Today, Microsoft is unveiling the beta release of Internet Explorer 9. It wasn’t that long ago that I sat down with Microsoft’s Dean Hachamovitch, the general manager for Internet Explorer, to talk about IE 8. The eighth incarnation of the browser was a big step forward for Microsoft. But compared to Internet Explorer 9, IE 8 was just a baby step.
One of the first things you’ll notice if you fire up IE 9 is that there are very few features visible while you’re browsing. Microsoft chose to eliminate many of the buttons and commands you’ll see in earlier versions of IE. According to a TechCrunch interview with Hachamovitch, the main reason for this is that people just don’t use the buttons very often. By getting rid of the features, Microsoft has dedicated more screen real estate to the actual sites you visit.
The new browser also takes advantage of modern computer hardware. Microsoft designed it to tap into multi-core processors and graphics cards to make browsing faster and more efficient. It’s also optimized for HTML5, the markup language that probably will become the standard across the Web. Once it’s finalized, HTML5 should include the ability to post rich media interfaces to Web sites without the need for plugin applications. Microsoft isn’t the only company betting on HTML5′s success — Google is converting YouTube videos into HTML5 format at a blistering pace and Apple’s mobile products favor HTML5 over applications like Adobe Flash.
Some of IE 9′s features may look familiar to people who use other browsers. It includes a tab page that lists the sites you visit most frequently, much like Chrome and Safari. It gets rid of the search bar and adds that functionality to the address bar, again like Chrome.
You can pin sites to your Windows 7 taskbar so that you can access them directly later. It creates an icon on your taskbar, much as if it were a standalone program. IE 9 lets you access specific pages on a site by building a Jump list. For example, Twitter’s Jump list includes shortcuts to reply and direct messages. It’s like having a Twitter desktop client, except it’s built into the combination of Windows 7 and IE 9.
At the launch event, Microsoft invited several companies to discuss how they’ve optimized their Web sites for IE 9. Those sites include CNN, Twitter and Discovery (in the interest of full disclosure, the parent company of HowStuffWorks.com is Discovery Communications). The customization includes everything from site design to Jump lists to dynamic browser buttons that adopt the Web page’s color scheme. Microsoft says it’s all in an effort to focus the user’s attention on the site rather than the browser.
Will Microsoft’s new product determine the direction of the Web? If companies optimize their sites for IE 9, will other browsers be left behind? And Internet Explorer 9 only works on Windows machines running Vista with Service Pack 2 or Windows 7 — if you’re running Linux, Mac OS X or an earlier Windows operating system, you’re out of luck. I’m curious to see how IE 9 performs in the marketplace, particularly once we see machines running the Google Chrome OS hit store shelves. We might be in for a bumpy ride.
If you’d like to read up on Microsoft’s journey to IE 9, the obstacles the company faces with competition and a thorough explanation of IE 9′s features, I highly recommend this blog post by Ars Technica’s Peter Bright. Bright walks you through the history of IE and explains how Microsoft first dominated the browser market and then saw its lead diminish over the last few years.