IE9: Microsoft is back in the browser game

After three weeks, CNET News' Stephen Shankland concludes IE is competitive if not perfect. Microsoft has truly returned to the browser market.

IE9 logo

After a three-week IE9 immersion, I've concluded that Microsoft once again has a competitive Web browser.

And even though Internet Explorer remains the most-used browser on the Net today, convincing me that Internet Explorer 9 is a real browser was quite an accomplishment. Here's why.

IE6, now a decade old, is loathed by Web developers the world over for its lack of standards support, and it's the focus of a Microsoft effort that's trying to get the companies and people using the browser to modernize. After a five-year hiatus, IE7 emerged with some handy features, such as tabbed browsing and a search box, but it was mostly about trying to catch up with rivals such as Firefox and Opera that hadn't idled away the years.

IE8 took the major step of trying to conform to Web standards, using a "compatibility view" mode only as a fallback to show sites that had been crafted for earlier versions of IE. But it still lagged other browsers in the breadth of standards it supported, and it crawls when executing the ever-more-important Web-based JavaScript programs.

Even though IE is built into Windows, the most widely used personal computer operating system on the planet, its share of usage steadily diminished as people realized there was a better answer. Microsoft had competed fiercely with Netscape in the 1990s and won, but then it sat back and left the innovation to others.

Thus, the world of Web developers and technical enthusiasts can be forgiven for being skeptical about IE9.

But as I see it, Microsoft has fully awoken here. No doubt the influence of Apple's Safari and Google's Chrome helped ring the alarm bells and shake loose funding for programmers and marketing, but Microsoft's grasp of the importance of the Web is much more than a knee-jerk reflex to catch up to rivals.

My life with IE9
The browser itself worked well for me, for the most part. My top pick is still Chrome, with Firefox 4 a close second, but IE9 got the job done.

After an initial week of kicking the tires, I took the plunge and set it as default browser. I spend most of my working day, and a lot of my off hours, in a browser, so that's actually a big step. Slow browsers drive me nuts.

I compiled a list of 38 complaints as I was testing IE9. That may sound like a lot, but many are petty ones such as occasionally blank full-screen YouTube videos or wonky page rendering on Picplz and Apple's online store. The proof that IE9 had passed the test was that after I had set it as default browser, I rarely cringed as I contemplated the prospect of clicking a link, the way I had with IE8.

My biggest problem using IE9 was that it chained me to a deskbound quad-core Dell Windows PC (it's a laptop, but five cables tether it down). I missed the lumbar-preserving stand-up arrangement I use for my other main machine, a MacBook Pro. In other words, it was an issue that had nothing to do with the browser itself.

Neither IE9's list of tabs across the top of the browser window nor the list that appears when hovering over the taskbar icon are very useful for navigating large numbers of tabs. In fairness, it's a problem all browsers have.
Neither IE9's list of tabs across the top of the browser window nor the list that appears when hovering over the taskbar icon are very useful for navigating large numbers of tabs. In fairness, it's a problem all browsers have. screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

I did have some complaints I think are worth mentioning. Chief among them:

• Tab management--I often have dozens open--was no better than with most browsers today, and often worse. The integration with the taskbar probably helps people who use mice to navigate a smaller number of tabs, but I use keyboard shortcuts (ctrl-tab), and a long list of text wasn't much better than a long list of tabs. I'm glad Microsoft added the option to add a new row of tabs below the combined search/address bar, but I wish there was a way to activate that option only when tabs in the ordinary configuration get too narrow. IE groups tabs by color, but I find this organizational scheme marginally useful sometimes and a hidrance at other times, so I shut it off. When I hold down ctrl-tab to zing past a large number of tabs, many intermediate tabs don't get highlighted in the tab strip, requiring me to guess how far I've gone and when to stop. Finally, IE9 often didn't pick up a site's favicon correctly, and I find those tiny graphics very useful for quickly locating the tab I want.

• Google Docs is hobbled. I spend a lot of time with Google's online word procesor and spreadsheet, and both suffered performance lags, despite the speed boost of IE9's Chakra engine for running JavaScript. The word processor was fine until documents got moderately long--one or two thousand words--then it started dragging. The spreadsheet seemed to have trouble even earlier. Perhaps Google bears some of the responsibility here, but Firefox, Safari, and Chrome don't suffer from this same drawback. I also had a temporary showstopper: when my display was zoomed to 125 percent and the Google Docs page was shrunk, the cursor would be misplaced. Changing the zoom settings back to 100 percent all around fixed it.

• IE9 just didn't have quite as light a feel as Chrome or Firefox. When there's that little bit of lag when you repeat the same action over and over--Ctrl-T to spawn a new tab or Ctrl-L to start typing a search term or Web address--it just wears you down. For all the vaunted hardware acceleration in IE9, its user interface response was just a bit poky.

• Is it the browser or the OS? Antitrust settlement notwithstanding, IE9 still feels enmeshed with Windows. This time the installation didn't require a reboot, an improvement over IE8 and over Safari upgrades on Mac OS X, but the trade-off is that for installation, you must first quit any application that gets within a mile of HTML rendering. For me that was Photoshop, Avast antivirus, Firefox, Chrome, Google Talk Plugin, HP Digital Imaging Monitor, Java SE binary, Java Update Scheduler, Skype, Synaptics Touchpad Enhancements, Tweetdeck, Windows Desktop Gadgets, Windows Explorer, Windows Host Process (Rundll32), Windows Live Mesh, Yahoo Messenger. To its credit, the installer restarted my antivirus software afterward. I also still dislike seeing "Internet options" and "Windows Update" in IE9 menus. These are operating system actions, but Microsoft probably is leery of removing them after so many people have learned to find them in IE.

But overall, IE9 was a capable, competent browser. Its gradual arrival will liberate Web developers hobbled by old browsers--especially as Windows 7 finally replaces Windows XP at corporations wedded to IE6.

The W3C's new HTML5 logo
The W3C's new HTML5 logo W3C

The ever-expanding Web
Today's Web is a vastly more powerful platform for software than a decade ago. Graphical elements and formatting are richer and more dynamic with modern Cascading Style Sheets technology, and JavaScript has come into its own with higher performance in browsers and libraries such as jQuery that make it easier to use. HTML5's vaunted video tag and the coming WebSocket specification can make pages even more active, while storage technologies can let Web applications work even when there's no network connection.

It's a world where Google Docs can be a viable replacement for Microsoft Office for some fraction of the market, and where programmers can contemplate massively multiplayer online games built from Web standards.

With IE9, Microsoft has embraced this vision, even though it undermines two other important programming foundations from Microsoft, the company's Windows operating system and its Silverlight technology that serves both as a browser plug-in and as Windows Phone 7's native application technology.

That internal competition must have made for some heated meetings, but really, Microsoft had little choice. Powerful rivals were moving together down the Web-app path, and developers were following. It's a classic cannibalization story: sometimes a company is better off embracing a popular technology that hurts its own products, because the alternative is letting competitors inflict the pain.

Thus, at the same time it was building IE9, Microsoft re-engaged with Web standards work with HTML, CSS, Scalable Vector Graphics, typography, and more. Many of these standards are present in IE9, one indicator that Microsoft isn't faking its support for the new Web merely with marketing bafflegab.

Microsoft also embraced many healthy practices developing IE9. Publicly released platform preview editions let Web developers test the browser as it evolved, and Microsoft responded to feedback.

To be sure, IE9 still lacks support for a number of Web standards. But I'd rather see an IE9 in its present state and released than an IE9 supporting all those standards but arriving sometime at the end of 2011. I don't expect Microsoft to adopt Google's six-week update cycle, but I do think successors to IE9 are under active development, and I see no reason why animated (and hardware-accelerated) CSS transitions and transformations aren't on the to-do list.

WebGL--the hardware-accelerated 3D graphics interface all the other browser makers have embraced--is a big question mark for IE. Microsoft has a competing interface in Silverlight 5, which goes into beta testing this week, not to mention native Windows apps using DirectX. But judging by IE9, it's not unthinkable that Microsoft would support it somehow, if enough developers used it on the Web.

After all, Microsoft clearly has decided it's time for an IE it can be proud of.

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