Modern Software Experience

2010-09-16

Microsoft Web Browser 1.0

Internet Explorer 9 can render www.tamurajones.net

Internet Explorer can show standards-based web sites now.

Previews

Yesterday evening, Microsoft released the first Internet Explorer 9 Beta. This isn't first public release of Internet Explorer 9. Microsoft started Platform Preview releases for developers in March, and anyone could download these.
Internet Explorer 9 Beta isn't the first release, but it is the first beta. Nowadays that seems to mean that can start using it as your main browser. Microsoft certainly seems to think so; when I installed it, it replaced Internet Explorer 8. I won't cry over that. Internet Explorer 8 is a poor browser.

hardware acceleration

Microsoft tries to make a lot of noise about Internet Explorer 9 being better than their competition, but all such claims are highly doubtful. Microsoft has a history of tweaking comparisons and benchmarks in its favour, and then making deliberately misleading statements based on the favourable ones. Counter claims and independent benchmarks are sure to follow.

Microsoft is promoting Internet Explorer 9 in a way designed to mislead you into thinking that it is the only browser to feature hardware acceleration, or at least the only browser to feature complete hardware acceleration. Truth is, Mozilla Firefox has had hardware acceleration since the Firefox 3.7 Beta released in September of 2009. It was off by default, but it was there.

next big thing

Hardware acceleration is the next big thing for browsers. Apple Safari 5, released in July, features hardware acceleration. The current Firefox, Internet Explorer and Google Chrome betas all feature hardware acceleration. Opera 10.5 introduced a new graphics library, and hardware acceleration for that library is likely to be next.

On the Internet Explorer blog, Microsoftie Ted Johson has made the claim that Today, IE9 is the first and only browser to deliver full hardware acceleration of all HTML5 content., in reply to which Mozilla has not only stated out that Microsoft is wrong, that Firefox not only provides hardware acceleration, but does so using the same Windows APIs as Internet Explorer uses. Thus, both browser about as fast when it comes to handling complex graphics.

Internet Explorer 9 FishIE demo

Microsoft has some nice demos to show off hardware acceleration, such as the FishIE demo, but Microsoft may want to rethink its marketing strategy for Internet Explorer 9. They are far from the only offering a browser with hardware acceleration, and  Firefox does it on Windows XP as well - while Internet Explorer does not. By focussing on hardware acceleration, Microsoft is not so much highlighting a strong point, but indirectly highlighting Internet Explorer's main shortcoming: no Windows XP support.

Windows XP

Microsoft has a history of developing their latest version of Internet Explorer for their latest version of Windows; it may run on the previous version of Windows, but you may need the latest version to take advantage of every feature.
Microsoft developed Internet Explorer 9 for Windows 7. It runs fine on Windows Vista, but it has several Windows 7-specific features. Internet Explorer 9 is not available for Windows XP.

DirectX 10

Each vendor implements hardware acceleration in a somewhat different way. Microsoft has opted to base their implementation on DirectX version 10, which is only available for Windows Vista and Windows 7, so  there is no chance that Microsoft will backport this hardware acceleration to Internet Explorer 8.

Facts are that Firefox gets similar performance with DirectX 9 and that third parties have adapted DirectX to Windows XP (just google Direct 10 for Windows XP). Those two facts, general consumer dissatisfaction about this situation and demands from its largest corporate customers may yet place sufficient pressure on Microsoft to release Internet Explorer 9 for Windows XP.

what to do

If you want a hardware-accelerated browser on Windows XP, you'll have to look beyond Microsoft. More importantly, if you want a web browser on Windows XP, you'll have to look beyond Microsoft anyway. Microsoft has no plans to release a web browser for Windows XP.

Microsoft knows that there are still more Windows users on Windows XP than on all other versions of Windows combined, yet somehow they don't really care. Never mind that their competition has hardware-accelerated web browser for Windows XP. Microsoft's idea is that you should have upgraded to Windows 7. If you are still on Window XP, Microsoft considers you largely irrelevant already.

The official situation is that if you are on Windows XP and want Internet Explorer 9, you should upgrade to Windows 7 (really, do skip Vista). If you just want to have a web browser, download and install Opera, Firefox, Safari or Chrome.

web browser

By focussing on hardware acceleration, Microsoft marketing is not only highlighting Internet Explorer 9's biggest shortcoming, they are also drawing attention away from its biggest feature: Internet Explorer 8 isn't a web browser. Internet Explorer 9 is a web browser. For the first time in more than a decade, Microsoft has released a web browser!

For more than ten years, Microsoft deliberately refused to support web standards in their intranet browser. They even actively thwarted web standards by introducing deviations from the standards, and showed remarkable reluctance to fix defects.

intranet browser

The misleadingly named Internet Explorer is really an Intranet Explorer, unsuitable for browsing the web. Many developers have added IE support to their web site, but a growing number of web developers is tired of dealing with the many defects and shortcomings of the Internet Explorer. Web developers are increasingly taking the simple stance that they are web developers, not IE developers, and that you need a web browser to browse the web.

It was so bad, that Google decided to rescue web developers from their plight by introducing Chrome Frame, an Internet Explorer plug-in that adds the major feature that Internet Explorer so painfully lacks; support for web standards, by essentially putting Google Chrome inside Internet Explorer. Almost everyone but Microsoft thought it was an hilarious solution to Internet Explorer's shortcoming. Chrome Frame has its shortcomings, but its existence was a major reason for Microsoft to finally mend its ways.

Microsoft has finally started to compete with Opera, Firefox, Safari and Chrome.

Microsoft Web Browser

The four main web browsers are Opera, Firefox, Safari and Chrome. Upon general release, Internet Explorer version 9 will become the fifth main web browser. Microsoft has stopped thwarting web standards. Microsoft has started to support web standards. Microsoft has finally started to compete with Opera, Firefox, Safari and Chrome.

Microsoft Web Browser 1.0

Internet Explorer 9 is something new: a Microsoft web browser. It features backwards compatibility with previous versions, but is so fundamentally different from Internet Explorer 8 and earlier, that it should have a different name.

I propose that Microsoft change the name from Microsoft Internet Explorer to Microsoft Web Browser. The Internet Explorer name is wrong anyway; it isn't about the Internet, it is about the web. The Explorer part of the name is tainted, Internet Explorer is widely recognised as the worst browser around, and the awful Windows Explorer in Windows Vista did not win Microsoft any friends either. Most importantly, Microsoft should be proud that it has finally done the right thing, and created a web browser. Microsoft Web Browser is a new, unburdened name for a new direction.
Free bonus: a new name underscores that the old Internet Explorer is history, encourage current Internet Explorer users to upgrade to the new thing, and thus help make Internet Explorer 6 a thing of the past. Besides, Microsoft Web Browser 1.0 sounds much more exciting than Internet Explorer 9.

minimal user interface

Like the current competition, Microsoft's web browser sports a fairly minimal user interface. The new interface is a Chrome knock-off is strongly inspired by Google Chrome. Like Chrome, IE9 lacks a status bar. Most buttons are grey instead of coloured. The browser gets out of the way to let the site shine. You can drag tabs now. The address bar and search box have been unified as they are in Google's Omnibox. Microsoft calls unified address bar & search box the OneBox. The old menu seems to be gone, but if ever long for it, just press the Alt key.

Internet Explorer 9 Speed Dial

Like Chrome and Safari before it, Internet Explorer now copies Opera's Speed Dial feature; a new tab shows thumbnails of the sites you visit most often. When Apple copied it for Safari, they made it look really good. Microsoft's Speed Dial is plain ugly. I suspect this will improve before the beta period is over.

There is one user interface decision that right now seems a major blunder to me. The OneBox is not above or below, but to left of the tabs.  You can grab the space between them to resize, but the fact remains that both need quite a bit a space. If you open a lot of sites as I do, there either is no space for the OneBox or no space for all the tabs. Sure, at some point tabs overflow anyway, and the browser will then show scroll buttons, but that is less than ideal, and this way, it will show those scroll buttons sooner rather than later.

pinned shortcuts

An interesting new feature is pinned shortcuts. It is similar to Mozilla Prism and Google Chrome's application shortcuts; you can make a shortcut on your desktop that leads directly to a particular website. That shortcut will uses the site's favicon as the desktop icon (a larger version of the favicon image if the site makes it available). When you choose to open that shortcut, the site opens in a decided browser window, that does not the address, tab interface or any other button or menu needed for browsing. Internet Explorer takes that idea one step further; it lets you drag a browser tab directly onto your Windows 7 taskbar, where it remains pinned just like a Windows application. This only works in Windows 7, not in Windows Vista.

Internet Explorer shows that you opened a pinned shortcut by displaying the favicon to the left of the forward and backwards buttons, which moves these buttons a bit to the right. It also changes the colour of these buttons to the predominant colour of the favicon. I consider both changes to be user interface mistakes. Buttons should not move around and only change appearance to signal something. A good thing, that would be even better if the favicon looked like button: Internet Explorer still shows the OneBox for browsing around, but you click that icon to return to the pinned web site.

A related non-standard feature is the so-called jump list; a site-specific menu that Windows show when you right-click an pinned shortcut on the taskbar.
Together, these two features make working with websites very similar to working with applications. In other words, it is yet another way to clutter up your taskbar and show off what a busy multitasker you are.

Internet Explorer 9 Download Manager

download manager

I don't even remember how many different download managers I've tried with Internet Explorer. Well, Internet Explorer sports an integrated download manager now. You can pause and restart downloads and it includes protection against malicious applications.

standards

It's what underneath that matters. Microsoft is supporting web standards now, and seems rather proud of that. The Internet Explorer 9 home page has a section titled extensive support for standards. That is nothing to be proud of, that is how should be. Microsoft should be ashamed of what is did the last ten years.

Still, Microsoft has been catching up with the competition and is doing the right now, and wants you to know that. Microsoft wants you to that Internet Explorer version 9 is their first web browser, they are just don't like to express it that way.

Microsoft Internet Explorer supports all the current and upcoming web standards. It finally supports XHTML. It support (X)HTML5. It supports CSS, including large parts of CSS3. It supports web fonts. It supports the Document Object Model (DOM) and ECMAScript 5. It supports PNG and SVG.

Still, Microsoft clearly has difficulty letting go of its old habits. Some of the links in the modern web standards section lead to articles about non-standard Microsoft extensions such as its so-called accelerators.

need for speed

add-ons

After installing Internet Explorer 9, it prompted me to disable all add-ons. I thought that was odd. Other browser check for updates and then disable only those add-ons that are incompatible with the new version. Internet Explorer 9 prompted me to disable all add-ons. I declined, and experienced a ridiculously slow browser. After disabling most add-ons, performance was fine.

I did not bother to find out which add-ons caused the slowdown. I had grown used to some add-ons, but do not really need most of them. However, it is worth pointing out that Internet Explorer 9 helps you discover which add-ons are the slow ones; the add-on manager shows the loading time for each.

The web is getting hardware accelerated, and web content will expand to fill capabilities of the new browsers.

benchmarks

Two recent blog posts from Microsoft and Mozilla show that they finally understand what I've been saying for years; JavaScript performance isn't browser performance. For several years now, vendors are claiming their browser is faster whenever their new or updated JavaScript engine is faster than before. That is such nonsense. Faster JavaScript may be nice, but it hardly affect browser performance. It is even somewhat irrelevant, because JavaScript isn't a web standard. JavaScript performance isn't web browser performance at all.

The recent posts by Microsoft and Mozilla finally acknowledge this. Both are creating new benchmarks that exercise the entire browser in a realistic way. I've always said that the speed of your Internet connection is the most important factor in browser performance. All browsers must download web pages over the same connection. It used to be that rendering a web page did not take so long, so that in practice, any speed differences were negligible. Things are not that simple any ore. Web content is getting complex. Now that all major browser vendors are working on hardware acceleration, it is only a matter of time before some major websites will regularly post content that practically demands one of these hardware accelerated browsers.

The web is getting hardware accelerated, and web content will expand to fill capabilities of the new browsers. You'll want to upgrade to a hardware accelerated browser soon.

Other browsers release security updates immediately, Microsoft delays updates until its monthly Patch Wednesday.

automatic updates

Internet Explorer 9 may seem a poor choice for home users that want to keep safe. Other browser have automatic updates to protect you, Internet Explorer has not. Microsoft has Windows Update and uses that for Internet Explorer updates, but that is not the same. Other browsers release security updates immediately, Microsoft delays updates until its monthly Patch Wednesday.

This is only the first beta, a later beta or the official release of 9.0 might include automatic updates after all. Microsoft does tout several security improvements, which do make it a safer browser than Internet Explorer 8.0.

This so-called Internet Explorer 9 is really Microsoft Web Browser 1.0 and it looks pretty darn good.

conclusion

Internet Explorer 8 isn't a web browser. It is an intranet browser that's barely good enough to download a web browser with. Internet Explorer 9 is a web browser. It supports all major current and upcoming web standards. It is a modern web browser that includes the best user interface features of the competition.
What's more, while it some of the previews crashed way too easily, this beta release hasn't crashed on me yet.

I do not generally recommend installing a beta, but Microsoft itself seems to think that their beta is ready for prime time; although Internet Explorer 9 actually replaces Internet Explorer 8, their Internet Explorer home page is all about Internet Explorer 9 Beta with just one link to Internet Explorer 8. There are few rough spotches, such as the lack of a compatibility check for add-ons during the upgrade, but overall, this is a browser worth using. This so-called Internet Explorer 9 is really Microsoft Web Browser 1.0 and it looks pretty darn good.

updates

2010-09-21 DirectX 10 for Linux

While Microsoft has no plans to offer DirectX 10 for Windows XP, the developers of the open source Gallium library have announced initial DirectX 10 support. This could lead to the availability of an open source DirectX 10 implementation for Linux, while Windows XP, still the major Windows version, remains without official DirectX 10 support. That may be an incentive for Microsoft to provide DirectX 10 for Windows XP after all, and once they do, Internet Explorer 9 for Windows XP is likely to follow.

2011-04-23 Fish Tank becomes Fish Bowl

Microsoft broke their own Fish Tank link. They appear to have removed the Fish tank demo and replaced it with a Fish Bowl demo. The link has been updated accordingly.

2012-05-20 Prism gone

The Mozilla Prism project was discontinued in 2011. The link has been removed.

links