There is no doubt that IE9 will be a much better browser than IE8 and Microsoft is absolutely heading into the right direction, but IE9 does not deliver what I hoped it would. The performance we have seen so far is mediocre at best and the screenshots that were leaked make IE9 look like a half-baked product. Is this the best Microsoft can do or will the company surprise us on September 15 with a truly innovative browser?
Last week we finally were informed that Microsoft will be releasing its new IE9 Beta during a fancy September party in San Francisco, at which the company will pitch the IE9 story to a select group of bloggers, developers and journalists. It somewhat reminded me at the good old Microsoft times back in the mid-90s, when the company discovered just how appealing beta software is to users – Microsoft gave out 1000 free beta copies of Windows 95 through a prize drawing at the magazine I worked back then and threw a huge bash when the IE4 Beta was launched. If you were not around back then, IE4 was the browser Microsoft designed to bury Netscape and it was, conceivably, Microsoft’s big bet on proprietary web technologies as HTML 4 was introduced.
13 years later, we are looking at version 9 that is Microsoft’s first HTML 5 capable web browser. Its step up from IE8 is about as significant as the step from IE3 to IE4 and Microsoft is yet again in a scenario of a browser war. This time, however, it needs to defend its market leadership against the mighty Google, which is taking aim at Microsoft in most of its core markets. Also, today’s browser war is much more competitive than what we have seen in the mid- to late-90s – there is Mozilla, Apple and we should not forget Opera. Microsoft’s browsers have been bleeding market share for several years and have lost more than 35 points of share so far – from about 95% to about 60%. Microsoft recently gained some points back, but we should be realistic and see that this trend may be short-lived as it is due to an advertising campaign Microsoft has launched across multiple TV channels. As soon as the campaign stops, Microsoft’s share is likely to drop again.
Benchmarks: V8, Sunspider
Also, please note that the results are highly dependent on computer hardware. I ran the tests using a fairly antiquated Q6600 Intel quad-core CPU, 8 GB of memory, and an ATI HD 5570 graphics card.
Here is the result for Google’s V8 benchmark:
Let’s look at Sunspider:
Microsoft has to be careful that it does not have to eat its own words and may see a déjà vu with IE9: Back in March 2008, it expected to be able to surpass Firefox 3’s performance only to see Mozilla pull ahead with its TM engine. Clearly, Firefox is not a done deal for IE9 yet. IE9 Beta has to deliver a stunning upgrade if it wants to beat Firefox’ JM engine.
So, what about HTML 5?
If you have been reading recent benchmark stories that were pitched by Microsoft, then you know that IE9 is the best HTML 5 browser around, thanks to its added HTML 5 support and hardware accelerated rendering engine. You can actually check Microsoft’s graphics performance page and it is clear that IE9 is much better in these benchmarks than any other browser right now. Sorta … maybe ... maybe not …. ummm, no.
While Microsoft hardware (GPU) acceleration of certain content is truly stunning as multithreading web content in current browsers has not been possible so far, I have two main issues with Microsoft’s claims. First, Firefox is, on average, at least as good and occasionally better than IE9 in those benchmarks. Microsoft just did not activate the still developed hardware acceleration that has been available in Firefox since version 3.7a5. If you activate the feature, Firefox 4.0 breezes through most of Microsoft’s benchmarks just as fast as IE9 PP4.
Of course, Chrome, Safari and Opera do not support hardware acceleration yet. But I am just not sure how important this feature is right now. Seriously, how many HTML 5 web sites do you know that benefit from hardware acceleration? Sure, such websites will come, but we know that Google is working on hardware acceleration as well, Opera will have it in the not too distant future and I am sure Apple will have it as well, too, especially since Steve Jobs is so focused on killing Flash. The fact, however, is: This big IE9 advantage isn’t such a big advantage yet.
As for HTML 5 support, IE9 has still substantial gaps. PP4, for example, does not support the critical canvas element yet. According to Caniuse.com, IE9 only supports 81% of all HTML 5 requirements, while Chrome is at 88%, Firefox at 96%, Safari at 88% and Opera at 77%. In the html5test.com test run, IE9 scores 85 of 300 points. Chrome 6 Beta hits 227 points, Opera 10.61 166 points, Safari 5.0.1 214 points and Firefox 4 Beta 4-pre 199 points. IE9 may not be the best HTML 5 browser around – and the scenario is somewhat reminiscent of the introduction of IE8, when Microsoft said it would fully support web standards. Of course, we know that this was not exactly the case, as shown, for example, by the Acid 3 test: IE8 scored just 21/100 points. IE9 scores 83/100 in Acid 3, while Firefox is at 97/100 and all other major browsers at 100/100.
Better isn’t good enough for IE9.