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Business in Vancouver

Internet Explorer 9's release: The opening shot in Internet browser World War III

by  Alan Zisman (c) 2010 First published in Business in Vancouver October 5 - 11, 2010 issue #1093 High Tech Office column

A brief history of the Browser Wars -

  • Browser War I, approximately 1995 – 2001: Microsoft initially failed to anticipate the explosive popularity of the Web, letting startup Netscape dominate the early market for Web browsers. When Netscape suggested the Web could make traditional operating systems obsolete, Microsoft declared war, bundling its also-ran browser, Internet Explorer with Windows 98. By the 2001 release of Windows XP  about 90% of users went online with Internet Explorer.
  • Browser War II: Having defeated Netscape, Microsoft went back to sleep, letting development of Internet Explorer stagnate. In 2004, the release of Mozilla Firefox – an open source rewrite of Netscape – was the opening shot of Browser War II. Apple removed IE as the default browser on its Macintosh computers, replacing it with its home-brewed Safari. Google jumped into the fray, with its minimalist but speedy Chrome browser. Microsoft responded with IE 7 and 8, but these versions failed to stem market share losses – at present IE's overall share has dropped to around 60%, to a large extent a combination of users in large organizations who are not allowed to choose their own browser and home users who simply stick with whatever was pre-installed on their computer. Hardly anyone seems to opt for Microsoft's browser as an informed choice.
  • Browser War III: With Internet Explorer 9 – pre-released as a public beta in September – the Microsoft empire strikes back. Available for download from beautyoftheweb.ca, IE 9 offers a trimmed-down, minimalist interface along with much-improved performance and support for both existing and upcoming Web standards like HTML 5. (Like IE 8, there's a 'compatibility mode' for sites developed with older versions of IE in mind).

Similar to Google Chrome, there's a combo box for typing either a web page address of a search term. While Microsoft's Bing search engine is used by default – no surprise - it's easy to pick an alternative. Open a new tab and you'll see thumbnails of previously opened pages – like in Google Chrome and Apple's Safari. As in Firefox, the back button is enlarged, since it's most often clicked.

Only in IE 9 - the new download manage warns you if you're downloading from a known-unsafe website. Very good!

IE 9 makes use of hardware graphics acceleration for improved display of online video  and web apps. Microsoft claims that this feature, and improved text display are specific to Vista and Windows 7 – and as a result, XP users won't get the new version. (Google and Mozilla, however, are offering hardware graphics acceleration for XP users in their upcoming Chrome and Firefox versions).

There are several features just for Windows 7 users. A favourite: you can pin a website to the Win 7 taskbar, and if the website developers add a few lines of code to their page, the taskbar icon gets a 'jumplist' showing often-chosen features. (Download the beta and try this with Facebook or the Wall Street Journal). The result: a pinned website can act more like an application on the hard-drive.

Currently in beta, Microsoft has not committed to a release date. And be warned – if you download and install the IE 9 beta, it will replace your existing Internet Explorer version. Nevertheless, the interface and performance improvements may make it worth trying out, both for users of older IE versions and for those who have abandoned IE for another browser – it's the first version of IE in a decade that I can recommend.

IE 9 won't put an end to the browser wars, however. Both Google and Mozilla have new browser versions of their own up their sleeves, and both have proven able to develop new versions much more often than Microsoft. And by failing to support Windows XP (to say nothing of Macintosh or Linux), Microsoft is ensuring that millions of users will have to turn to an Internet Explorer competitor to get an up to date browser.

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