Microsoft has announced it will push Internet Explorer 9 out to Windows users everywhere starting at the end of June 2011. Thus far IE 9 is only available in Windows Update to those that used the IE 9 beta or RC releases.
We’ve proclaimed many times that the release of Internet Explorer 9 is great news for web developers, not because web developers use IE 9, but because other people will.
While IE 9′s HTML5 support still lags behind its competitors, it’s much better than IE 8. IE 9′s improved standards support and speedier rendering engine mean developers can start using HTML5, CSS 3 and APIs like Geolocation with more confidence.
Of course that’s only true if IE users upgrade. Several million already have, but the real upgrade process will begin when Microsoft pushes out automatic updates to move all IE 8 users to IE 9.
In a blog post attempting to explain why Firefox 4 trounced IE 9 in the number of initial downloads (the demand for Firefox 4 was roughly twice that of IE 9), Ryan Gavin, Senior Director of Internet Explorer, writes, “Internet Explorer 9 will not be broadly rolled out on Windows Update until the end of June.” That, more than any other IE 9 date, is what web developers have been waiting for.
Keep in mind that IE 9 does nothing for the rather large contingent of Windows users still relying on Windows XP, but at least Vista and Windows 7 users will soon have a much improved web browser.
Now that Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 9 is out in the wild, Google has released its WebM video plugin which will allow IE 9 to play WebM video. The new IE 9 supports the HTML5 video tag out of the box, but it can only play back H.264 video, not the Google-backed WebM video codec.
For all the promise of HTML5 video, there is, as of now, no single video codec that works in every web browser. That’s a pain for publishers who need to encode every video in two codecs and a pain for users, who need to install extensions, like Google’s new WebM for IE 9 or Microsoft’s H.264 plugins for Firefox and Chrome (Windows only).
Until recently Google’s Chrome web browser was the only browser that supported both formats (and the OGG format), but then Google announced it would drop support for H.264 in Chrome in order to drive adoption of WebM video. Converting YouTube videos to use WebM would be a huge boon for WebM, but so far Google has not done that.
It would also greatly help the WebM cause if Adobe Flash could play WebM video. Since there is no “it just works” codec for HTML5 video, most websites still fall back to Flash video. Because Flash can play H.264 video it makes more sense for publishers to encode video in H.264 and serve it natively to Safari and IE 9 users, while falling back to a Flash container for browsers that don’t natively support H.264.
If the WebM project is going to make it through these transitional times, it needs to get Adobe to support WebM in Flash, which would remove one of H.264′s primary advantages — that it works in Flash as well. In the mean time, at least there is the IE 9 plugin, which means Apple’s Safari is now the only browser on the web that can’t play WebM video.
Microsoft has released Internet Explorer 9, the first major update for Microsoft’s browser in nearly two years. Internet Explorer 9 is a huge leap forward for the IE line, bringing much-needed web standards support, better performance and hardware acceleration for faster graphics and animations on supported PCs.
To upgrade Internet Explorer, download IE9 from Microsoft. Only Windows 7 and Vista are supported, as IE9 will not work with Windows XP — not surprising, but a bummer for those on XP notebooks, where IE9′s speed improvements would be great news.
Perhaps the most noticeable difference for longtime Internet Explorer users will be IE9′s totally revamped, minimalist user interface. The numerous menus, icons and tools at the top of the browser in IE8 have been cleaned up and replaced with a single combined URL-and-search bar and new main menu icon that leads to all the old menu options. The interface is clearly taking its influence from, and even looks nearly identical to, Google’s Chrome web browser.
As you would expect, IE9 is tightly integrated with Microsoft’s Windows 7 operating system and offers new features like the ability to pin websites to the task bar. To use the pinned sites feature just grab a site’s icon from the IE9 address bar and drag it to your task bar. In fact, the pinned sites feature isn’t limited to the task bar, so if you’re still using Vista, fear not, you can pin sites to your start menu.
Webmonkey pinned in IE9
The pinned sites feature offers websites a chance to integrate additional features into the task bar. For example, developers can add a meta tag and some other information to customize jump lists, add links to common pages on a site or send updates and notifications directly to the task bar.
To help ease users’ growing privacy concerns on today’s web, the new IE9 adds some privacy controls similar to those Mozilla and Google have been adding to their browsers. In IE9 you’ll find a new preferences option to enable Tracking Protection Lists, which can block cookies, beacons, pixels and other tricks that advertisers use to track your movements around the web.
Perhaps the best news in Internet Explorer 9 is the new web standards support. Despite some outlandish claims from Microsoft, IE9 is not perfect and it still lags behind its peers when it comes to supporting the latest and greatest features on the web, but it’s certainly a huge improvement over IE8.
Microsoft has opted for a conservative approach to new web technologies in IE9. While the nearly complete Firefox 4 and the recently released Chrome 10 support more of the HTML5, CSS 3 and web API stack, IE9 is a huge step forward for Microsoft. IE9 offers support for the most widely used elements of HTML5 — like the new audio, video, canvas and semantic tags. Still, Microsoft has decided to pass on many of the new APIs. Cutting edge web tools like the offline web applications API, the File API, Web Workers API and the Web Notifications API won’t work in IE9. That’s bad news for web developers, but it’s also bad news for IE users since the web shows no signs of slowing down to accommodate IE.
In Microsoft’s defense, many of these APIs are still in the last call stage and won’t be finalized until 2014. But, in opting to take the more conservative approach to emerging web standards, Microsoft is risking IE9 being out of date even as it launches. Hopefully Microsoft will include support for the emerging APIs in future updates.
To get an idea of how IE9 stacks up against the competition, I ran IE9 through the HTML5Test suite. The HTML5Test suite ranks browsers based not only on W3C-approved components of HTML5, but also some experimental stuff, and some components that aren’t in the spec at all but are widely considered important tools for building more powerful HTML5 web applications, like geolocation. IE9 scores 130 out of a possible 400, which is a huge improvement over IE8′s meager 32. For comparison, Google Chrome 10 scores 283 and Firefox 4 RC1 gets 255.
Despite some shortcomings in the web standards department, IE9 is a competent browser and well worth the upgrade from IE8. If you’re interested in taking advantage of the latest tricks on the web, clearly IE9 is not the browser for you. Still, for those that have no choice in their browser — for example, on a work machine, in a corporate environment — IE9 is obviously good news. For the web at large IE9 represents a step, if not a giant leap, forward.
Microsoft has released the first release candidate for its coming Internet Explorer 9 web browser. IE9 is a major overhaul, bringing much needed speed improvements, better support for web standards, privacy controls and tighter integration with Windows 7.
Overall IE9 RC1 is a huge leap forward for Microsoft, embracing web standards and speeding up the browser. When IE9 is released web developers will finally be able to stop using CSS hacks and start using HTML5 with more confidence. Of course IE8 and IE7 will still be with us for some time to come, but things are looking up.
The additional geolocation support rounds out Internet Explorer’s new HTML5 features. While IE9′s competitors have implemented some of the more experimental APIs (like Web Workers and offline cacheing), IE9 does close the feature gap considerably and is leaps and bounds beyond where IE8 left off.
When it comes to CSS 3 the new IE offers nearly full support, though it still doesn’t understand text-shadow (which is actually been around since CSS 2.1) or the new CSS 3 multi-column text layout tools. On the bright side, IE9 does render border-radius, 2D transforms and new CSS 3 selectors like :first-of-type. For a full rundown of IE9′s HTML5 and CSS 3 features, see our earlier coverage. Also, be sure to head over to the IE9 Test Drive website for some demos that show off IE9′s new standards support.
IE9's CSS 3 support handles border-radius rules
The new IE9 release candidate adds some privacy controls similar to those Mozilla and Google have been adding to their browsers. IE9 will support the Do Not Track HTTP header [Update: Microsoft says that IE9 does not support an HTTP header at the moment, but does offer Tracking Protection Lists which can block cookies, beacons, pixels and more]. IE9 also supports cookie-based blacklists to stop advertisers from tracking your movements around the web.
If you’ve been using the beta releases of IE9, you’ll notice several changes to the look of IE9, including the ability to put tabs back in their own row, rather than next to the address bar, which is the default setting. To give your tabs a bit more breathing room, just right click on the tab bar and select the “Show tabs on a separate row” option.
Top: the default tab arrangement; Bottom: tabs in their own row
This release also adds a new security feature which allows you to turn off ActiveX for all sites and then re-enable it on a site by site basis. ActiveX, a Windows-only “enhancement” that allows webpages to install code on your PC, has long been an excellent way to load up your Windows machine with viruses and other malware. The new controls mean you can turn off ActiveX entirely and avoid malicious code being installed.
Microsoft is also touting IE9′s hardware acceleration improvements in this release. According the IEblog, the release candidate is 35 percent faster than the previous IE9 beta. Indeed, in our informal testing IE held its own with Firefox 4 and Chrome 11. Pitted against stable releases like Firefox 3.6 or Chrome 9, IE9 fares even better.
Microsoft has not yet set an official release date for IE9, though the company’s web-centric MIX conference, which starts April 12, has historically been host to major IE announcements.
Microsoft has announced a plug-in for Google’s Chrome web browser that allows Chrome on Windows to play H.264 web video through the HTML5 <video> tag. The new plug-in comes on the heels of Google’s decision to remove H.264 support from Chrome and focus on the company’s competing WebM video codec.
The video move is the latest sign of a collision between the two tech giants, who now compete directly in search, courtesy of Microsoft’s Bing initiative and mobile, where Google’s Android is taking market share and the new Windows Phone 7 is struggling for a foothold. Google has also launched various cloud-based applications that take aim at Office. This week, the two threw punches over search, with Google claiming Microsoft copies its results, and Microsoft complaining the Google perpetrated a sting worthy of a spy novel.
Now the two are sparring over web video. Google has thrown its weight behind the WebM codec, which the company owns, while Microsoft supports H.264. However, Microsoft says that, provided Google makes some changes, it may be willing to support the WebM codec as well.
While HTML5′s video tag promises a native way to watch video in your browser, video codec support among browsers is divided. Firefox, Opera and Chrome support the WebM codec while Apple’s Safari and Microsoft’s IE9 support H.264. As it stands there is no “it just works” solution, which means most websites still use Flash video players.
Microsoft’s H.264 plug-ins for Firefox and Chrome are part of the company’s attempt to be pragmatic — since Windows includes native support for H.264, users should be able to watch H.264 video even if the browser doesn’t support it. On the other side of the coin, Internet Explorer 9 will be able to play WebM video through a similar third-party plug-in.
However, while Microsoft isn’t including native support for WebM in the next version of IE, it doesn’t appear to totally rule out the idea. As part of the plugin announcement, Dean Hachamovitch, corporate vice president for Internet Explorer, outlines some of Microsoft’s problems with the WebM codec. The main problem is that Microsoft is concerned about WebM’s potential patent risks.
Google insists that it owns all of the patents covering WebM and the VP8 video codec. But the company offers no indemnification for costs incurred should a patent lawsuit arise. That means that anyone distributing WebM/VP8 could be on the hook for any patent-related fees that might come up.
Some have dismissed Microsoft’s patent worries as an example of Microsoft spreading “fear, uncertainty and doubt” about WebM, but Microsoft does have history on its side in this case. As Hachamovitch points out, such patent lawsuits often don’t arise until a technology is in widespread use. So just because no one is suing over WebM now, doesn’t mean they won’t in the future. Hachamovitch cites the JPEG photo compression format, pointing out that JPEG was around for ten years before the first patent lawsuits appeared. Eventually the patents in question were ruled invalid, but not before millions of dollars were spent defending and licensing JPEG.
Of course the same patent threats potentially hang over H.264, but the MPEG-LA consortium — the governing body that oversees the patents surrounding H.264 — provides a kind of legal buffer between H.264 licensees and any lawsuit.
Surprisingly, Hachamovitch says that, if Google is willing to indemnify WebM users against patent lawsuits, “Microsoft is willing to commit that we will never assert any patents on VP8.” Of course that doesn’t mean other companies won’t, but it would be a huge step forward for WebM if Microsoft jumped on the bandwagon. Google did not respond to a request to comment in time for this story.
For now at least Microsoft has chosen a pragmatic approach — plugins. There will be a WebM plugin for Internet Explorer and H.264 plugins for Firefox and Chrome. In the end, Windows users will be able to watch just about any video on the web regardless of which browser they’re using. It might not be an ideal solution, but it is one that, from the user’s point of view, just works.