Microsoft fired the latest volley in the new browser wars on Wednesday, releasing the latest version of Internet Explorer to the public. Our quick take: Microsoft wouldn’t need an ad campaign featuring Jerry Seinfeld if it came out with more products like this.

The new Internet Explorer

Earlier this summer, Mozilla, a non-profit software-development group, released the latest version of its Firefox Web browser. Mozilla made the launch the centerpiece of a campaign to set the world record for most software downloads in a 24 hour period, which it achieved in part because the record didn’t exist previously. Firefox now has about 19% of the browser market, according to Net Appliances Applications, up from 11% in June 2006. Microsoft’s Internet Explorer still has the lion’s share of the browser market – 73% according to Net Appliances – but that’s slowly eroding.

Microsoft isn’t letting its market share disappear unchallenged, though. The company released Internet Explorer 8.0 as a so-called beta, a version that’s not quite complete but still available for anyone to download. We’ve been testing it today and (to go all Mossberg for a moment) can report that it’s full of features that make Web browsing easier.

Confession: The Business Technology Blog uses Firefox whenever possible, mainly because it has “tabs” that allow us to open multiple Web pages in one window. IE 8 has tabs as well, plus a handful of other cool features. One we particularly like: Microsoft has added “accelerators” that facilitate common tasks like emailing a Web site, mapping an address, or looking up a word. Just highlight text on a Web page and a accelerator displays the map or definition in the same window. The bad news: The accelerators that Microsoft includes are Microsoft products – the software giant’s mapping software, email program, and encyclopedia – none of which are our preferred tools.

There’s also a nice feature that makes tabs that are related to one another the same color and a button that shows miniature versions of all open tabs on one screen. Considering the number of tabs we usually have opened at any given time, these features could be real time savers.

We aren’t willing to switch just yet, but we’re impressed with IE 8 and we’ll definitely keep testing it out. We also can’t help but think that one reason there’s real innovation in the new version of Explorer is that Microsoft is facing real competition. Just imagine how cool the Windows or Office would be if Microsoft had real competitors nipping at its heels.

You can download IE 8 here. And when you do, let us know what you think.

-Ben Worthen

Original here