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What's in store for IE9 beta?

CNET's Ina Fried takes a look at what to expect when Microsoft's latest browser goes into public beta testing next month.

Microsoft is getting close to releasing a beta version of Internet Explorer 9--the company's latest bid to regain lost ground in the browser market.

At last month's financial analyst meeting, Chief Operating Officer Kevin Turner casually mentioned that the beta would be coming in September. Microsoft has already shown the revamped IE9 engine through a series of public preview releases, but next month's beta will be the first chance to see what IE9 has in store in terms of its look and feel.

The current preview version, released last week, shows some of the features of the browser--including support for hardware acceleration and HTML5. The company has also significantly sped up its JavaScript engine, a feature that is often used in comparing browsers and one in which IE has badly trailed its major rivals.

The beta of Internet Explorer 9 is due next month. A public preview version is already available, but it lacks almost all user interface features and is, instead, just a look at how the new rendering engine will incorporate features. Screenshot by Ina Fried/CNET

However, the preview version focuses on showing off the new rendering engine and lacks even the most basic navigational features such as an address bar or back button.

Microsoft has been largely mum on what to expect as far as the design of IE9's interface, but in an interview with CNET on Wednesday, Ryan Gavin said that the goal is to get out of the way and let the content shine.

"The browser is the theater," Gavin said. "We're not the play."

The comments suggest that IE9 may take a more minimalist view than past versions of the browser. "You don't want the theater to block the view," he said.

After years of falling behind in performance and compatibility, Microsoft is counting on this next release to help it gain back share lost to Mozilla's Firefox and more recently to Google's Chrome.

As with both the public preview version and the final release, the beta of IE9 will require that users be running Windows Vista or Windows 7. Unlike the preview, users won't be able to run the beta side by side with Internet Explorer 8 and must instead upgrade their built-in copy of Internet Explorer to the beta to try it out. (For those who can't or don't want to make that move, Microsoft does plan to continue offering new updated public preview releases as well that can run side by side with older versions of IE.)

Gavin said that Microsoft hopes a wide range of users try out the beta.

"The beta is not for everyone clearly, but if you are comfortable downloading and installing software, I know I am going to want you to try IE9," he said.

Hardware acceleration
One of the key questions is just how unique IE9's hardware acceleration feature will be by the time IE9 is finalized. Safari already has some hardware acceleration, while Mozilla has included some work in its nightly builds of Firefox, though the feature is off by default.

Gavin said that truly building hardware acceleration throughout the browser isn't just a matter of adding a little code, but instead requires some significant re-architecting of the product.

"We're certainly not doing anything that other browser vendors can't do," he said. "There's going to be a difference between fully hardware accelerated (browsers) and partially hardware accelerated (ones)."

IE 9 uses hardware acceleration for text and images as well as video and audio. The effect of the hardware acceleration, Gavin said, can be significant even on machines like Netbooks that are not thought of as graphics powerhouses. That said, the impact will be more noticeable on machines with higher-end graphics.

"The device matters," he said. "You can't get around the fact, device matters."

Another issue to watch will be to see how significant the compatibility issues will be with IE9. Gavin said that Microsoft has tried to make sure major sites are ready for IE9 and said the new browser will maintain the option included in IE8 that lets sites that work in an older version of IE render in a compatibility view.

Microsoft hasn't said when to expect a final version of IE9, but it's probably safe to say it won't be this year. With IE8, Microsoft rolled out the browser at its Mix show in spring 2008 and didn't ship the final version until a year later.

As for IE9, the first preview version was released in March, though Microsoft did give a brief glimpse of the browser's hardware acceleration feature back in November.

If I were a betting woman, I'd say Microsoft will aim to have its work done or nearly done in time for next year's Mix show, set for April 12-14 in Las Vegas.

Update: Microsoft announced on Wednesday it will launch the beta on Sept. 15 at an event in San Francisco.