Microsoft Still Chasing the Competition With IE9

Serious work has begun on Internet Explorer 9, the next revision of Microsoft’s flagship web browser.

That sounds like good news, right? After all, IE8 has its moments, but it isn’t exactly a cutting-edge browser. Certainly, any improvement would seem welcome.

Yet, judging by the reaction from the web-development community on Microsoft’s IEBlog, you’d think Microsoft just announced the release of a major virus.

To understand why web developers — and even ordinary users — aren’t particularly thrilled with this early preview of IE9, we need to start by taking a look at IE8′s shortcomings:

  • Speed — This is all that matters for the average user, and all of IE8′s competitors are faster, something even Microsoft doesn’t deny.
  • Emerging standards — Firefox, Safari, Chrome and Opera have all begun implementing support for HTML5 and CSS 3, while IE8 has not. As more and more web apps take advantage of HTML5 tools, IE is in danger of becoming a second-class citizen on the web.
  • Web apps — In addition to lagging in overall page-rendering speed, IE8 is well behind the competition when it comes to JavaScript performance. Though Microsoft has been quick to challenge the relevance of JavaScript benchmarks, regular users of Gmail, Facebook and other JavaScript-heavy web apps do not.

Now let’s take a look at what improvements Microsoft is planning to make in IE9.

Speed

The first item of business on the IEBlog post is IE9′s speed improvements. There are two basic elements, page-rendering times (including JavaScript improvements) and a proposed hardware-acceleration layer that hands off complex rendering tasks to the graphics card.

After a rather lengthy treatise on why JavaScript benchmarks aren’t really an accurate measure of page-load speed, Microsoft goes on to tout IE9′s improved JavaScript performance. Microsoft offers a graph of IE9 running the SunSpider JavaScript test, a common way of measuring JavaScript performance.

The results are split over two graphs, one with IE8 versus the browsers its competitors are currently shipping, and the other charting IE9 against other experimental builds.

However, what’s really interesting is combining the two graphs. Doing so shows IE9′s JavaScript speed is roughly on par with Firefox 3.5, but still much slower than Safari 4 and Chrome 3.

Microsoft’s chart showing JavaScript rendering speeds in various browsers. Shorter bars are better.

Why advertise the fact the latest and greatest builds of Internet Explorer still can’t beat the actual shipping versions of the competition? Frankly, we’re not sure. But we assume Microsoft plans to continue improving IE9 before it finally ships. Unfortunately for IE9, we assume Mozilla, Apple and Google plan to do the same with their experimental builds.

And that cuts to heart of why developers and anyone with an interest in the using the web of the future today has long since lost faith in Internet Explorer: The competition continues to deliver improvements at a pace that far outstrips Internet Explorer.

Standards and HTML5

While speed is probably the most obvious and important feature of a web browser, the faster development time of IE’s competitors also means they are able to add new, experimental features long before IE.

That’s why Firefox, Safari, Opera and Chrome already have support for large portions of HTML5 and CSS 3, while IE 8 has next to none.

IE8 saw Microsoft catching up and finally getting the basics of HTML 4.x and CSS 2.1 right (we’ll overlook IE8′s lack of support for CSS pseudo element syntax), but unfortunately for IE8, the web is already moving on to HTML5 and CSS 3.

The good news is that IE9 will finally support most of CSS 3. There’s a screenshot on the IEBlog that appears to show IE9 rendering 41 out of 43 selectors in the CSS 3 selector test.

That’s great news for web developers, because it means less work building standards-based websites — provided IE9 delivers on this front.

However, when it comes to HTML5 support, IE9 appears decidedly less progressive. Microsoft appears to be sticking to its rather hard line on HTML5 — it’s not an official recommendation, so we’re not going to build support for it until it is.

While Microsoft is technically right about HTML5 (it is expected to become a recommendation in about a year), the truth is the web moves at the speed of the people actually building and using it, not the speed of recommendations from the W3C. At this rate, the lack of HTML5 support is looking more and more like Internet Explorer’s death knell.

The IEBlog does mention the HTML5 storage API, which was included in IE8, but ignores other elements already enjoying support in IE’s competition. For example, there’s no mention of HTML5′s audio, video or canvas tags, nor is there any discussion of the Geolocation API, Web Workers or SVG tools.

The thing to remember is that HTML5 support isn’t just a question of making web developers happy. If Microsoft wants IE to continue to be relevant to the future of the web, it’s going to have to step up its HTML5 support. The lack of support for the emerging standard gives Google a great way to attack IE — simply build sites that don’t work in IE and offer a link to download Chrome Frame.

That’s exactly what happens if you try logging into Google Wave with IE8. Clearly, Google and others are planning to use HTML5 with or without IE at the party. The short story, from what Microsoft has revealed thus far, is that IE9′s standards support will be catching up to where Firefox, Safari and Opera were two or three years ago.

Other Features

The IEBlog also touts the fact that IE9 will use Windows’ DirectX APIs to move graphics and text rendering from the CPU to the graphics card using Direct2D and DirectWrite. That means that IE 9 should be faster at rendering pages, particularly on PCs that have more-powerful graphics cards.

Of course, once again, the competition is already moving in the same direction. In most cases, the other browsers are using WebGL, which handles not just 2-D rendering, but also 3-D as well.

The IEBlog also touts IE9′s improved text-handling with sub-pixel positioning and much better anti-aliasing. Again, nice to see IE9 catching up with the competition.

Conclusion

Microsoft needs to hit a home run with IE9, or the IE franchise is going to go the way of Geocities. Unfortunately, based on what Microsoft has shown so far, IE9 looks to be a base hit at best. Certainly IE 9 will be good news on several fronts, notably the speed improvements and the increased CSS 3 support. But once again IE is catching up, not leading the way as it once did.

The typical rebuttal to IE’s shortcomings is that it doesn’t matter — IE still maintains a dominant market share, and will continue to do so, because it ships alongside Windows on new computers. It’s true that IE controls a majority share of the web. Microsoft got that majority because it bested the competition. Keep in mind that IE’s majority share used to be much, much larger, and it continues to slip with every passing month.

While we’re sure there are plenty of people who would love to dance on IE’s grave, the truth is that competition is a good thing. We want to see Microsoft make a better browser. Sadly, thus far, IE9 doesn’t look very competitive.

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