First look: Internet Explorer 9 beta makes waves

Microsoft's next browser closes in on Chrome and Firefox with improvements in graphics rendering, HTML5 compatibility, security, and JavaScript performance

One of the best ways to see what's changed with the ninth and newest version of Microsoft's Internet Explorer is to tune into and watch the words, images, and DIVs bounce around, luring the world into pretty images and information that can't sit still. "Tune in" is the appropriate verb because the experience is closer to consuming television than what the Web was once supposed to be, an endless library filled with serious knowledge that might come from an underground physics bunker in the mountains.

To get the full effect and begin to understand the shifting dynamics of the industry, the flashy graphics must be seen three or four times, but not just because they're so visually compelling. The challenge is to look at the site in different browsers and see just how similar and how slightly different it happens to be.

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Seeing the bouncing blocks in other browsers shows just how Microsoft is following the path of HTML5 blazed by the other browser groups and embraced by the standards committees. In the past, Microsoft had some of their own standards for vector graphics, but now they've decided that the pack is leading and they must keep up. The experience is very similar in all of the browsers, and that's because most of the website is written in jQuery, which manipulates the positions of the images and brings the pages to life.

But while very similar across browsers, the experience is not exactly the same, and the differences are subtle enough that Microsoft even included a little note that tells visitors who are running other browsers that the experience will be better in IE9. The biggest difference is an MP4 movie that sends a bluish, watery wave swirling across the screen. The movie won't play in Firefox 4.0 but it does show up in Chrome. The other differences may only be figments of my imagination. The dancing images seem to move more smoothly in IE9, but I'm not sure how to quantify this effect or even test whether I'm just imagining it.

Windows under the hood

Microsoft is pushing the fact that its browser is more tightly integrated with the graphics layer of their operating system, a fact that lets IE9 use the graphics board to handle much of the image swooshing. Some of Microsoft's demos even include frame rate meters just like video games.

It's important to note that the other browser groups are following this lead, and this is a way that Microsoft is regaining some technical control. Mozilla, for instance, says that its newest version of Firefox is more tightly integrated with DirectX, the video frame software layer that was once mainly used by game programmers. This helps Microsoft because it supports the idea that the Windows OS is a good platform for watching the Web.

This balance is also good for the open Web because it seeks to establish HTML5 as the premier vehicle for content developers. The open Web and the desktop platform are no longer as dominant as they once were, as the alluring world of smartphones and tablets steal mind share. When people can answer their email, read books, and watch television through the new generation of mobile devices, no one needs their desktops for anything but homework and those dreadful, long-form memos that the boss forgets to read. Goodbye Web, hello app store.

Microsoft is no longer in the driver's seat, and it shows in other aspects of IE9. Many of the more visible features are also catching up to the lead of Firefox, Chrome, and to a lesser extent Opera. The buttons and menus are now much more like Chrome. The plug-in environment wants to emulate Firefox.

Web developers will like F12, a built-in debugging tool for watching the Web pages unfold. I used it to figure out what was working and not working in the different browsers. This should help IE9 recover some of its momentum. I, like many developers, started shifting to Firefox when the Firebug plug-in made it that much easier to start a project by creating pages for Firefox and then testing them on IE9.

HTML5 compatibility, security, and speed

It's also important to look at Microsoft's claims of HTML5 compatibility carefully. The site, for instance, gives IE9 a score of 96 out of 300, a big boost from previous versions of IE, which barely scored any points at all. IE9 scores well on the multimedia features like the video and audio tags, but gets scores of zero on less eye-catching features like microdata. Are these features important to you?

Microsoft is also promising to do a better job on security and the provenance of data, recognizing that it's becoming increasingly difficult for anyone to trust some of the information coming over the wire. Between the phishers, the malware, and the outright fraudulent sites, browsing is a dangerous game. I tried testing IE9's filters with several sites that were reported as evil by Google, and I couldn't find any that would set off Microsoft's alarm. Some like are long gone and Microsoft knows it. But others like continue to raise flags with Chrome but not with IE9. This service may take some time to gel. IE9's database may not be as comprehensive as Google's, and it may not get to where it needs to be without actively crawling the web.

JavaScript performance is now much better, at least as measured by the SunSpider benchmark that's heavy on big loops filled with repeated computations. While the performance of these loops may be of primary interest to people like the old school physicists hiding in underground bunkers in Switzerland, they do give some indication how swiftly the jQuery code will manipulate the DIV blocks. JavaScript doesn't just validate forms; it runs long loops bouncing the DIVs all over the screen. 

In my tests, IE9 delivered an overall time on my machine of 882ms, now better than Firefox 4 (1001ms) and Safari 5.0.2 on Windows (962ms). Chrome still turned out the fastest results, 583ms. Measuring how quickly JavaScript encrypts data or flips bits is nice, but what we really need is some kind of measure of how smoothly the DIVs move across the screen. That's where Microsoft thinks the Web is going.

If Microsoft's vision for the future catches on and Web designers start creating sites that need all of the processing power of a GPU, the gamers won't be the only ones spending more on the video card than they do on the rest of the machine. Heck, even the physicists deep in their underground caverns will be buying video cards that were once marketed only to gamers.

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