Despite talk about using IE9 to appreciate the beauty of the Web, Microsoft is wielding IE9 to defend the Windows empire.

Thomas Claburn, Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

February 10, 2011

5 Min Read

Microsoft Internet Explorer 9 Beta Revealed

Microsoft Internet Explorer 9 Beta Revealed

Slideshow: Microsoft Internet Explorer 9 Beta Revealed(click image for larger view and for full slideshow)

At an art gallery in downtown San Francisco on Thursday, Microsoft announced the availability of Internet Explorer 9 Release Candidate, the final milestone before the company's latest Web browser is officially released.

Though that may seem like an incongruous venue for a technology announcement, it reflects Microsoft's attempt to redefine the browser war.

"It's not about the browser," said Ryan Gavin, senior director of Internet Explorer at Microsoft. "We think about ourselves as the theater or the backdrop and the thing you pay for is the play." It's about the Web sites and how the customer sees them.

Never mind that the occasion was billed as an "IE Event." It's not about the browser; it's about unlocking "the beauty of the Web," as Microsoft put it.

Gartner research director Ray Valdes put it another way. "It's a battle Microsoft can't afford to lose," he said. "It's not like they can gain advantage [with a browser], but they have to keep from losing advantage."

It's not about the browser; it's about who defines the future of the online computing.

And Microsoft has seen its advantage slip away. Internet Explorer's market share has been declining for years. In February 2009, Internet Explorer's various versions had a collective global market share of about 70%, according to NetApplications. Today, IE's market share stands at 56%.

Initially, the problem was Mozilla's Firefox browser. More recently, the problem has been Google's Chrome browser, which has been growing at what must be an alarming rate for Microsoft.

Internet Explorer 9 represents Microsoft's attempt to reverse the downward spiral. And the seven updates released since March 2010 suggest the company will at least end the bleeding. Internet Explorer 9 is competitive with the latest versions of Chrome and Firefox and in many ways surpasses them.

Gavin noted that the various IE9 betas have been downloaded 25 million times since September 15, 2010. Among Windows 7 users worldwide, 1.82% are already using IE9.

Despite Gavin's insistence that it's not about the browser, he talked about IE9's capabilities quite a bit, particularly how they exceed Chrome's. IE9 takes full advantage of hardware acceleration, thanks to Microsoft's grasp of Windows. Chrome has hardware acceleration too, but Gavin characterized it as partial hardware acceleration. And clearly Google's engineers have some work to do: In the tests that Microsoft presented, IE9 RC ran about four times faster than Chrome 9.

"You can see the difference between a fully hardware accelerated browser and a partially accelerated one," said Gavin as Chrome struggled to process a demo site that IE9 breezed through.

Gavin also claimed the crown in JavaScript performance, based on WebKit SunSpider benchmarks. While such claims should be viewed with some caution -- all of the leading browser vendors can probably construct a test that favors their software -- it's clear that Microsoft is no longer playing catch-up.

In fact, it's pushing the envelope in several areas beside hardware acceleration. IE9 RC implements tracking protection, a feature that Microsoft discussed late last year. Tracking protection allows users to signal their intent to publishers and advertisers that they do not wish to be tracked, and provides mechanisms to help make that happen.

Tracking protection has the potential to starve Google of valuable analytics data while simultaneously appeasing regulators and appealing to consumers who feel uneasy about behavioral tracking.

And there's a lot of unease about online data gathering these days. It's no coincidence that Microsoft sent executives to a Federal Trade Commission privacy event earlier in the week. The government appears to be intent on protecting us from invasive marketers and Microsoft sees an opportunity to seize the moral high ground and to kick sand in Google's face in the process.

Roger Capriotti, director of product marketing for Internet Explorer, insisted that tracking protection isn't the same as ad blocking. But the difference may just be matters of branding -- to avoid alienating online publishers -- and degree. Tracking protection replaces the technical enforcement of user choice in ad blocking extensions with legal enforcement -- Web publishers are likely to be required to respect data collection limits expressed through no-track headers.

Others in the industry aren't so careful in their terminology. Jeremiah Grossman, founder and CTO of WhiteHat Security, observed in December blog post that ad blocking and tracking protection are more or less the same thing. "I think we're witnessing the beginning of a whole new chapter in the ongoing browser war," he wrote.

There's plenty more to IE9, too. Its UI enhancements maximize screen space and minimize toolbar space. For example, it can place the One Box for address entry and search in a tab, thereby reclaiming a horizontal row. It includes geo-location support, so Web applications can access user location with permission. And its SmartScreen URL and application filtering technology makes online life more secure.

"IE9 can block 99% of all malware," said Gavin. "That's orders of magnitude ahead of any other browser in the industry right now."

The question is whether IE9 can block migration to other browsers. "The browser is the gateway to the Web and the Web is both the present and the future," said Valdes. "If Microsoft can retain 50% market share, that's good enough."

Just keep telling yourself it's not about the browser, it's about the beauty of the Web.

About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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