Internet Explorer 9 Beta Drops. It’s Lean, Fast and Modern
Microsoft will release the first beta version of its new Internet Explorer web browser Wednesday morning.
Internet Explorer 9 Beta will be made available for download shortly after it is announced at a launch event in San Francisco, around 10:00am Pacific time. We’ll post a download link for Windows Vista and Windows 7 users as soon as we have one.
The final version of IE9 is still some months off — Microsoft wouldn’t commit to a definite time frame for the browser’s release when we asked. But we’ve spent a few days in IE9 Beta’s company, and so far, it has proven to be a thoroughly modern machine. The world’s most-sed browser is getting a new look, much expanded support for HTML5 and other 21st century web technologies, and a big speed boost.
Quite a change. Microsoft has a reputation for being an also-ran when it comes to browser innovation. When IE8 arrived in March 2009, we found it rich in features, but lacking in support for the emerging standards powering the shiny apps that make the web exciting. IE8 was faster and more secure than its predecessor, but when it came to speed and productivity, it wasn’t up to snuff with its peers — Chrome, Firefox, Safari and Opera. In fact, it was a bit of a snooze.
A year and a half on, Microsoft has smelled the coffee and is wide awake at the wheel. IE is fit to play in the same league as the other browsers.
Keep in mind, IE9 Beta is still pre-release code, so it may not run perfectly. But there’s enough new going on here — especially that speed boost — to make the download a must for the curious who want a taste of IE’s future.
A new look
The most striking difference between this browser release and the IEs of old is the new user interface. It’s sleek and minimal, and — what are those? — it now has the inverted top-tabs, which are quickly becoming common.
We first caught wind of this design change when a screenshot of the new IE9 leaked onto the web. It decreases the amount of real estate the browser consumes on screen and makes way for more content.“The browser is the stage and the backdrop, but the website is the star of the show,” Microsoft general manager of Internet Explorer Dean Hachamovitch tells Wired. “We think the browser should totally take a back seat to the sites.”
Freeing up those extra pixels with a minimal top bar is a path others in the industry are taking. Chrome shipped with the tabs-on-top look two years ago, Mozilla has adopted it for Firefox 4, and Safari has flirted with in the past. Opera offers a few different choices for where to put your tabs.
Other notable details: a unified search and URL bar (a la Google Chrome) where you can get search suggestions as you type. Bing is the default, but you can add Google, Wikipedia or a host of other engines. There’s also an enlarged back button, (a la Firefox) and a noticeable lack of menu items in the main bar. Something else new in IE9 is the New Tab window with thumbnails of your most commonly-visited sites, which looks much like what you’ll find in Safari, Chrome and Opera. A nice addition here is a little bar in each thumbnail that shows how much time you’ve spent on each site.
The reason these same design themes (top-tabs, unified URL bar) keep showing up in all the browsers is that they just make sense from a usability standpoint. Designers use a constantly evolving visual language to suggest interactions. It’s no different than the way advertisers, filmmakers and visual artists borrow ideas from each other to trigger certain emotions and reactions in an audience.
So we can’t cry “copycat.” Plus, IE9 does offer some unique UI enhancements you won’t find elsewhere.
One is the new notification system — instead of a pop-up in the middle of the screen or at the top (“You need to install Flash!”), you see only a slim notification about as tall as your index finger slide up from the bottom of the screen.
But the coolest new innovation is the ability to “pin” a web page to your Windows taskbar.
Instead of bookmarking a site, clicking the “favorite” star or dragging a favicon to the bookmarks bar — all of which you can still do, of course — you can drag the favicon to the Windows taskbar at the bottom of the screen. Once it’s there, the browser’s buttons will change color to match the color of the favicon, making the browser feel more like a site-specific tool than just an all-purpose piece of software.
“We’re saying ‘Look at the site!’ instead of ‘Look at the app,’” Hachamovitch says.
Something else happens in the taskbar that enhances this effect.
It works sort of like a Fluid app or a Prism app. Click on the favicon in the taskbar and the site launches in a new, single-tabbed window. Right-click on it and you get a jump list — a list of actions specific to that website like “Top Stories” or “Latest Photos”.
Hachamovitch says Microsoft is responding to users’ desire to go directly to a website from the desktop. He cites internal Microsoft data that shows only about ten percent of IE users actually launch sites from the bookmark bar. The rest type URLs or click a link somewhere on the deskop.
“We’ve spent fifteen years developing a browser UI, and nobody’s using it,” he says. “What actually gets used is the landscape around the browser.”
These action inside the jump lists can be defined by site developers, who can add whatever they want by adding some markup to their pages (We weren’t supplied with examples of this markup in time for Wednesday’s launch, but we’ll provide details as soon as we can). There are also default actions to close the window and to start an In-Private browsing session, so if there’s no special markup added to the page, at least those will appear.
As we noted in the most recent preview releases, IE9 earns big points for performance improvements. It’s the same story with Wednesday’s beta.
We first saw these hardware acceleration enhancements in the third preview release of IE9, and we’ve seen other browsers incorporating similar features recently, as well. Firefox 4, now in the beta stage but due in a month or two, has similar hardware acceleration features that tap into the same Windows 7 APIs that IE uses (Firefox’s extra hardware sauce is only available on Windows builds for now). Also, Google Chrome has begun including hardware acceleration for compositing in both Chrome 6 and Chrome 7 builds for Windows.
Since this is still a beta, we’re likely to see very close to the same level of performance when the browser ships. Between now and then, you may encounter some quirks and bugs.
Developer’s tools are built in (just hit F12) if you want to dig into the DOM or measure performance.
Internet Explorer 9′s support for both established and emerging web standards is sure to be sharply scrutinized. It’s an area where previous versions of IE have lagged considerably. For years, Microsoft was loathe to adopt support for unratified standards, considering them a moving target and thus a waste of time. As such, IE8 contained only partial support for HTML5 and newer CSS 3 components.
With IE9 Beta, we see a reversal of that stance. IE9 supports much of HTML5, and there’s a new parser to handle the new markup language. There’s support for native playback of audio and video files, and the Canvas element, with support for animated 2D polygons and text. HTML5 selection is supported, but not drag-and-drop or Microdata.
The Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) standard is supported, and like other animation and media features in the browser, it can take advantage of hardware acceleration.
There’s finally real support for CSS 3 in this release — media queries, borders and backgrounds, selectors, the fonts module and the Web Open Font Format (WOFF) rich type standard, among other things.
Web standards support in IE9 isn’t perfect (who can claim that?), but it’s certainly admirable. Most importantly, IE9 is likely to be a boon for the web when the final version ships sometime in the coming months.
Once all the Windows 7 and Vista users out there update to the final version of IE9 — either manually or automatically — the web will begin its shift to a new era where the large majority of browsers can handle more complex graphics, behaviors and markup. Which is not to say the web won’t still be fractured and forked in various ways (vendor-specific capabilities will probably always be around), but the browser’s arrival will signal a much-needed step forward.
Internet Explorer 9 will arrive either later this year or early 2011 — Microsoft isn’t saying. And that brings up a danger point.
The number two and three browser vendors have all sped up their development cycles. Chrome is releasing new code every six to eight weeks, and Mozilla is committed to pushing out new Firefox releases every six months. Microsoft has made no mention of its intent to speed up its own browser release schedule, so it’s likely Internet Explorer 10 is a year or two off. Meanwhile, the competition will continue to deliver improvements at a pace that far outstrips Microsoft.