IE9 has been out for a day now, and we've all had some time to try Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT) new browser, which has the task of making us forget how unappealing its predecessors were. At least Microsoft's IE9 marketing has surpassed that of its rivals, but we wonder whether IE9 can actually follow. In fact, IE9 should be taking full advantage of its user base and attempting to rebuild the enthusiasm that IE once had.

IE9 reminds me in so many ways of IE4, which was Microsoft's software that eventually killed Netscape, the dominant browser manufacturer in the mid-1990s. IE4 embraced HTML 4, IE9 moves to HTML 5. IE4 was introduced with a mega beta party, IE9 was as well. IE4 was designed to move from a static to a dynamic web, and IE9 is now designed to enable a much richer, native web. The essential difference between IE4 and IE9 is the competitive landscape: Where IE4 was the underdog against a dominating Netscape, IE9 needs to defend a crumbling market share that has declined from more than 90% to just about 60% in about five years. The rivals seem to be much stronger and more capable, with Firefox representing a mature, but very dynamic developer team that has a very capable browser foundation. Leaving Opera and Safari aside, there is Google (Nasdaq: GOOG), who wants a big slice of the browser pie to support its cloud-computing approach as well as technologies that support its core revenue model.

Together, Firefox and Chrome have captured somewhere between 30 and 40% of the browser market, depending on the market research source. Microsoft was able to halt the bleeding with an expensive and, in my opinion, somewhat deceptive commercial campaign for IE8, but it is IE9 that will have to defend Microsoft against its rivals. If it will be able to do that depends on whether or not it can shed the rather negative perception of IE8, and whether it is good enough in comparison to Firefox and Chrome, its key rivals.

The Good
When you have it running, the IE9 Beta is certainly a different breed than IE8. Where IE8 appeared to be a forgotten piece of software engineering of the 1990s, with an interface that attempts to impress with overloaded menus and proprietary features no one really wants (web slices, anyone?), IE9 is much more modest and nimble in appearance.

The menu organization is clean and immediately recognizable. Microsoft has found a good compromise between making the transition between an old IE8 and a much more modern browser, without going to an extreme like Google has done with Chrome -- which we like to call the "naked browser" because of its "stripper" interface (which, by the way, will be receiving another huge upgrade with a thumbnail UI in Chrome 8.)

There is also a much cleaner start page with most-visited pages. Conceivably, what works best for IE9 is Microsoft's choice of page organization, graphics and fonts. IE9 is not the clumsy browser that IE8 was. In terms of speed, there is, of course, Microsoft's full hardware acceleration and a new JavaScript engine that is about 30% above the fastest JavaScript browser out there (according to our tests in Sunspider). IE9 surpassed Firefox 3.6.x, but it has fallen behind the latest builds of Firefox 4 (JS), which are about 10% faster than IE9 in Sunspider. Mozilla itself claims that Firefox JS is more than seven times faster than IE9 in real-world JavaScript applications.

While JavaScript is a big deal, these differences may not matter that much as all major browsers have arrived in a state where you could consider them fast enough. The differences may be rather negligible in everyday browsing. Chrome may soon be offering hardware acceleration as well -- we hear Google will be catching up with IE within two months -- and at that point, we should all be happy with the progress that has been made over the past two years. 

The Baggage
Whenever Microsoft comes out with a new browser, it has become a tradition here to guess what will be the most useless new feature. Microsoft often invents new features that turn out to be baggage no one cares for. That baggage may be Pin Tabs in IE9, which lets you treat websites like applications. If you will, it goes a bit beyond the App Tab concept in Firefox and Chrome. Google played with putting websites into application icons back when Chrome was first released, and no one has really cared about it since. No one will care about it now.

What does work, however, is the tab preview in the taskbar, which is integrated in a much nicer way than what you can get with any other browser. As long as you do not work with 30 open tabs, you can easily preview the content of any tab in the taskbar and choose your destination from there. With Aero Snap, you can view two windows side by side in the same browser window. These two features seem to be a natural evolution that could make its way into other browsers.

The Big Miss, x2
Interestingly enough, I believe that Microsoft failed to integrate its search engine much deeper into Bing. Google is showing how that can be done in a very efficient and useful way. Down the road, Bing can be a major advantage for Microsoft, and its capabilities need to be in IE9 as well. Instant Search is such a feature, and those who like this function will migrate to Chrome. Searching in IE9 is, in comparison, still a rather complicated task, even if search suggestions are now shown in a much more useful way in the drop-down URL bar.

Where Microsoft clearly dropped the ball is with OS support and migration flexibility. IE9 is a very moody browser. Aside from the fact that Microsoft has no upgrade path for Windows XP users -- which still account for about 60% of PC users out there -- IE6 remains a big barrier to IE9 capturing market share. Microsoft likes to say that IE8 is still the fastest-growing browser in terms of market share, but IE8 is now 18 months old, and it should have transitioned its user base a long time ago.

My personal experience was not especially pleasing, as IE9 Beta strangely refused to download under Vista and required a Windows 7 installation. Microsoft has still a lot of work left to do, and it would be well-advised if it extended its platform support of IE9. If there is a downside to IE9, then it is this issue, and it is extensive enough to prevent IE9 from becoming the widely used browser it could be.

As software alone, however, IE9 is a big step forward for Microsoft.

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