We analyze Microsoft's upcoming IE9... will it be your next browser?
ZDNet’s Mary-Jo Foley was lucky enough to see a Russian Microsoft IE9 page when it was apparently up for testing purposes. She grabbed a screenshot, revealing for the first time the new face of IE9, just before Microsoft took down the site again and replaced it with the preview information. Google’s cache was quick as well and eliminated traces of the spicy page, but Yahoo was nice enough to keep the page online and let us know what IE9 will bring.
Microsoft says there are five major new features:
- HTML 5 support
- Reduced Interface
- More Performance
- App Tabs for the Taskbar
- Aero Snap
HTML 5 support is a no brainer as IE8 isn’t really a HTML 5 browser according to WhenCanIuse.com or HTML5test.com. IE8 supports only 27% of HTML5 features, while IE9 is believed to reach 81%, according to WhenCanIUse.com. In comparison, Firefox 4 is expected to be at 96%, Chrome 7 at 96% and Opera 10.7 at 77%. In HTML5test.com, IE9 currently scores 82 of 300 points, while Chrome 7 is at 235 and Firefox 4 Beta 5-pre at 213 (we were not able to convince the current Firefox nightly build to run this test.) Conceivably, IE9 is doing much better than IE8, but we will have to wait if it is enough and if it will turn out as the same disaster when Microsoft said it would make IE8 standards compliant and it fell behind in the Acid 3 test. Right now, IE9’s HTML 5 features are not enough to match its rivals. Nevertheless, Microsoft says that IE9 has added “many features” for HTML5, CSS3, DOM L2 and L3, SVG, and ECMAScript5 – and the company is participating in standardization groups with the W3C.
The IE8 interface is history and given recent developments, it is about time. If you will, you can call the new UI “chromified”. It seems as if Google has set the standard for every other browser maker and everyone now seems to believe that a reduced interface translates into more performance – perceived performance, that is. There is some truth to that and we are now left with browsers that try to put their unique touch to a navigation bar with very few options. In IE9, the menu bar was deleted. There is now a back button, a forward button, the URL bar, the search bar, a home button, a bookmark button and a mystery button, which I believe to be a stop/reload button. The content of the navigation bar now reflects the features of Chrome 7 - Microsoft is just interpreting it a bit differently. There are some smaller, more subtle changes as well: For example, Microsoft has removed the 2-pixel frame inside the content window that has infuriated so many web designers who worked with absolute positioning of content across the different browser platforms.
While Microsoft has slammed Google in the past few months for not supporting hardware acceleration, it is important to note that the current Chrome 7 Canary build supports hardware acceleration as long as you turn it on (launch the browser with optional switches from the command line. Example: C:\Users\Wolfgang\AppData\Local\Google\Chrome SxS\Application\chrome.exe -enable-accelerated-compositing -enable-gpu-rendering -enable-video-layering -enable-webgl -enable-accelerated-2d-canvas -enable-fastback). At this time I am still unsure what makes Chrome’s hardware acceleration tick and what: On some computers it works flawlessly, on others it refuses to show its potential or simply crashes. I have yet to hear back from Google, but the most likely explanation is that the acceleration feature prefers Nvidia graphics chips and does not like ATI. You can test the acceleration yourself with Microsoft’s IE9 platform speed tests.
App Tabs are a slight evolution of the tab idea. Microsoft will reanimate the website-as-app concept, allow users to pick a “pin” from the URL bar of any given site, and drag it to the task bar. If you remember, Google tried the same with Chrome when it came out first, but this feature never caught on. Microsoft seems to be using this idea to put its own spin on App Tabs (Mozilla and Google let you convert regular tabs into App Tabs via the context menu) and up it by offering it a live preview of the tabbed browser window in the task bar. You have to admit that this is an appealing concept, but then we have to also see that you can do that with Chrome already by using a dedicated switch (-enable-aero-peek-tabs) when you are launching the browser (yes, it’s a bit inconvenient, but at least you can do it. You can find all switches, by the way, here.)
Aero Snap is a unique feature that could become an identifier for IE9 or simply one of those feature you will never remember. It’s also a spin on tab functionality, which enables the user to drag two tabs to opposite sides of the browser windows show two pages next to each other in the same window. This is a nifty feature, especially if you have a big screen and a lot of screen real estate is wasted with fixed-width web sites.
From today’s view and user needs, and what we see coming up from Mozilla and Google, IE9 is unlikely to be ahead of the competition, but it will be a substantial and worthwhile upgrade from IE8 and its selling point may come from somewhere else: Its seamless integration in Windows 7 could be its biggest advantage.