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Unlocking the beauty of the web

In recent years Internet Explorer has been this wonderful utility built into Windows that allows people to download a web browser – usually Firefox. Probably due to the fact that they still dominate in market share, Microsoft has been pretty absent from the browser wars that have been raging over the last few years. But as more and more users switch to better, faster browsers (Firefox, Chrome, Safari, Opera), Microsoft has finally stepped up its game with the release of the public beta of Internet Explorer 9.

I’ve been playing with IE9 since the early preview releases. Even in the previews it was very impressive, and the beta certainly puts the oft-maligned browser on a par with the remainder of the browser landscape. The first thing that strikes you about IE9 is that Microsoft has finally committed to standards, both standards that they seem to have forgotten about in previous releases of IE, as well as the emerging standards based around HTML5 and CSS3 (all the stuff that’s very important to HTML/CSS geeks). It pretty much supports the bulk of the CSS3 working draft and has almost full CSS3 selector support and supports an increasing number of the HTML5 working spec. All I’m really missing now is some more HTML5 APIs, WebGL & CSS transitions & transforms.

But the biggest improvement in IE9 is based on one of their stated goals for the project: “performance, performance, performance”. They’ve completely rewritten the engines behind IE9 and there is lots of stuff in there – a new layout engine, a new JavaScript engine (including mutli-core background compiling to native code), lots of networking improvements, and the biggest thing they’re touting is completely hardware accelerated graphics (for everything from CSS through to animations and video).

You can find out more and download the beta at the slightly ironically named beautyoftheweb.com

As I stated above I’ve been playing with IE9 for a while now. The hardware acceleration is definitely impressive – some of the demos on http://ie.microsoft.com/testdrive/ really sparkle on IE9 (and lag in the other browsers).

The user interface feels very much like Google Chrome, so the Chrome minimalist approach has now been copied by every major browser. It makes sense: to be fair there’s not a lot you can do with the browser UI. I don’t like the tabs next to the location bar though (actually it’s a “one-box” bar like Chrome – integrated search and location). Yes I have a widescreen monitor. In fact I have a 30″ 2560×1600 widescreen monitor – but I don’t want to run my browser full screen just to see the url or see all my tabs. I know some reviewers like it – but the Chrome way feels more natural.

Even though it seems very solid for a beta it does crash a bit and the crashes are ugly. Again Microsoft should take a usability leaf from Chrome here.

What about performance? I love to run benchmarks so that’s what I did. Using the new Kraken benchmark from Mozilla (http://krakenbenchmark.com) IE9 does very poorly against its beta rivals (Firefox 4 Beta 6, Firefox Minefield & Chrome 7). Running other tests (such as Google’s V8 or WebKit’s SunSpider) the field was pretty much flat (Minefield easily beats Firefox 4 beta though – Firefox’s brand new Jaegermonkey JavaScript engine kicks arse). Here are some pretty graphs courtesy of Engadget’s review where they compared IE9 to the current release versions of Chrome and Firefox:

SunSpider: Lower is better

Futuremark PeaceKeeper: Higher is better

To be honest all these benchmarks tell us is that IE9 is not the new champ – just that it’s catching up to the field. Yes – the IE9 demos are amazing, and right now if you were wanting to push the boundaries of graphics or video performance in the browser then IE9 looks to be the winner. But by the time developers are switching from Flash to using Canvas or SVG the other browsers will have released their GPU-powered versions, so any advantage IE9 currently has will have gone. Ironically the beautyoftheweb.com website runs much smoother for me in Chrome 7 than in any other browser (including IE9).

So yes – it feels fast. A LOT faster than any other version of Internet Explorer before it, and faster than the current release version of Firefox (3.6). Even in normal use, web browsing in IE9 feels very snappy, but Chrome still felt a little faster in most “normal” scenarios. When comparing the use of Xero between the current release version of Chrome and IE9 beta, Chrome still felt the smoothest.

As far as new and unique features probably the most interesting is the ability to pin websites to the Windows task bar as “apps”. This is particularly cool in Windows 7:

The menu is completely customizable in the HTML of the web site (this was done using our staging site – don’t try it at home). Unfortunately the HTML to do it is fairly awful – lots of meta tags with ico files. It’s a great idea and as web apps become more integrated into the OS it makes sense for a web developer to have access to this kind of feature but it would have been nice for them to try to utilize some standards (hopefully someone from Microsoft reads this: http://camendesign.com/blog/stop_this_madness).

Obviously I’ve played with Xero extensively in IE9 and to be honest almost all the Xero apps aren’t working very well on it right now. It is a beta and while we do have a clear policy on beta browsers, we usually don’t have the problems we’re having with IE9. We know why most of the problems are occurring but while we are looking at we can’t spin our wheels on it too much while it’s in beta. We will definitely have Xero working perfectly in IE9 by the time of its official release (and probably a lot sooner).

Still no word on when that official release date will be. And then once it is released will Microsoft keep the release frequency up like its rivals? In the 18 months between IE8 and IE9 there have been multiple versions of Safari, multiple major point releases of Firefox, and 5 versions of Chrome. If Microsoft wants to keep pushing the beauty and the boundaries of the web then I think it needs to employ the same aggressive upgrade policies that the other vendors do.

And now for the let down: IE9 only runs, and will only run, on Windows Vista and Windows 7 (I installed in on Windows 2008 Server but it’s not running very well). Is this a problem? Yes and no. IE6 and IE7 are still dominant players in the market (especially in the enterprise) mostly because of Windows XP, so it’s a pain for web developers like those at Xero that want our users to be on the best, the most secure and the fastest, that Microsoft isn’t giving our users a better option. I totally understand and actually support the whole “a modern browser requires a modern operating system” objective but if Mozilla and Google can do it then why can’t Microsoft?

Oh – and for the 60% of Xero users that don’t have Windows 7 or Windows Vista do yourself a favor and get Google Chrome

 

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