By Harry McCracken | Tuesday, March 16, 2010 at 9:00 am
What’s Microsoft planning for Internet Explorer 9? There’s a lot the company isn’t ready to talk about, including what sort of new features it’ll have and when it’ll be available. But at the MIX10 conference in Las Vegas, Microsoft is telling Web developers about the new capabilities that IE9 will provide, and it’s giving them the ability to get some hands-on experience with them for the first time. (Along with other tech journalists, I was prebriefed late last week.)
It’s doing so via a piece of software it calls the Internet Explorer 9 Platform Preview, along with a Test Drive site (which doesn’t seem to be live yet) with sample content for viewing in the Platform Preview or any browser. This isn’t a full-fledged IE9 beta: It’s a stripped-down window, and all it can do is render Web content.
Essentially, it’s a heads-up for Web developers about the new technologies and standards which IE9 will bring, so their sites can be ready once the browser hits the market.
But there’s a lot that’s new under IE9′s surface. Such as:
Hardware acceleration. IE9 uses Microsoft’s DirectX technologies–best known for their use in games–to leverage the power of today’s graphics processors to speed up the rendering of Web pages, without requiring Web developers to do anything in particular. The feature lets the browser display high-quality text and graphics faster: The Platform Preview includes a striking demo in which oversized icons for the major browsers fly around the screen in formation at high speed. In Safari and Chrome, the icons drag along at a crawl; they’re a bit snappier in Firefox and Opera, but they don’t look as good or zip as smoothly as in IE9.
Scalable vector graphics. SVG is a Web standard for displaying line-oriented images like drawings, charts, and architectural drawings at any resolution without jaggies. It’s been around for a decade without ever catching on. But until now, it’s labored at a severe disadvantage: Internet Explorer hasn’t supported it natively. With IE9, Microsoft’s browser does SVG. I don’t think it’s a given that the standard will finally have a major impact on the Web–site proprietors will have to start using it. But it’ll finally stand a chance.
HTML5: Microsoft is building IE9 to support HTML5, the nascent next-generation standard that will permit Web sites to deliver the rich interactivity associated today with Adobe’s Flash and Microsoft’s SilverLight without the use of plug-ins. Among other things, it’ll let browsers display video natively, although this feature isn’t yet working in the IE9 Preview.
The HTML5 situation remains murky: Video needs to be compressed using a particular codec, and Safari and Chrome support H.264 while Firefox and Opera use the open-source Ogg Theora standard. (That’s why YouTube’s experimental HTML5 version works only in the Apple and Google browsers–YouTube opted for H.264, not Theora.) Microsoft representatives told me that IE9 will be part of the H.264 camp.
With three of the five big browsers using H.264, it’ll be interesting to see if Mozilla (whose support of Theora is passionate) and Opera cave and go with the majority. (As much as I like open standards, I think it oughta: Without codec standardization, HTML5 video won’t go anywhere.)
As Microsoft continues to work on IE9, it says it plans to release updated versions of the Platform Preview every eight weeks. At some point, they’ll be joined by full-fledged IE9 prerelease versions.
Just how major a makeover will IE9 get from a look-and-feel standpoint? I don’t know: The fact that Microsoft is mum could mean either that it’s a modest revamp or that big changes are afoot. For what it’s worth, Internet Explorer General Manager Dean Hachamovitch told me that there’s plenty of “heavy lifting” going on above the surface, too.
For now, the big question is how Web development types will react to the Platform Preview. iall of them have a record of extreme skepticism when it comes to IE. It’ll be fascinating to see if everything that Microsoft has planned is enough to get them excited again about the world’s dominant browser.