Microsoft trademark apps hint at 'private' browsing in IE

Bloggers have uncovered paperwork for two possible applications from Microsoft having to do with keeping the details of a user's browsing session private.

Critics of what could become a critical feature for Internet Explorer 8 have derided the idea of a built-in privacy feature for erasing histories and other trace elements, as nothing more than a "porn mode," allowing for surfers to cover their tracks if they are viewing questionable content. However, Mozilla -- which was set to include the feature in Firefox 3, but later pulled it -- argued for its legitimate uses.

"That this is the only reason that users need private browsing trivializes the overall feature," Mozilla said in describing the feature. "For instance, users may wish to begin a private browsing session to research a medical condition, or plan a surprise vacation or birthday party for a loved one."

Microsoft might see some validity in Mozilla's argument, if its trademark applications are any indication. The two marks applied for potential future computer programs called "Cleartracks" and "Inprivate."

According to the filing for Cleartracks, it is described as "computer programs for accessing and using the Internet and the world wide web; and computer programs for deleting search history after accessing websites."

Inprivate looks like it would similarly conceal history, though it appears to deal with more of the caching features of the browser. The mark would be used for "computer programs for accessing and using the Internet and the world wide web; computer programs for disabling the history and file caching features of a web browser; and computer software for notifying a user of a web browser when others are tracking web use and for controlling the information others can access about such use."

Both applications were filed on July 30, but have apparently not yet been assigned to an examining attorney. Just because Microsoft filed for these trademarks does not necessarily mean the new functionality will appear in the next beta of Internet Explorer, which the company has said would be released sometime this month. Microsoft has made no public comment on the appearance of a feature by either of these names.

Apple's Safari browser already has such a mode, and has had it since 2005. To activate it, a user clicks "Private Browsing" under the Safari menu within Mac OS X.

A hint that private browsing in IE8 could be forthcoming can be found in a June 2008 blog post from the IE team. In talking about trustworthy browsing, IE general manager Dean Hachamovitch said the challenge of privacy "is notifying users clearly about what sites they're disclosing information to and enabling them to control that disclosure if they choose."

Details of the trademark filings were first reported by Istartedsomething's Long Zheng on Wednesday. Zheng has occasionally made appearances as a speaker on behalf of Microsoft technologies, at conferences such as TechEd.

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