Internet Explorer 9: From corporate memo to beta

Internet Explorer 9, which arrives in beta form Wednesday, began life as a vision embodied in a memo sent to top execs from the head of the browser team.

SAN FRANCISCO--Just days after launching Internet Explorer 8 in March 2009, Microsoft's Dean Hachamovitch wrote a memo about what the company really needed to do with the next version of its browser.

"A browser is only as good as the underlying operating system," the head of the IE team said in an e-mail to his staff and others at Microsoft. "We have amazing opportunities to differentiate IE because of the underlying strengths of Windows. Our broad opportunity is making Windows the best place to experience the web."

Internet Explorer, he knew, needed to run much faster, be much more standards compliant, and really harness the power of the PC.

Fast forward 18 months and Microsoft now has a public beta of the browser that achieves several of the goals that Hachamovitch laid out in his memo. Internet Explorer 9 has better support for HTML5 and other Web standards, taps the PC graphics chip for hardware acceleration, and includes a much faster JavaScript engine.

On the visual front, the new browser has a minimalist approach. As first reported by CNET last month , the design principle for the new browser is the creation of a theater with individual Web sites as the stars of the show. Indeed, a good chunk of Wednesday's beta launch event will be focused on the work done by the various Web site creators that Microsoft has lined up to support IE9's new features.

Hachamovitch said it is fitting that the 10:30 a.m. PDT launch of the IE9 beta is taking place in the working-class, industrial South of Market section of San Francisco rather than a flashier locale like Union Square. The downscale digs reflect the fact that IE9 tries to do its job without attracting much attention. "This is not an Armani neighborhood," he said Tuesday in an interview at the launch site here.

The launch of a new version of Internet Explorer comes as the browser race has become increasingly competitive and more strategically important. Microsoft's browser, though still the market leader with about 60 percent of the market , has been ceding share for years, first to Mozilla's Firefox and more recently to Google's Chrome OS.

Beyond that, the Web has become the hub of much of people's computing experience and Microsoft is eager to show that the PC matters. By using hardware acceleration, Microsoft is hoping to give people a reason to choose Windows over other current choices and over emerging rivals such as Chrome.

Along with making the beta version available for download later on Wednesday, Microsoft is detailing the user interface and other features of the browser.

As compared with past versions of IE, the new version is far more streamlined, featuring a prominent back and forward button, a single bar for both searching and entering Web addresses, and surprisingly little else. Small icons on the far right let people access settings or their favorite sites, though neither option is given much prominence.

Rather than focus on its own interface, IE9 takes advantage of a number of Windows 7 features, such as allowing users to pin their favorite sites to the taskbar. Web sites opened in this fashion borrow the color scheme and icon from the Web site in question. Web sites can also create customized "jump lists" that go to a particular part of the site when a user right clicks on the taskbar icon. Developers can also have the taskbar icon deliver notifications, such as changing icons to indicate and alert or displaying the number of new messages in an in-box.

Hachamovitch said that tapping the operating system's interface makes sense, given that people are far more used to the way Windows works--even Windows 7--than they are to the nuances of the browser. He noted that 87 percent of Windows users launch applications that are pinned to their desktop while less than 5 percent put sites on their favorites bar.

Microsoft is also taking the approach it used to highlight potential malware and phishing attempts to warn that downloads that might be suspicious. The company is adding the notion of reputation to downloads, offering both ratings and details on how frequently downloaded a piece of content is.

The reveal for IE9 has been a slow one. Microsoft first discussed IE9 and talked about hardware acceleration at last fall's professional developers conference. Although the look of IE9 wasn't publicly known until a leak last month, Hachamovitch said the ideas were already in place by that conference, which was just a few weeks into the coding of the new browser.

By this past spring, Microsoft had launched a test drive of the new browser's engine. Though the code still didn't give a sense for how the browser would feel, other characteristics became clear, such as which standards the browser would support and the degree to which Microsoft had truly sped up its JavaScript engine.

With the beta, Microsoft is finally showing the look of the browser and giving the public a chance to really put it through its paces. As for the final version, I'm told it is a safe bet that it won't come this year, but Microsoft hasn't given a specific time frame. There is some speculation that Microsoft's aim is to have it ready for next spring's Mix event in Las Vegas.

To run the beta software, users need Vista or Windows 7 and have to replace their current version of the browser with the IE9 beta.

As is customary for Microsoft launches, the company is putting a good deal of emphasis on the partners it has lined up for the event--a list that includes Twitter, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal. Rock bands Gorillaz and The Killers have customized their Web sites to take advantage of IE9, while Wordpress is adopting IE9's customization options, opening up jump lists and other features to hundreds of top blogs.

Hachamovitch said that the 70 partners who will be present at the launch event collectively reach two-thirds of Internet users.

 

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