Microsoft IE9: It's Just Plain Good!

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Apologies in advance for the mixed metaphor: For many years, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer has been a sleeping giant that’s marched to its own drummer. Ever since Firefox appeared in 2004, Microsoft has struggled to figure out what IE should be in the new era of browser competition; it remains the world’s default browser, but it long ago lost the hearts and minds of nearly all of the serious browser users that I know.

At first, the company simply let 2001's IE6 calcify, as if it wasn’t certain that the world needed a major new version of Internet Explorer at all. Then it released IE7 and IE8–bland updates that felt like they existed in a parallel universe of their own rather than the one in which Firefox and Safari (and, for the last two years, Chrome) have been evolving rapidly and cribbing each others’ best new features.

And then there’s Internet Explorer 9, which is debuting in beta form today at a bash in San Francisco. (I’m attending the event, and Microsoft provided me with the beta a few days early.) It’s easily the best new version of Microsoft’s browser in…well, in this century: The last IE upgrade that was this pleasing was version 5, which shipped in 1999. In most respects that matter, IE9 finally catches up with the competition. In a few, it’s sprinted past them. It’s just plain good.

I don’t expect admirers of other browsers to come home to IE en masse: Firefox, Chrome, Safari, and Opera are all pretty darn impressive these days, too, and all have features that IE9 still lacks. But some people who have instinctively avoided Microsoft browsers for years might well love this one. To riff on a George Michael song title, even power users should give IE9 a try and browse without prejudice.

Of course, only Windows power users need apply–unlike every other big-name browser, Internet Explorer doesn’t run on Macs. This time around, though, its Windows-centric approach is as much a pro as a con. Microsoft may have argued that its operating system and its browser were one and the same since the mid-1990s–controversially so–but this is the first time that they feel like a unified experience. IE9 has been built to run well on Windows and on PC hardware, and it shows.

Any IE9 verdict must be preliminary: This beta is, after all, a beta. Most of the sites I’ve tried in it work splendidly, but I did spot occasional rendering quirks. And the editing window in WordPress, the blogging tool behind Technologizer, doesn’t let me edit, which is why I’m writing this review of Internet Explorer in Chrome. Microsoft isn’t saying when it expects IE9 to go final, but it may be awhile–IE8 was in beta for a full year–so the company should have plenty of time to iron out bugs.

This isn’t IE9's first beta in the standard sense, though. In an unusual move, Microsoft has already released multiple IE9 Platform Previews: versions with early versions of the new rendering engine, but barely any user interface at all. The previews have let Web developers get familiar with IE’s new underpinnings, which add generous support for new HTML5 technologies and aim for much better compliance with Web standards than the notoriously idiosyncratic earlier editions of IE. They’ve also shown off the browser’s new hardware-accelerated graphics, which take full advantage of your PC’s graphics subsystem to render text, images, and animations as briskly as possible.

Microsoft’s IE9 Test Drive site is full of entertaining demos that let you compare the new engine to those of the competition, accelerated and otherwise. Not surprisingly, IE9 comes off well in all of them: It blazes through animation-rich HTML5 Web pages that unaccelerated browsers can barely run at all. (On the other hand, the beta of Firefox 4, which also incorporates accelerated graphics, fares nearly as well as IE in many of the tests.)

At the moment, Microsoft’s own canned demos reveal IE9's new technical chops better than nearly any non-test Web site does. In the real world, after all, use of HTML5 still isn’t widespread, and most graphics and animations have been designed for unaccelerated browsers. But as the Web gets richer, IE9 should be ready. And if Microsoft hadn’t brought the market’s dominant browser up to spec, major sites would have had far less incentive to create cool new features that utilize the latest technologies.

Another architectural improvement: If something in a tab crashes or just bogs the browser down, IE9 is designed to resist issues that impact other tabs or bring the browser down altogether. I’m good at making browsers choke–especially Chrome and Safari, lately–and IE9 does seem rather robust, especially for a beta. I’ve had glitches in specific tabs, but they haven’t seeped out into other ones or rendered the browser inoperative.

So much for back-end stuff; the big news in the beta is IE9's new front end. It’s a winner–not because it’s a radical improvement on the competition, but because it’s so similar to them. I agree with my colleague Jared Newman that a basic consistency among browser interfaces is a good thing. And IE9 ‘s minimalist new look will be comfortably familiar if you use the current version of any other major browser.

It looks most like Chrome, with an address bar that does double duty as a search field and a single menu on the right-hand side that packs all available options and settings. The Favorites bar and Status line are turned off by default, adding to the streamlined look. Microsoft has also shoved the tabs to the right of the address bar so they don’t eat up an entire row of real estate; In theory, that sounds cramped, but if you open tons of tabs, IE9 intelligently shrinks the address bar to free up space.

Like Firefox, IE9 has an oversized Back button, and in an odd aesthetic touch, both the Back and Forward buttons pick up their color from the Web page you’re viewing. (Site proprietors can even control their color.)

Browser search fields have felt like a redundant, vestigial appendage to me for a long time, so I’m glad to see that IE no longer has one. To perform a search, you just type your query rather than a URL into the address bar. The default results are from–this may shock you!–Bing. That’s fine as long as you have the option to switch the default to Google or another search engine. You do, but it’s a more convoluted process than it should be, involving installing an add-in. By contrast, Chrome asks you whether you want Google, Bing, or Yahoo during the installation process.

Like Windows 7, IE9 has been reworked to be less in-your-face and needy. Various alerts and warnings that would have forced you to stop what you were doing are no longer modal: You can respond to them immediately, at your leisure, or not at all. In a new touch, they appear in a box along the bottom of the browser window rather than its top. (Microsoft says that people feel more slowed down by topside dialogs than bottom ones even if the impact on performance is identical.)

Speaking of Windows 7, most of what’s unique about IE9's new interface involves slick integration with it. (The browser also works with Vista, but not XP.) If you grab a tab and drag it to the left or right side of the screen, for instance,Win 7's Aero Snap kicks in on the fly and tab becomes a new window that sticks to the edge of the desktop. Aero Snap works with other browsers, too, but with them, the same maneuver takes two distinct gestures: drag, pause, then drag to the edge.

More intriguingly, IE couples with the Windows 7 Taskbar to let Web apps work more like desktop apps. Drag a tab onto the Taskbar, and it gets pinned there, letting you can quickly launch the page it contains from there on out; its Taskbar icon will be the Web site’s Favicon rather than the IE icon, so you can identify the site at a glance.

Here’s a Win 7 Taskbar with Technologizer, eBay, and Gmail pinned to it:

Site proprietors can also set up Windows 7 Jump Lists: Taskbar menus that take you directly to a particular part of the site with one click. Here’s eBay’s Jump List:

IE9 Jump Lists will only matter if Web developers and Web users latch onto them, which isn’t a given. (One of IE8's alleged signature features, Web Slices, required similar acceptance by the outside world, and doesn’t seem to have gone anywhere.) But they’re a potentially useful blurring of the lines between app and Web app.

Unlike Chrome’s generally similar Application Shortcuts–which plop an icon for a particular Web site in Windows’ Start menu–sites that are pinned to the Taskbar appear in a standard IE9 window with all the trimmings, including the address bar and the ability to open new tabs. IE honcho Dean Hachamovitch told me that Microsoft originally gave pinned sites a featureless frame more like Chrome’s stripped-down version, but testers said they wanted a standard browser window. I would have voted for Microsoft’s first approach, and wish that there was an optional way to get it. (I’m also not sure why you can’t drag a tab onto the Start menu to pin it: It’s possible to put Web pages there, but you do so with a menu item rather than a gesture.)

With so much about IE9 that’s roughly comparable with other browsers if not better, what’s missing? Enthusiastic support for add-ons spring to mind: Unlike Mozilla, Google, and Apple, Microsoft is downplaying the whole idea of third-party extensions that permit major modifications of the browser’s look, feel, and functionality.

It’s not that IE9 isn’t malleable–there’s a whole site full of existing IE add-ons which Microsoft says should work fine with the beta. But when I asked about extensions, Hachamovitch responded mostly by pointing out how they can make browsers sluggish and unreliable. IE9 reinforces the point with a new feature that warns you about plug-ins that hog system resources and permits you to disable them.

All of IE’s competitors retain other features which are uniquely theirs, too. The Firefox 4 beta has Panorama (formerly known as Tab Candy); Chrome can sync almost everything about itself across multiple copies of the browser; Safari has the clutter-busting Reader view; Opera has Turbo Mode. And my favorite underdog browser, Flock, has a bunch of social features built in. If you can’t live without one of these items, you’ll probably choose to live without IE9.

I expect IE to get some of these features eventually, which brings up a significant point: Even though IE9 isn’t yet final, it’s not too early to begin wondering about the timetable for IE10. Google, after all, has been improving Chrome at a dizzying pace–the browser hit version 5 after just two years of existence. Mozilla, after a period of relative complacency, has been retooling Firefox nearly as quickly. If Internet Explorer 10 appears on the same leisurely schedule as previous IE updates, it might be final until 2013 or thereabouts, and Microsoft’s browser could find itself back in catch-up mode. If I were a Redmondian, I’d aim for further meaningful IE improvements before the end of 2011. (Internet Explorer 9.5 anyone?)

In other words, the arrival of this beta represents the beginning of IE’s reemergence rather than its conclusion. It’s an impressive beginning, though–and I’m really, really curious to hear what browser enthusiasts think about it.


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