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.