Internet Explorer enjoys the biggest user base of any browser. The problem is, it gained that user base through its inclusion as the default browser in Windows. Rarely does a user choose to use Internet Explorer based on its own merit. Indeed Internet Explorer has had a history of bringing less to the table than its rivals for some years now. The way in which Microsoft almost abandoned Internet Explorer’s development after Internet Explorer 6 gave its rivals a chance to pick up a piece of the browser share pie. Once Microsoft saw its usage share slip, it naturally came out of hibernation and quickly began to add features such as tabbed browsing. Unfortunately its rivals were way ahead of them, and Microsoft were now playing a game of catch up rather than innovating. The result was Internet Explorer 7, a browser mediocre at best.
Internet Explorer 8 saw a change in the way Microsoft operated. A much stronger empathises was placed on standards support. With this though came a challenge, many websites and indeed intranet sites were made to work with Internet Explorer, quirks, dodgy standards support and all. Introducing a newer version of the browser would surely break many websites. To fight this, Microsoft decided standards should be ‘opt-in’, requiring special mark-up on the website and the default mode to be legacy. Thankfully after a little encouragement from developers (read: outcry) they switched this around and made standards mode opt-out. Along with the improved speed and standards support Microsoft clearly decided they needed to offer something unique. So we also got the little known and little used Suggested Sites, Accelerators and Web Slices. They also took the time to catch up and add features present in other browsers. We got a private browsing mode, inline search and better developer tools. In all, IE 8 was almost the Vista of browsers. It added a lot but it also needed a lot of refinement.
So this brings us to Internet Explorer 9. This time around things are looking even better again. Firstly Microsoft has been releasing ‘platform previews’ on a fairly regular basis, providing developers with a preview of the technologies and performance to come in the final product. Essentially these previews are like Internet Explorer minus the end user interface. It now feels like there’s a much better dialogue between Microsoft and the developers.
The beta, released yesterday finally revealed the new user interface and gave us an insight into the direction Microsoft is taking with its browser. The interface is as slim as possible, giving maximum screen real estate to what really matters: the content of the websites you visit. In addition to this there is some welcome integration with the Windows 7 OS. Tabs can now be dragged straight from the tab bar to aero snap. This allows you to quickly pull off a tab and have it take up half the screen on either side, great for comparing two sets of information. In addition to this websites can be pinned to the Windows task bar by simply dragging the tab there. Once this has been done the website acts like a pinned application. The website can even specify a logo and jump list actions. What this does is to blur the line between web based applications and native ones.
OS integration is something which will become increasingly important and useful as we see more and more services move to the cloud. It’s an interesting move and one other browsers makers may be hesitant to follow. For a start, most other browsers are cross platform so they can’t rely on the features provided by one particular operating system. Browser makers may also not really want their application to fade into the background and become indiscernible from the OS. However Chrome does not seem to show this fear as it already offers a similar feature, minus the more OS specific integration. In fact the Chrome variant opens a web application window with no interface elements. The current practicality of this is questionable though given than most sites require at least the use of the back and forward buttons every now and again.
Overall Internet Explorer 9 is looking very promising and is definitely moving in the right direction.
You can get the beta over at the Microsoft website.