Internet Explorer 9: Microsoft's Browser Gets Back in the Game

Like Windows 7, IE9 has been reworked to be less in-your-face and needy. Various alerts and warnings that would have forced you to stop what you were doing are no longer modal: You can respond to them immediately, at your leisure, or not at all. In a new touch, they appear in a box along the bottom of the browser window rather than its top. (Microsoft says that people feel more slowed down by topside dialogs than bottom ones even if the impact on performance is identical.)

Speaking of Windows 7, most of what’s unique about IE9’s new interface involves slick integration with it. (The browser also works with Vista, but not XP.) If you grab a tab and drag it to the left or right side of the screen, for instance,Win 7’s Aero Snap kicks in on the fly and tab becomes a new window that sticks to the edge of the desktop. Aero Snap works with other browsers, too, but with them, the same maneuver takes two distinct gestures: drag, pause, then drag to the edge.

More intriguingly, IE couples with the Windows 7 Taskbar to let Web apps work more like desktop apps. Drag a tab onto the Taskbar, and it gets pinned there, letting you can quickly launch the page it contains from there on out; its Taskbar icon will be the Web site’s Favicon rather than the IE icon, so you can identify the site at a glance.

Here’s a Win 7 Taskbar with Technologizer, eBay, and Gmail pinned to it:

Site proprietors can also set up Windows 7 Jump Lists: Taskbar menus that take you directly to a particular part of the site with one click.  Here’s eBay’s Jump List:

IE9 Jump Lists will only matter if Web developers and Web users latch onto them, which isn’t a given. (One of IE8’s alleged signature features, Web Slices, required similar acceptance by the outside world, and doesn’t seem to have gone anywhere.) But they’re a potentially useful blurring of the lines between app and Web app.

Unlike Chrome’s generally similar Application Shortcuts–which plop an icon for a particular Web site in Windows’ Start menu–sites that are pinned to the Taskbar appear in a standard IE9 window with all the trimmings, including the address bar and the ability to open new tabs. IE honcho Dean Hachamovitch told me that Microsoft originally gave pinned sites a featureless frame more like Chrome’s stripped-down version, but testers said they wanted a standard browser window. I would have voted for Microsoft’s first approach, and wish that there was an optional way to get it. (I’m also not sure why you can’t drag a tab onto the Start menu to pin it: It’s possible to put Web pages there, but you do so with a menu item rather than a gesture.)

With so much about IE9 that’s roughly comparable with other browsers if not better, what’s missing? Enthusiastic support for add-ons spring to mind: Unlike Mozilla, Google, and Apple, Microsoft is downplaying the whole idea of third-party extensions that permit major modifications of the browser’s look, feel, and functionality.

It’s not that IE9 isn’t malleable–there’s a whole site full of existing IE add-ons which Microsoft says should work fine with the beta. But when I asked about extensions, Hachamovitch responded mostly by pointing out how they can make browsers sluggish and unreliable. IE9 reinforces the point with a new feature that warns you about plug-ins that hog system resources and permits you to disable them.

All of IE’s competitors retain other features which are uniquely theirs, too. The Firefox 4 beta has Panorama (formerly known as Tab Candy); Chrome can sync almost everything about itself across multiple copies of the browser; Safari has the clutter-busting Reader view; Opera has Turbo Mode. And my favorite underdog browser, Flock, has a bunch of social features built in. If you can’t live without one of these items, you’ll probably choose to live without IE9.

I expect IE to get some of these features eventually, which brings up a significant point: Even though IE9 isn’t yet final, it’s not too early to begin wondering about the timetable for IE10. Google, after all, has been improving Chrome at a dizzying pace–the browser hit version 5 after just two years of existence. Mozilla, after a period of relative complacency, has been retooling Firefox nearly as quickly. If Internet Explorer 10 appears on the same leisurely schedule as previous IE updates, it might be final until 2013 or thereabouts, and Microsoft’s browser could find itself back in catch-up mode. If I were a Redmondian, I’d aim for further meaningful IE improvements before the end of 2011. (Internet Explorer 9.5 anyone?)

In other words, the arrival of this beta represents the beginning of IE’s reemergence rather than its conclusion. It’s an impressive beginning, though–and I’m really, really curious to hear what browser enthusiasts think about it.


14 comments

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  1. Blaine Adams September 15, 2010 at 11:12 am #

    I'm passionate about browsers. I don't know why. I know this will give away my preference almost immediately, but what I look for in a browser is simple: 1. Speed. 2. Minimalism 3. Syncability. I guess I was born to be a Chrome fan, or Google thinks like I do.

    I won't use IE 9, and I'll tell you why- I have a Ubuntu Laptop, a desktop at work with Vista, a desktop at home with XP/Ubuntu, and a working Win98 I'm attempting to put an AntiX distro on. I don't have the time to say, "these are my home bookmarks," "these are my work bookmarks," etc. I need a browser that will feel the same, look the same, and get out of my way. Chrome does that. Opera does, but I'm quite taken with Chrome's extension-sync (made my life perfect), and overall feel.

  2. Blaine Adams September 15, 2010 at 11:37 am #

    Okay- I just downloaded the beta and am giving it a go. (Passionate about browsers, remember) ^

    It's fast. As fast as Chrome. It doesn't look bad at all, and matches the overall Windows Experience very nicely (I'm on Vista). For how cramped you'd think the tabs to the right of the address bar would be, they're fine. They size themsevles down quite nicely. I love the look and hope other browsers use it. Too much wasted space above the address bar, though. Hate that.

    All in all, I'm impressed. It won't replace Chrome for me, but I'm positively excited for IE9 on Windows Phone 7.

    • Hamranhansenhansen September 15, 2010 at 6:49 pm #

      Windows Phone 7 runs a unique browser that is a combination of IE7 and IE8.

    • Yanni October 18, 2010 at 6:44 am #

      Where can you download the beta version of the browser?

  3. Rob September 15, 2010 at 12:24 pm #

    IE9 looks like a great improvement, albeit for Win7 and beyond (or is it Vista and beyond?). Anyway, I prefer my Firefox configuration. From a UI perspective, I use Tiny Menu to collapse my menus into one which I then combine with select navbar buttons, my combination location/search bar (via Omnibar), followed by a few bookmarks, all on one (them menu) bar. I disable my nav and bookmarks bars. Then, I use Tab Mix Plus to get superior multi-tab functionality (I use two lines of tabs). Thus, in the same vertical space as a default Firefox, I get everything I want including two lines of tabs.

    Add the various other extensions I run for various reasons to enhance or modify Firefox's behavior, and you can understand why I find it the ideal browser. I won't even try Chrome because I don't want Google knowing so much about me! They are much too interested in collecting data on the world for my tastes. I know I could use Chromium, but I haven't bothered because I'm pretty certain I won't get the same overall experience. Maybe I'm being shortsighted there, but I like what I have.

    For those unwilling to invest the time to create a configuration like mine, I can certainly understand the desire for a more minimalist browser. I expect FF4 will rectify that a good deal. Given that IE9 will be the new default browser for PC buyers, I'm sure it will have a significant following and may actually deserve it. Competition is good and I'm glad it pushes Mozilla and Microsoft!

  4. Ken September 15, 2010 at 3:20 pm #

    Has Microsoft changed its support of FTP in IE9? IE8 displays the FTP files as links instead of the file itself; I am constantly having to use Page>> View option to display the file itself instead of the link.

  5. Hamranhansenhansen September 15, 2010 at 6:56 pm #

    You are right this is the best IE since at least 5. It's probably the best IE ever, because it acknowledges that the Web is not a feature of Windows. It has more W3C and ISO compatibility than any previous IE.

    I wouldn't use Windows day-to-day if you gave me free high-end HP PC's for life, but I will likely buy a copy of Windows 7 to run in VirtualBox so that I can test web apps in IE9. In the past, we just show a reduced feature set to IE6-IE8 because that's all they can handle. However, IE9 seems to be, like you said, back in the game. I'm hoping I can treat it like a peer to Safari and Chrome.

    If IE9 is as good as it's supposed to be, then ironically, Mozilla Firefox is the new IE6 because of its lack of support for ISO standard audio video.

  6. Baz September 15, 2010 at 9:44 pm #

    I'm looking forward to the kind of rapid IE development we last saw in the "browser wars" of the 1990s, followed by half a decade or so of no development once the competition is wiped out.

  7. Alan September 16, 2010 at 4:18 am #

    LOL – this very web page is causing a crash in IE9 Beta. Or one of the ads that is running on it does. That's kind of ironic — a positive review is causing the product being reviewed to crash and burn.

    • Guest September 16, 2010 at 11:56 am #

      Turn on the compatibility view, it will stop the crashes. Not very convenient but works 🙂

  8. @mariamarsala September 18, 2010 at 5:07 pm #

    I've read somewhere that IE 9 won't work with XP Have I read correctly?

  9. Steve B October 6, 2010 at 7:28 am #

    Take your meds lately?

  10. NONEOFYOURBUISNESS October 21, 2010 at 12:09 am #

    Actually, Microsoft made a IE for Mac.

  11. xsaf May 6, 2011 at 1:24 am #

    Exactly, I was not a computer expert and just used the simple functions in my first computer and never thought about changing a browser until I went to university. I still remember the day my teacher told us to use firefox to display html and css. Now I'm having 13 browsers installed in my computer but the browser I use most is a small one called Avant browser not IE chrome firefox those BIG ones. It's fast but the most important reason I choose it is that it release Memory completely.