This week Microsoft introduced us to a new experience, a new way of enjoying the web, the beauty of it specifically. The web browser has changed dramatically over the past 15 years, it has moved from this niche thing that was once a second class citizen to activities such as Word processors, spreadsheets to a driving force of computing. The significant quantity of my time is spent in the browser these days, whether its e-mail, social networking, watching videos, consuming information or productivity using services such as Office Web Apps. The Web browser has become a jack of all trades and its defining computing for us as we spend more time online.
This means the user experience is critical, particularly navigation, performance and presentation. Microsoft’s competitors in the web browser market have been continuously innovating over the past 3 years. Firefox 1.0 which was launched in 2004 focused on providing a secure, simple experience. Google Chrome launched in September 2008 focused primarily on simplicity and performance. Both are continually improving their respective browsers with frequent updates.
Internet Explorer has remained strong, but Microsoft realizes that the pace of innovation needs to be revamped. I recently noted some of the significant improvements that have been introduced over the past four years and a lot of them are notable, such as visual search, web slice, color coordinated tabs, integration with Windows 7 and stronger security with technologies such as Private Mode, Phishing Filter and many other features.
Internet Explorer 9 is BETA, which means it’s currently in development and is probably not recommended for production use. There are some key ways you can test it out, which includes a Virtual Machine such as Windows Virtual PC or a non-production test machine. I currently have a test system setup with Windows 7 Ultimate x64, specifically running Service Pack 1 beta, I also have a VM running Windows 7 Enterprise x64 RTM.
Internet Explorer 9 Beta is compatible with Windows Vista SP2 and Windows 7 PCs. It is not available for earlier versions of Windows Vista or with PCs running Windows XP – so don’t even bother if you are running that version of Windows.
As Internet Explorer General Manager Dean Hachamovitch puts it “Building a modern browser requires a modern operating system,”
Microsoft said that the reason for dropping Windows XP are based on technical reasons, such as lack of support for Direct2D and DirectWrite DirectX APIs (applications programming interfaces) in Windows XP. These API’s in addition to security technologies are built into Windows Vista and Windows 7 and just cannot be back ported Windows XP. Windows XP is a 9 year old operating system, the extra burden to support 3 separate versions of Windows (XP, Vista, 7 in addition to various editions and Server releases is probably a bit too much even for a Company with the resources of Microsoft). Its time people move on to Windows 7, if you want to experience the benefits of Internet Explorer 9, upgrade to Windows 7 or at least a minimum of Windows Vista SP2 (preferably Windows 7). If Windows XP users cannot accept this decision, then you can download Internet Explorer 8 which works great on that release.
Simple, elegant Setup
Installation quick and easy
Yes, you still have to do this.
Now, onto the installation. Simple, quick and intuitive is how I would describe it. It took approximately 3 minutes to complete the installation. Similar in appearance to Windows Live Essentials wave 4, Microsoft uses a minimal installer. I am a bit disappointed that there isn’t one single 32 and one single 64 bit installer. Users still have to choose which architecture and version of Windows (7 or Vista) they are running. A Restart was required.
Windows Internet Explorer 9 first launch
The interface in Internet Explorer 9 has been streamlined to focus on the content of the web page removing some of the overbearing qualities of past versions. It’s a philosophy itself first spoken about with the introduction of the Windows AERO User Experience. The idea of making the content of the window be the star. With Internet Explorer 9, the web page is front and center more than ever. The toolbar area has been exquisitely designed, Microsoft has cut the amount of toolbars down to just one. The Navigation buttons (back and forward), Address Bar and Tabs have been fused together along with a few toolbar controls (Home, Favorites and Tools). This might come across as controversial and I personally am still in the adjustment stages. What I love though is the simplicity of it all, there is not this heap of features presented, just the essentials that a user needs especially since the idea of web pages are more app centric in this release. Having a litter of tabs in one window is not necessarily the best idea, you can read on further to understand why.
I notice when I launched the browser for the first time, I was greeted by a small notification strip at the bottom of the window recommending I Speed up startup and browsing by disabling add-ons.
Clicking the â€˜Disable add-ons button, leads to a dialog which will display a list of add ons that might be affecting the web browsers performance. Talk about intuitive, this gives users better insight about how they can improve the performance of their web browsing experience.
As you can see in the above screenshot, add ons with red bar indicate how much time they are taking to load. Those with gray bars are minimal and can be left alone. A really great feature!
Internet Explorer 8
Internet Explorer 9
Website’s are probably not something users pay much attention to in the sense that, a lot of the details invested in application development and user experience that are often applied to desktop programs. With Internet Explorer 9, Microsoft hopes to change that thinking, the aim is to make website’s more app centric. In fact one of the cool things you can do with Internet Explorer 9 optimized website’s on Windows 7 is pin them to your Taskbar just like any other application such as Word or Photoshop.
A number of high profile web developers have focused on revamping their websites just for IE 9, these include Ebay, CNN, Redbull, Amazon.com and IMDB, to name a few. Microsoft announced 70 partners who have all optimized their sites for the beta. The intention really is to blur platforms a bit, to make the web as much a part of the desktop as possible. It’s an interesting approach. What I believe this will do is create better brand consciousness among web developers to focus more on the quality of the website, such as how easy it is navigate, the use of colors and layout, even down to the most minute details such as the Webicon.
When you pin a webicon to your Taskbar, you will notice familiar Windows 7 functionality, such as the ability to right click the icon and access Jump List. This is great for my favorite sites that I open first thing everyday, such as Twitter, Facebook, CNET News, ZDNET and many others. There is could be more intuitiveness about how you pin a webicon to the Taskbar, I thought you did it by right clicking a Tab, but later discovered this is done by holding down on the web sites emoticon in the Address Bar, then drag it to the Taskbar. Although drag and drop is a natural action over the years, a quicker method I would recommend is to have a right click the webicon menu in the Address bar with a pop menu displaying option to pin to the Taskbar.
Here is an interesting branding idea I noticed is a part of Internet Explorer 9. Web developers can now customize IE on the fly to reflect the core identity of their site. An example of this is through elements such as the Back and Forward Navigation buttons with colors specific to that website. Similar color coordinated colors for applications on the Taskbar, such as a blue button representing Microsoft Word. It’s a more engaging way for sites to embrace the desktop and a bit of personality along with clear identification to a user.
Chrome and Firefox have a lot of catching up to do with features like this.
This is just a tip of the iceberg though, the key integration is when you check out the Jump List features, not all sites support it at the moment, but I am sure they will over time. Two examples are Twitter and Facebook. When you pin either social network to the Taskbar, you will see unique Jump List Tasks such as @Mentions, Direct Messages, New Message, Search and Favorites. Facebook offers its own unique task such as News, Messages, Events and Friends. This immediately blows Chrome and Firefox out of the water. The idea of opening up the browser and typing in a URL or click a favorite link to your site, then navigating to a specific location is unnecessary. Jump List integration is just spectacular!
More Windows 7 Integration
The integration doesn’t end there either, Internet Explorer 9 also takes advantage of other Aero functionality such as Snap. One of the cool effects in Windows 7 is Aero Snaps which allows you to snap to windows to the side of the screen which automatically fills the half of the screen. This is great for doing reference or comparison activities. With Internet Explorer 9, it’s a breeze.
Here is an example, I have two tabs open in my Twitter window (my Twitter Home Page and my @Mentions page), suppose I want to compare the two at the same time. With IE 8 or Firefox, I could do a Tear off tab action then use then use the Aero Snaps feature to compare both windows. But why bother going through all that process?
What I will do is simply drag the window with my Twitter Home page to the left of the screen. Now check out the next option
Here you can see I am simply dragging off the tab for my @Mentions window to right.
There I go, as easy as that. Now I can do whatever comparison or reference I want with both windows on-screen. When I decide that I am finished, all I have to do is simply redrag it back into the original window! How amazing is that???
Its synergies like this that show the level of sophistication and thought that has gone into the user’s experience for this release of Internet Explorer 9. It’s another example of why Internet Explorer 9 was not possible on Windows XP.
Of course, this is probably the most critical area of the Internet Explorer 9 experience. Since March, Microsoft has been releasing a preview of the engine powering this release. Early testers have been impressed. I personally didn’t take the time to try it out and preferred to wait until today when Microsoft released a full featured beta. Microsoft has made some critical improvements, I noted earlier such as the Disable Add on feature. But this is only a minor aspect. Internet Explorer 9 is going at the deepest level meaning the entire computer contributes to the browsers speed, these include processor, memory and in particular Video Graphics or Graphics Processing Unit (GPU). Microsoft calls this Accelerated Graphics. This provides are more dynamic web experience by utilizing the power of the GPU to handle the rendering and processing of video and images to speed up presentation and load time of pages. This is based on low level improvements introduced in Windows 7 and Vista through Direct2D.
I decided to try out 15 of my favorite websites I tried last year in my Internet Explorer 8 review, along with two other browsers, Firefox 3.5.9 and Google Chrome 6.
|IE 9 Beta||IE 8||Firefox 3.5.9||Chrome 6|
|My Blog Live Spaces||12||40||32||21|
|All About Microsoft ZDNET||10||11||8||8|
I did these test on a 8 MB Flow Cable connection.
The results are interesting, of course Internet Explorer 9 is still in development, so we might even see additional improvements as Microsoft continue tweaking under the hood. Also, as more sites become optimized, we might even see greater performance, but for now, these are the results I am seeing. They are unscientific, since I did using a stop watch. Time is listed in seconds.
I tried out loading a wallpaper image off Microsoft’s Windows 7 Personalize Gallery, here is a link to the image I loaded here There wasn’t anything to report as all 4 web browsers loaded the image instantly. Testing browser performance is tricky, the fact that some of the load times are very negligible, I seriously have wonder if its worth doing if you are already on a fast broadband connection.
More Cool Features
I want to start wrapping up this early preview, I have been working on it since this morning. So, I want dive more into changes to user interface. As you can see the interface is major update, its refreshing, inviting and attractive. It makes you want to use it and benefit from it more. Internet Explorer 8 included some well needed improvements to the Address Bar such as auto complete suggestions for sites that you might want to go to, suggestions are based on your history of websites you like to visit, your personal web browsing history and Feeds that you have subscribed to. Typing in a URL offers some address bar tricks, if you click the arrow below the URL in the middle, it will reveal a number of commands:
- Go to Enter
- Navigate to Ctrl + Enter
- Open in a new tab Alt + Enter
- Open in a background tab Alt + Shift + Enter
Autocomplete suggestions in IE 8, as noted, are based on your sites visited, or your browser history. In Internet Explorer 9, you can now get real-time feedback based on Bing results. This is turned off by default and you will have to manually turn it on (privacy reasons). The most dramatic improvement is the fusion of Search into the Address, just like Google Chrome with its Smart Bar feature. So, you not only can enter URLs, you can do web searches right there too.
Here you can see, I don’t get any suggestions for CNN.com in Internet Explorer 8
Suggestions from Bing, I can even choose other locations such as Google Internet Explorer 9.
The new tab button is so much faster than Internet Explorer 8. I am sure many of us know how molasses slow it was, not anymore! It opens instantly and displays a list of your most recently visited websites. It looks like Tab Gallery has been incorporated into the new new tab page. It’s very interesting the changes they have made here with the use of colors. Users will notice that a display of all your popular sites that you visit most often are shown, along with a color coordinated bar below each, indicating how actively you visit the site. The length of the bar is an indication of frequency.
From here you can do task like Reopen closed tabs along with your last browser session. You can also hide sites you don’t see or reveal or even start an InPrivate Browsing session. It would have been nice to have non-adjacent selection support here to quickly close a batch of sites on the fly.
The three buttons at the top right don’t reveal anything new, the Home button does as it suggest, takes you to your home page. The Star reveals all your Favorites, History and Feeds. The Bolt (Tools menu) list all common Options and Settings for the browser. I am disappointed that Internet Explorer 9 does not introduce a new Internet Options window. I personally think its cluttered and need to be revamped with a similar look and feel to the one in Microsoft Office 2007/2010. It would be nice if the IE Team added a File menu tab similar to the one in Office 2010 apps, with a Backstage like interface.
Last year I asked for some things I would have liked to see in IE 8, did they make it in IE 9
- Download Manager – trust me, it needs it, I find it very handy in FireFox and Safari – Pause/Resume, Manage. Yes, finally! Microsoft has introduced an interesting approach for downloading and running an executable in Internet Explorer 9. The old download dialog has now been phased out and replaced by a notification strip at the bottom when you click a download link, you have the option of running it, saving it or click cancel. You can click the View Button which will reveal the all new Download Manager.
The all new Download Manager
You can quickly access the Download Manager by pressing CTRL + J or click the Tools menu and click View Downloads.
- Non-adjacent Selection of text on web pages. Nope, didn’t make it.
- Customizable toolbar, I personally wouldn’t mind if buttons such as Home, Feeds, Print, Page, Tools and Help were on a another toolbar group such as the Address bar group, I need more real estate for Tab’s that’s much cleaner. The new Favorites Bar in particular eats up a lot of space. Nope, and for obvious reasons, the new layout is more focused on putting emphasis on the web page instead of the browser window.
- List View layout for Options, similar to Office 2007 Options dialog. Also make the Advance settings a part of the list view Options, this includes: Accessibility, Browsing, International, Multimedia. Nope, discussed earlier, well, I can still hope.
- Make Print Preview utilize a Tab instead of opening a separate window. Nope, but what I notice is that Printer Preview took a long time to compose a window of the preview.
- Close button Tabs like Firefox. Nope, hopefully by RTM I wish. Since we are on the topic of Tabs, there are some love aesthetics improves, there is a faint level of transparency, color coordinated tabs are more subtle compared to IE 8.
- One unified 32-bit and one unified 64-bit installer. Note, you must download for Windows 7 64 bit, Windows 7 32 bit, Windows Vista 64 bit and Windows Vista 32 bit. Microsoft, would love if you could simplify this.
I have only touched the surface with this introductory preview, but so far I am most impressed by this release of Internet Explorer, it’s the absolute best in years. The emphasis on engaging more with the web page, allowing web developers to offer unique experiences that integrate more with the desktop make Internet Explorer 9 truly one of a kind. You are not going to see some of these benefits on Windows Vista, which makes it an even better reason to upgrade to Windows 7 if you haven’t already from Windows XP. It’s still early days yet and I am most looking forward to seeing more sites show off their unique experience over time. Again, the streamlined interface, jump list integration, new tab page improvements, superior performance over IE 8 and even competitors such as Firefox and Chrome, deep integration with Windows 7 Aero Effects such as Snaps, I have to say it, I believe Microsoft has the best web browser in the world right now. Stay tuned for more updates.