Microsoft modernizes Web ambitions with IE9

Redmond has gradually restarted its browser development. With the preview version of IE9 now available, it shows that work to be back at full steam.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
2 min read

For those who doubted that Microsoft was serious in its effort to re-engage with the Web, it's time to put the skepticism aside.

At its Mix conference in Las Vegas on Tuesday, Microsoft gave programmers, Web developers, and the world at large a taste of things to come with its Web browser. Specifically, Microsoft released what it's calling the Internet Explorer 9 Platform Preview, a prototype that's designed to show off the company's effort to improve how the browser deals with the Web as it exists today and, just as important, to add support for new Web technologies that are coming right now.

The new software is only a framework, raw enough that it's still missing a "back" button. But with "a few" updated preview versions set to arrive at eight-week intervals, the project will develop into a beta, a release candidate, and eventually the full-fledged product IE9, said Dean Hachamovitch, general manager of Internet Explorer and the executive who'll describe the project at Mix.

Coming in the new version is support for new Web standards including plug-in-free video; better performance with graphics, text, and JavaSript by taking advantage of modern computing hardware; and a new effort at gathering and responding to feedback from those using the prototype software, Hachamovitch said.

Dean Hachamovitch, IE general manager
Dean Hachamovitch, IE general manager

IE9 is months from release, but already it holds the potential to alter the browser market. Not only could it reinvigorate competition with a host of new rivals, it could help usher in the cloud computing era that some of those rivals are eager to embrace. In that era, the Web transforms from a foundation for static documents and Web sites into a foundation for interactive programs.

IE6, released in 2001 when Microsoft had won the browser wars of the 1990s, still is widely used today. It's loathed among Web developers who want to use more modern Web technologies, and despite the release of "="" rel="follow">IE8 a year ago, Microsoft is still saddled with a reputation as a company behind the browser curve. Mozilla's Firefox now accounts for nearly a quarter of usage, Google's Chrome has burst onto the scene and now is in third place, while Internet Explorer continues to gradually lose its share of usage.

With IE9, though, Microsoft is trying to rebuild the browser for the Web that's to come through new standards such as HTML5 and CSS3, updates to Hypertext Markup Language for describing Web pages and Cascading Style Sheets for formatting.

The software caught the attention of Microsoft's biggest browser rival. "IE9 looks great, very glad to see it. Congrats to the IE team!" said Mike Shaver, vice president of engineering at Firefox backer Mozilla, in a tweet.

New Web standards

"We saw that HTML5 will enable a new class of applications. Those applications are going to stress the browser runtime in ways today's Web sites don't," Hachamovitch said in an interview. "We realized very quickly that doing HTML5 right was much more about designing all our browser subsystems around what the new apps will need than it was about a particular feature checklist. It's understanding where the apps are going to go and building the platform that will get them there."

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With IE8, Microsoft put a priority on complying with existing standards, a dramatic turnaround from an earlier attitude that resentful Web developers saw as "Standard? IE is the standard." With IE9 Microsoft is moving its standards religion into the future.

The company signaled its heightened interest in Web standards through new engagement in developing HTML5 and SVG, the Scalable Vector Graphics standard that the company shunned for years despite its possibilities for better rendering of graphics such as logos. IE9, those standards arriving as an actual product.

IE9 has "HTML5 through and through," Hachamovitch said, as well as support for CSS3 and for showing SVG 1.1 imagery inline. Hachamovitch's demo shows H.264-encoded HTML5 video, and he said that graphics such as maps are vastly more sophisticated with SVG support.

When Microsoft showed IE9 technology in November, it didn't shy away from IE's poor showing on the Acid3 test of compliance with various standards and technologies. IE8 scores 20 out of 100, the November IE technology reached 32, but the IE9 Platform Preview makes it up to 55. Microsoft also dings the test as imperfect, adding in a blog post, "A key part of our approach to Web standards is the development of an industry standard test suite. Today, Microsoft has submitted over 100 additional tests of HTML5, CSS3, DOM [Document Object Model, the structure of a Web page], and SVG, to the W3C," the World Wide Web Consortium that oversees HTML and various other Web standards.

New JavaScript Engine

Another headline element for IE9 is a new JavaScript engine. When it comes to these engines for running Web-based programs, Chrome has V8, Opera 10.5 has Carakan, Safari has Nitro, and Firefox has the new JaegerMonkey.

Now Internet Explorer has its own new name for a JavaScript Engine: Chakra. On Microsoft's test on the SunSpider JavaScript benchmark, IE9 Platform Preview is a tad faster than Firefox (using the older TraceMonkey engine) and a tad slower than Safari, Chrome, and Opera.

IE9 is competitive with rivals on the SunSpider JavaScript speed test.
IE9 is competitive with rivals on the SunSpider JavaScript speed test. Microsoft

The finer points of exactly where IE shows up in the rankings are less important than the comparison to IE8 and earlier versions, which by comparison crawl through JavaScript.

One big change in the JavaScript engine that Hachamovitch is proud of is its multicore support. As soon as a Web page is loaded, Chakra assigns a processing core to the task of compiling JavaScript in the background into fast code written in the native language of the computer's processor.

Hachamovitch distinguishes this from the just-in-time compilation approach of other browsers, which he criticizes as a difficult balance of optimizing code well without slowing down the arrival of Web pages.

There are other efforts to make JavaScript a richer programming foundation, including the Web Workers standard to let JavaScript perform background processing tasks. Microsoft, though, wants to improve the Web as much as possible without requiring new programming approaches.

With the Chakra approach, "developers don't have to change their markup. The Web page didn't have to change. Essentially, dual- and quad-core machines get put to good use," Hachamovitch said.

Microsoft already showed off IE9's use of Direct2D and DirectWrite, interfaces in Windows Vista and Windows 7 that can accelerate graphics and text. At Mix, Hachamovitch's demonstration shows the technology works to speed up SVG graphics as well.

Feedback time

The IE9 Platform Preview itself is a change, too. Previously, Microsoft delivered a more finished product to the world. Now it's trying to get feedback at an earlier stage of development. And it's explicitly seeking comment on a wide range of elements:

"The main technologies to call out here broadly are HTML5, CSS3, DOM, and SVG," Hachamovitch said in a blog post. "The IE9 test drive site has more specifics and samples. At this time, we're looking for developer feedback on our implementation of HTML5's parsing rules, Selection APIs, XHTML support, and inline SVG. Within CSS3, we're looking for developer feedback on IE9's support for Selectors, Namespaces, Colors, Values, Backgrounds and Borders, and Fonts. Within DOM, we're looking for developer feedback on IE9's support for Core, Events, Style, and Range."

Alphabet soup, to be sure. But when it comes to building a modern Web, those letters all reflect important standards. Microsoft's embrace is all the more significant given that, with its Windows and Office businesses, has the most to lose from the migration of applications from the PC to the cloud.