IE9: Good enough to beat Firefox and Chrome?

The IE9 public beta may already have hit more than 2 million downloads, but its future is as cloudy as ever

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Microsoft deserves heaps of praise for embracing HTML5, the last great hope for ridding our computers of Flash addiction and, it must be noted, a likely contender for some of Microsoft's Silverlight limelight. Sure, HTML5 isn't yet a standard; IE9 only supports a small piece of commonly accepted HTML5 commands; controversy about HTML5 rages, but it's definitely a step in the right direction. To see how your favorite browser, beta or otherwise, measures up to various visions of HTML5, drop by test sites html5test.com, html5demos.com, and caniuse.com.

IE9 runs noticeably faster than IE8 -- you can feel it, just dropping by sites you visit all the time. Is IE9 faster than Firefox 4 or Chrome 7? Good question, but it's still too early to tell: Running a speed test on beta software is like jogging on a rusty treadmill in wet socks.

IE9 clearly lives in a Windows 7 world. It doesn't work on XP -- not at all. Microsoft makes much of IE9's new ability to "pin" a website's favicon (to the left of the Web address) to the Windows 7 toolbar. I stepped through the demos and could hardly muster a snore, but you may like the new color-coordination between the favicon and the front and back arrows. Bling.

The over-arching question: Is IE9 good enough to stem Microsoft's hemorrhaging browser market share? Can the company that went from 90 percent of the market to around 50 percent reclaim some of its lost luster? Press reports paint a happy face on Microsoft execs talking about how IE9 will gain "huge momentum" in conjunction with an anticipated massive corporate switch to Windows 7. IE9 and Windows 7, the fanboys say, go together like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Or something.

Pardon me for raining on several parades, but I just don't see it happening. Microsoft gave up its wide corporate IE9 appeal when it dropped XP support. Undeniably the march to Windows 7 will continue, as it should, but dragging IE9 along in upgrade lockstep compounds -- and lengthens -- the misery. With IE8, companies with significant investments in Web applications have a chance to bring older XP systems into the fold first, making the upgrade in two steps.

For those who get to choose their own browsers, IE9 puts Microsoft back into the browser game, certainly, but anyone familiar with Firefox or Chrome will immediately see where most of the new ideas came from. Firefox 4 and Chrome 7 clearly run circles around IE9 in many ways. Microsoft has shown that it can catch up, but rapid-fire development cycles with the Firefox and Chrome teams mean that IE's going to be outflanked again. Soon.

Quo vadis? I'd be willing to bet that we'll see IE's market share bump up a little bit through the end of the year, then slowly continue its downward drift, with Firefox and Chrome fighting fiercely for the other half. Now that's going to be a battle worth watching.

This article, "IE9: Good enough to beat Firefox and Chrome?," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog.

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