. Reliable. Minimalist design.
  • Cons: Close button on left side. Not much mouse functionality (e.g. middle button). No status bar. Not all plug-ins supported. Built into Macs.

Google Chrome

  • Pros: Clean and fast. Some nice features like shortcuts. Available in 50 languages.
  • Cons: Lack of add-ons; not all websites/plug-ins are supported. No support for Macs.