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Befriending a cutesy anime kid, IE 11 cozies up to Windows 7

Internet Explorer used to be the laughing stock of the browser world, but Microsoft's browser is once again a force to be reckoned with thanks to improvements in speed, security, and standards compliance.

An unofficial IE mascot in Singapore demonstrates that people still love Microsoft's browser after all these years. Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

Remember Clippy, the helpful, googly-eyed paperclip? Microsoft hasn't had a lot luck with anthropomorphic characters. But that's not going to stop Sailor IE from lending a hand to the launch of Internet Explorer 11 for Windows 7 on Thursday.

Known as Inori Aizawa, the Microsoft Singapore character was created to draw local attention to the new IE, as well as Windows Phone-powered Nokia phones and Surface tablets, from attendees of the currently-underway Anime Festival Asia.

A Microsoft representative told CNET that Inori's not about to become an official Internet Explorer mascot, but that doesn't mean that she doesn't represent a new way of looking at IE.

For one thing, it used to be that you could measure major Internet Explorer updates in nearly half-decade chunks, and even at that you'd still want to avoid it if you could. That's no longer the case.

IE 11 for Windows 7 includes most of the improvements that IE 11 for Windows 8 offers, minus the touch screen support. Its most important changes, however, surpass the modern browsing experiences offered by Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox, says Microsoft.

"It's about making the Web better for everyone, not just IE," said Roger Capriotti, Microsoft's Internet Explorer marketing director. To that end, IE 11 on Windows 7 includes many under-the-hood improvements that Microsoft hopes will make IE a compelling platform to write code on, while being an enjoyable platform from which to experience the Web.

After a long period of reticence, Microsoft has relented and supports WebGL in IE 11. This means that the Windows 7 version of the browser, which many people might be forced to use because of corporate infrastructure reasons, will support modern HTML5-driven Web sites such as the newest, hardware accelerated version of Google Maps.

Other changes include support for the SPDY protocol, which originated at Google, the massively overhauled F12 developer tools, and enhanced Web security measures that prevent persistent security holes from being exploited.

Microsoft also says that IE 11 is 30 percent faster than its competition, although those claims rely on one test, SunSpider, when a deeper analysis is called for. And as in the past, Capriotti refused to say if or when IE would adopt cutting edge JavaScript such as ASM.js or ORBX.js, or WebRTC, the real-time communication and file-transfer protocol that Chrome and Firefox both run.

Still, there is little doubt after using IE 11 that it's able to handle much more than its predecessors. IE 11 for Windows 7 claims to be more secure than the competition, blocking 99 percent of socially-engineered malware in tests conducted by NSS, with Chrome at 70 percent and Firefox at 4 percent.

The update marks the first time that IE has seen two major-point updates in less than a year. Windows 8.1's IE 11 was released on October 18, just shy of 12 months after IE 10 shipped with Windows 8 on October 26, 2012, but Internet Explorer 10 landed on Windows 7 four months later to the day.

As Chrome and Firefox have jumped to rapid-release schedules of every six weeks or so, Microsoft has stubbornly refused to embrace that pace. But that doesn't mean that the company can't learn new tricks.

The update also signals that Microsoft isn't abandoning pre-Windows 8 versions of its operating system, demonstrating that Windows 8 software works reasonably well on Windows 7. Windows XP, however, has dropped below 5 percent market share, according to the independent NetApplications.

IE's negative name recognition may forever tarnish the browser, but its steady popularity in the past year demonstrates that it could still have an important role to play in the future.

Corrected on Thursday, November 7, at 1:50 p.m.: This story was updated to correct Roger Capriotti's name.