IE9 goes 'all-in' on standards, treats sites like apps in Windows UI

Microsoft unveiled its vision of the future of the Web browser on Wednesday. See how sites are now being treated more like apps, and other changes in IE9.

Microsoft unveiled its vision of the future of the Web browser on Wednesday at an event called the "Beauty of the Web" in San Francisco. The beta version of Internet Explorer 9 that Microsoft showed off is integrated far deeply into Windows, both in terms of the user interface and using PC hardware to accelerate the Web experience.

Dean Hachamovitch, Corporate Vice President of Internet Explorer, said, "People go the Web for sites, not the browser, much as they go to their PC for apps, not Windows. Today, Web sites are boxed in. The box is the browser... Our approach here is to use the whole PC."

Microsoft used some of the data that it has gathered from 15 years of building browsers to spearhead the new UI integration that it is introducing in IE9. Here are three of the data points that Hachamovitch cited:

  • 87% of users have launched a pinned an app from the taskbar; only 1% have ever used a keyboard shortcut for opening up a new tab
  • 33% have pinned one or more apps to taskbar; only 4% have ever added anything to their browser favorites bar
  • 40% [of Windows 7 users I presume] have used Aero Snap to arrange the windows on their desktop; just over 9% have ever had 8 or more tabs open in a browser

As a result, IE9 allows Web sites to be treated much more like applications. They can be pinned to the taskbar, they can have deeper links (jump lists) exposed via their taskbar icon, various tabs from the same site are grouped together in the site's taskbar icon, and tabs can be dragged and separated on the screen using Aero Snap.

"All the user interface, all the pixels, all the code that people need for a significantly better browser experience are already there for the user," said Hachamovitch. "They just happen to be outside of the browser box. You just need to look there and see the whole PC and use it for the browser... IE9 and its experience starts with what more people use more regularly than the browser interface. It starts with what people use every day to launch tasks and manage their windows. we redesigned the browser, putting sites at the center and making what's already familiar to users, from outside the browser, available to sites."

Other improvements and new features that Microsoft is bringing to IE9 include:

  • Using a computer's GPU to speed up HTML5 rendering
  • Committment to open standards, including HTML5, CSS3, and SVG; the W3C recently confirmed Microsoft's involvement with the standards body
  • New Javascript rendering engine called Chakra
  • New notification bar that explains alerts in plain English
  • Unified address bar and search box
  • For downloadable executables, there's a SmartScreen filtering system based on "Application Reputation" that helps catch known malware
  • Better tools for managing add-ons, which Microsoft claims cause 75% of all crashes in IE

And, of course, there's the performance issue, which is paramount. The perception of a faster browser led many users to switch from Netscape to IE, from IE to Firefox, and more recently from Firefox to Chrome.

ZDNet's Ed Bott reported that IE9 offers "dramatically improved performance, thanks to hardware acceleration and an improved JavaScript engine, along with a relentless emphasis on compatibility with modern web standards."

However, Bott added, "I predict that Google Chrome will continue to win many performance tests. But IE9 has closed the gap impressively. It's faster than Firefox across the board and faster than Chrome on tasks where hardware acceleration is involved. Even when those rivals catch up or pass IE9 (as they probably will), it's unlikely that performance differences will be significant."

Sanity check

I've recently criticized Microsoft for not communicating its vision of the future of computing. With the IE9 beta launch, the company provided a small taste of the kind of forward-looking product initiatives that the industry needs to hear from Microsoft. I tip my hat to them for that and I'd like to see a lot more of it.

As for IE9 itself, Microsoft has done some real innovation here. The OS integration with Windows 7 will legitimately make Web sites feel more like apps, with tabs acting like windows and sites being able to control their behavior on the Windows taskbar with Jump Lists and Alerts. This development is significant enough that I expect Apple to respond with something similar in Mac OS X. The real test from a standards point-of-view will be whether the behavior is similar enough that developers don't have to do significant tweaking to make it work across the platforms. That's probably wishful thinking.

The big question will be whether IE9 can stop the slow bleed of users away from IE and toward Firefox, Chrome, and Safari. IE still has the installed base advantage of being the default browser for Windows, but it has long suffered a reputation of being the least secure browser and the one that doesn't work with many some sites because of its departure from Web standards. Microsoft appears to have fixed those issues technically in IE9, but it will likely take longer to repair the perception.

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