Internet Explorer 9: Is Microsoft Back in the Browser Game?

For years, it seemed that Internet Explorer was the only browser most computer users would touch. The big E logo became the universal symbol of the internet, and the average computer seemed to have 13 browser toolbars and enough adware to make anyone hate using the internet. We tried in vain to get family and friends to use alternate browsers, but seemingly to no avail.

Then, it happened. IE was far enough behind that even average computer users started caring about their browser. It was dumbfounding to begin seeing libraries and internet cafés with Firefox and Chrome. Internet Explorer started being used less and less, and finally Microsoft realized they needed to catch up. IE9 has now been released for Windows 7 and Vista computers, and impressively it’s nearly as good as the other leading browsers.

As we use webapps every day, the browser has become the most important application on our computers. Between IE, Safari, Chrome, Opera, and more, there’s always something new in the world of browsers today! Let’s take a look at what the latest version of Microsoft’s maligned browser brings to the browser wars.

A Clean New Start

While most of us might remember Internet Explorer best for having a cluttered interface with seemingly endless toolbars, Internet Explorer 9 has taken design cues from Chrome and Windows 7’s own Aero glass interface. IE9 features a clean interface that removes most of the program’s chrome, focusing instead on the websites that you’re using the browser for anyway. The address bar has been combined with the search bar, much like Chrome, and the tab bar has now been moved inline with the address bar. Best of all, IE9 is now much more standards compliant than previous versions of IE. It includes support for many HTML5, CSS3, and SVG features, and supports h.264 web video, WOFF fonts, and GPU hardware acceleration for a smoother internet experience.

Internet Explorer 9 includes a clean new interface

Internet Explorer is still deeply integrated with Windows, enough that you still have to reboot your computer after installing it. That’s almost frustrating enough to not want to use it. Still, with the focus on Windows integration, it’s brought some unique features as well. You can drag a tab to your Windows 7 taskbar or Vista quick-launch bar to create a pinned shortcut. Then, when you launch that pinned site or webapp, IE’s interface buttons will be recolored based on the site’s favicon colors. Sites can additionally add specific shortcuts to their Windows 7 jumplists to give you quick access, say, to Amazon’s Kindle eBooks store or to your Twitter direct messages. To see more of the sites that are deeply integrated with IE9’s features, check out http://www.beautyoftheweb.com/.

Pinned sites integrate website features into the Windows toolbar

No, I’m Not IE6!

While IE9 does support many of the newer HTML5 and CSS features, many sites still look much worse in IE9 since they’ve been designed to work in IE6. I initially thought IE9 didn’t support box shadows and rounded corners, since most sites still looked boxy and flat at first. That’s because they included IE6 specific code, so IE9 renders them with the older rendering engine by default. To change this and enable better web standards support, press F12 to open the developer tools. Here you can select the Internet Explorer 9 standards mode, which brings back most of the design changes and makes pages look more like they would in Webkit.

Enable IE 9 Standards mode on sites aimed at older versions of IE

Microsoft’s years reliance on IE 6 have cost it much of its marketshare in browsers. Even though Windows 7 is selling well, overall Internet Explorer usage has been slipping steadily over the years. IE 6 was nearly universally used in the early 2000’s. Today, Chrome, Safari, and Firefox have become increasingly popular, and the big blue icon has finally stopped being the universal symbol of the internet. IE 9 finally catches up to its competitors in many ways, but that’s still not enough to convince many of us to switch back.

The rise of the rival browsers

Turning it up to 10

Throughout IE9’s development, Microsoft created a number of online demos to show off their browser’s new features. These interactive games and animated fish tanks showed impressive GPU acceleration performance and more, and IE9 could run each of these better than the competation. While Microsoft designed these sites specifically to show off IE9’s features, they still offer an interesting view of the potential future of the web, with rich animation and high FPS games right in native HTML5 and CSS3. Best of all, you won’t have to switch to IE9 to take advantage of it; Firefox 4 already shows impressive hardware acceleration that nearly matches IE9.

This time, Microsoft isn’t resting on its laurels with IE development. They’ve already released a developer preview of IE10, which you can check out at http://ie.microsoft.com/testdrive/ along with the demos of the new supported tech. IE10 has added support for CSS3 Gradients, ECMAScript5 Strict Mode, and more, and we hope it will be fully competitive with the other browsers when its released.

Microsoft created impressive demos of hardware acceleration in IE9

Conclusion

Whether you use Internet Explorer or not, Microsoft’s increased focus on standards compatibility is a boon for everyone. Developers can now begin to stop focusing resources on supporting IE 6, and eventually, the same code should run the same in all browsers. Unfortunately, this is still not the case today. IE 9 still doesn’t support text shadows, gradients, HTML5 forms, and more, while Firefox, Safari, and Chrome still use -moz and -webkit specific CSS extensions that won’t work the same across browsers. Still, the push for standards compatibility should pay off for all users over time. After all, competition is good!

I personally use Chrome as my default browser in Windows 7 and Ubuntu, and don’t see myself switching any time soon. How about you? Have you tried out IE9, and were the changes enough to get you to switch? Or have you moved away from Windows and can’t run IE9 even if you want to? We’d love to see your thoughts on browsers in the comments.


Summary

The latest version of Internet Explorer brings hardware acceleration, HTML5 support, and webapp integration to Windows Vista and 7. It's not perfect, but holds promise of better things to come from Microsoft.

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