With IE 9, Microsoft fights back in browser wars

By showing its first glimpses of technology in Internet Explorer 9, Microsoft also is showing it's serious about building a competitive browser.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote 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
5 min read

With Internet Explorer 9, Microsoft showed Wednesday it's trying to retake the browser initiative.

IE remains the Net's dominant browser. But perversely, it became something of a technology underdog after Microsoft vanquished Netscape in the browser wars of the 1990s and scaled back its browser effort.

That left an opportunity for rivals to blossom--most notably Firefox, which now is used by a quarter of Web surfers, but also Apple's Safari, which now runs on Windows as well as Mac OS X, and Google's Chrome, which aims to make the Web faster and a better foundation for applications.

Microsoft has been pouring resources back into the IE effort, though, and at its Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles, some fruits of that labor were on display. In particular, Windows unit president Steven Sinofsky showed off IE 9's new hardware-accelerated text and graphics.

The acceleration feature takes advantage of hitherto untapped computing power in a way that's more useful than other browser-boosting technology--Google's Native Client to directly employ PC's processor and Mozilla's WebGL for accelerated 3D graphics, for example--according to Dean Hachamovitch, general manager of Internet Explorer.

"This is a direct improvement to everybody's usage of the Web on a daily basis," Hachamovitch said in an interview after Sinofsky's speech. "Web developers are doing what they did before, only now they can tap directly into a PC's graphics hardware to make their text work better and graphics work better."

Why go to all this trouble? In short, to help keep the Windows business alive and kicking.

"Our goal in building a great browser for consumers and for everyone is that they are Windows customers. That's at the core of it," Hachamovitch said.

He didn't bring it up, but it should be noted that an increasing fraction of Microsoft's business is moving online, too, through its Bing, Live, and now online Office 2010 sites. "We want to build a better IE so all the Web sites have a better experience," Hachamovitch said.

Turning up the heat
Microsoft began work on IE 9 just three weeks ago, Sinofsky said. But signs have been clear that the company has taken interest in its browser again.

When it arrived earlier this year IE 8 brought significant new security and privacy features, and in a significant departure Web developers appreciate, it attempts to follow various Web standards such as HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) and Cascading Style Sheets.

More recently, Microsoft joined the HTML standards effort in August. And earlier this month, Microsoft sent a dozen IE team members to a World Wide Web Consortium meeting.

"High-quality specifications that improve interoperability between browsers are important. Our goal is to help ensure these new standards work well for Web developers and will work well in future versions of IE," said Adrian Bateman, a Microsoft program manager who's involved in the standardization effort, describing the motivation. That point of view is music to the ears of programmers who struggle to make sure their Web sites work with the ever-wider variety of browsers on the Web today.

Hardware acceleration
Under the covers, the IE 9 acceleration works by employing Microsoft's Direct2D interface rather than its GDI (Graphical Device Interface). Direct2D provides a general way for software to take advantage of hardware acceleration for graphics, and IE 9 will employ it.

"It's a remarkably different level of performance," said Hachmovitch, who's using the technology. "It's like the difference between watching Pixar or an Xbox vs. watching an old PC chug along."

Direct2D also facilitates a technology called sub-pixel positioning that can smooth the appearance of text on the screen. That cuts eyestrain, he said.

In a video touting the Direct2D browsing technology, Microsoft showed off the acceleration effect on a map-based Web site. While panning the view one way or the other, "The map literally keeps up with your mouse," said Microsoft graphics developer Christian Fortini in the video

Earlier in November, Firefox surpassed 25 percent usage share of Web browsers, according to Net Applications.
Earlier in November, Firefox surpassed 25 percent usage share of Web browsers, according to Net Applications. Net Applications

With the old technology, that chore can update the screen at a rate of about 5 to 10 frames per second while using 50 to 60 percent of the processor's horsepower, but using the Direct2D method, the frame rate jumps to a range of 40 to 60 per second while the CPU usage plunges, Hachamovitch said.

Compatibility sales pitch
Hachamovitch touted Microsoft's approach as broadly relevant and compatible with the Web as it stands today. Unlike Native Client and WebGL, it doesn't require new programming skills for Web developers.

"Web sites didn't have to change behavior and code in a different way" to take advantage of the Direct2D technology, Hachamovitch said. "With a lot of other technologies, it takes a lot of work and a lot of time to figure out how to do something different. It isn't necessarily an interoperable, standards kind of thing--it's something from one particular vendor. We're taking interoperable implementations of things like CSS, things that developers are using and expect to work everywhere, and making them demonstrably better."

He didn't comment on whether Microsoft supports some Web standards for better graphics, including Canvas and Scalable Vector Graphics, but he did say the new display technology will broadly help whatever graphics technologies IE does support. "Once we're on top of this super-rich graphics infrastructure, all the graphics we do will have this," he said.

And although Microsoft certainly hasn't committed to it, Eliot Graff, an IE lead technical editor, is helping edit the Canvas interface at the W3C group.

Full standards support remains a sore point when dealing with IE. On one test, Acid3, IE 8 scores just 20 out of 100. IE 9 currently scores 32, and "the score will continue to go up," Hachamovitch wrote in the blog posting.

Faster JavaScript
The acceleration is one aspect of performance Microsoft is focusing on. Another is the execution of JavaScript, a programming language used widely on the Web for everything from mundane tasks to full-on applications such as Gmail and Google Docs.

In another Microsoft video, John Montgomery, a leader of IE's browser compatibility and tools team, shows off the browser tackling all the components of the SunSpider JavaScript speed test.

"We're whipping through these faster than (IE) 8 was," Montgomery said. "We're pretty early in the development process. There's still some stuff we can still squeeze out of the engine, but we're doing a lot better than we were."

Hachamovitch, though, takes pains to point out JavaScript isn't the only bottleneck for browsers. Even though JavaScript engines are important enough to warrant brand names these days--Chrome's V8, Firefox's TraceMonkey, Safari's Nitro, Opera's Futhark and Caracan--Microsoft's prefers to shine a light on nine other aspects of browser performance.

In a blog post about IE9, Hachamovitch shows how a variety of chores--two different news sites and two separate tasks in Microsoft's online version of Excel--exercise different parts of the browser.

"The work we do in performance involves many systems in the browser," he said. "As these script engines converge and effectively have the same performance, you realize all the other subsystems get more important. You need the other nine parts of the browser to work, too."