In-Depth

IE 9 Reader Review: Internet Explorer to the 9s

From speed to UI to HTML 5, Redmond magazine readers share what they like -- and don't -- about Microsoft's Internet Explorer 9 beta.

Monopolies rarely last forever. First, Microsoft killed the early lead of the popular Netscape Navigator browser when Redmond bundled Internet Explorer with Windows 95. By maneuvering itself into a dominant browser market share in the late 1990s, Microsoft created a monopoly -- but also sparked the Mozilla Foundation and Google Inc. to fight back. Netscape eventually died after 10 years of AOL ownership, but a 1998 Mozilla project moved similar code into open source, creating Firefox -- which is now the browser of choice for many an IT pro. Today, Firefox and Chrome threaten Microsoft's supremacy.

In recent years Microsoft has lost gobs of market share to Firefox, Chrome and the browser for the Mac OS X, Safari. Estimates vary, but according to recent research from Net Applications.com, Internet Explorer has a little more than 60 percent of the market, Firefox weighs in with 23 percent and Chrome has 7 percent (which has certainly risen since the results were released last summer).

The browser isn't just a simple app anymore, but a strategic semi-platform for Web developers. Browsers have to parse code at sites supported by ad networks. They're also used for e-commerce, where they support corporate revenue streams. Most of the browser dough today comes through search advertising. (Can you say "Bing"?)

Those factors add up to some compelling economics. That, and pride, are what we're sure are fueling Microsoft's drive to regain total browser dominance -- 60 percent share just doesn't cut it in Redmond.

The Microsoft IE 8 drive kicked off with a slew of privacy and efficiency features. The new IE 9 beta, released in September, pushes the envelope still further, focusing on performance and modern standards. HTML5, currently in the working draft stage at the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), represents the cutting edge, offering a richer way of delivering graphics and video. The Scalable Vector Graphics portion of the spec promises native browser support for video using standard HTML5 markup, reducing the need for Adobe Flash or even Microsoft Silverlight browser add-ons.

Microsoft may be onto something innovative with IE 9, but that assessment will ultimately rest with the IT professionals and developers involved. To support this report, 62 Redmond readers responded to our queries about the new IE 9 browser, currently at beta release. More than a dozen provided the insight that only true IT pros have, and which we've distilled for you here.

Speed Demon
One of Redmond's major goals with IE 9 is boosting speed, be it the speed of downloading, rendering or video playback. While IE 9 is still in test mode, the speed goal seems to be achieved, according to some of our Redmond respondents.

"I downloaded and used IE 9 for a while. It works very well but it's a beta. The upside is IE 9 is fast, clean and easy to use -- maybe because I'm used to IE 8," says Redmond reader Charles Chang.

"Internet Explorer 9 is definitely faster than other browsers," says reader J.C. Warren, a client server integration analyst from Issaquah, Wash. "It solved a performance issue on my work computer where pages loaded incredibly slowly. I couldn't determine the cause and tried the Internet Explorer 9 beta on a lark -- and the slowness evaporated."

Warren isn't alone in noting the speed gains. "I downloaded Internet Explorer 9 on zero day and love it. I run all of the others -- Firefox, Chrome and Safari -- but keep coming back to Internet Explorer 9. Initial app load seems faster and page rendering is as fast as any, if not quicker in most cases," says Redmond reader Roy Humphries.

While Chang, Warren and Humphries see the beta as faster, others aren't so sure. Reader Chris Gahlsdorf, systems administrator for Northwest Human Services, only noticed a mild bump. "I did some basic speed tests, and while a little faster, it wasn't anything earth-shattering," Gahlsdorf says.

Others question how much impact the browser itself has on performance. "I don't notice any speed difference between IE 9 and Firefox, or even IE 8 and Chrome. All the hoopla about the speed of JavaScript is lost on me because I have a 20 mbps fiber-optic connection and a fast computer," says Doug Perrault, a CPA and Web programmer near Tampa, Fla. "That it takes 1 ms to run a script in Chrome versus 8 ms in Internet Explorer 8 isn't that big of a deal. In both cases sites pop right up and work as if they were native Windows apps. The real speed differences are on the side of the servers. If the server is slow, the site is slow, even if you're using Chrome."

Simple UI
Google Chrome changed the whole browser UI paradigm. Just like the Google search engine, Chrome is decidedly sparse. Internet Explorer 9 apparently took some Chrome cues -- and the majority of the Redmond readers who responded like it.

"IE 8 was a disappointment, as it was still shackled to the IE 7 frame of mind," says Gahlsdorf. "With IE 9, Microsoft used the Windows 7 mentality: simple is good. As a developer and administrator I appreciate still having access to the more advanced features, but I don't need them cluttering up my screen every day when I only use them 10 percent of the time."

Reader Brian Knackstedt also wants his browsers lean and mean. "I like the new interface. It's nice to be able to drag and drop tabs between windows and have more screen real estate," says Knackstedt.

And Humphries, already impressed with the browser's speed, is also a fan of the IE 9 UI. "You could argue that the interface has been stolen from Chrome, but that's the same as saying, 'Hey, your car has four wheels; you stole my IP!'

"I won't drop the others," Humphries adds. "I have uses for them all, but Internet Explorer is my workhorse and just seems to work. It looks like Redmond finally got it right!"

UI design is as much art as science, and not all readers like what they've seen of IE 9. "The UI doesn't work well for me. I tend to have many tabs open, and I lost that space," says Craig Burgess, systems and network administrator for Digital Infuzion Inc. in Gaithersburg, Md. "It has more of a Chrome look and feel, and I'm not crazy about Chrome. With the other things I'm working on I've uninstalled IE 9. Once it gets closer to release I'll give it another try."

Likewise, Jon Johnsen, a reader from Richmond, Calif., can't get his eyes around IE 9. "The sparse interface is totally non-intuitive. I don't have the time to figure it out. I'm using Internet Explorer even less than I did before," Johnsen says.

For another reader, the UI is a deal breaker. "I installed the IE 9 beta, and while I see potential, one flaw makes it unusable: It's missing the status bar," says Mike Balk. "Without that I have no idea if I clicked and am waiting for the response to download, or if my click missed and I'm sitting there waiting to figure out that I didn't click! That alone will probably make me go back to IE 8 if they don't fix it."

Balk adds: "Microsoft also put the tabs on the same line as the URL, so with four or five tabs open, it's hard to see what's on each tab."

Searching for Perfection
Search on the Web takes several forms. There are standalone engines such as Google and Bing, and search boxes located right in the browser via an add-in or toolbar. Google innovated on top of that by making the Chrome address bar for URLs also serve as a search box. Google calls it the "Omnibox." IE 9 also touts this address bar/search box combo, but Microsoft calls it the "One Box."

For some, especially Chrome fans, this combo is a winner. "I love the new address bar and its ability to do searches from within it," says reader Gahlsdorf. "I also like the streamlined look of the icons including home, favorites and settings. And I appreciate that the old toolbar is still hidden there and can be revealed with a quick ALT-F."

Chris Baily also enjoys the new approach, with one reservation. "I like the 'One Box' address bar, which comes from Chrome, but I'm afraid my users won't know where their search box has gone," says Baily.

The search/address bar may take some getting used to, even for IT pros. "It took me a while to find the search box. When all else fails, read the directions: The address box is the search box. I've had no other problems," says Redmond reader Bob Wallace.

Still, some just plain don't like the search/address bar. "Searching from the address bar is one of the reasons I abandoned Chrome and switched back to IE 8. It's annoying. Clicking and holding the large left-pointing arrow to back up to previous pages without having to reload each time is not intuitive," says reader Warren.

Settling on Standards
Microsoft has been criticized for not supporting standards, unless they're its own. For this reason, earlier versions of Internet Explorer were blasted by developers. Many felt they had to code for quirks in IE 6, which was widely deemed to be a non-standards-compliant browser. IE 9 aims to change that history, and for some early testers, it already has.

"I'm thrilled Microsoft is finally adopting as many of the standards as possible. That makes it a lot easier to support more browser choices with less work," says developer

Perrault. "We're a small company and I can't spend all day coding for umpteen browsers. I've been coding to HTML5 standards wherever possible. Using the HTML5 doctype -- along with valid HTML5 syntax and CSS 2.1 -- provides me with pages that almost always work the first time around in pretty much every major browser for the past couple of versions. And they also almost always look the same in all of the browsers."

Perrault continues: "I don't usually use the new features in HTML5 -- just the HTML5 syntax. But that alone sped up my development, as it almost always works. I think I'll use a couple of the new form input types for telephone and e-mail, because they're backward-compatible and show promise."

Pinning to the Taskbar
One of the most important new features in IE 9 is pinning a Web site to the taskbar. Say you love Redmondmag.com (and you should). You could pin this tab to the taskbar so it's quickly available, without having to find a bookmark.

This feature got decidedly mixed reviews, as did the tear-off tabs feature that lets you pull out tabs as Web pages and line them up side by side. "The tabs 'tear off' way too easily," says reader J.C. Warren. "I've yet to figure out a legitimate reason for pinning a Web page to the taskbar. I typically have a dozen or so tabs open, and often enough apps to overlap -- so why I'd want more clutter escapes me."

Reader Gahlsdorf, on the other hand, loves the new taskbar features. "The feature I'm most excited about -- and was most leery of -- is pinning to the taskbar and the integration that comes with it," he says. "As soon as I pinned the first Web site, I was hooked. I love how the browser customizes itself to that app. When you launch the app, the browser takes off any toolbars and streamlines itself by matching the predominant color of the app's icon. This makes it easy when switching back and forth between apps. The sites that have published, integrated jumplists make it easier to navigate to specific areas within the site," says Gahlsdorf.

Stiffening Security
Security is always important. For Microsoft, the No. 1 hacker target in the world, it's paramount. IE 9 has several new security features, plus new methods to alert users to potential problems. "Once I realized that security/download messages are now displayed at the bottom of the window instead of the top -- as they used to be -- I've learned to appreciate the enhanced security notifications," says reader Warren.

Many alerts show up during downloads, so you can make doubly sure you really want that file. "I thought security for downloads was a nuisance when I first encountered it. After using it for a while I'm getting used to it," says reader Robert Schlitcting.

Closing the Tab
While there are a few quibbles, all in all readers seem pretty pleased with IE 9. "It still has the absolute best print-preview function out there, which for my purposes means it's still my default browser," says reader Perrault. "By contrast, Opera has the worst print-preview function from a user experience point of view, in my opinion."

For many, the excitement is palpable -- and Internet Explorer 9 is a product upgrade, not a brand-new invention. "I haven't been this excited about Internet Explorer since the IE 4 release. Even IE 7 was ho-hum and I beta-tested that. IE 9 provides awesome integration with Windows 7, and gets the makeover Internet Explorer truly needed. I was mostly on Firefox, but I may be switching back to Internet Explorer with this one," says reader Gahlsdorf.

With all of its attributes, IE 9 could become a corporate standard. "We're in the beginning stages of a Windows 7 migration and the focus is entirely on IE 8. I'm advocating for IE 9 instead -- but that's probably not going to fly," says Redmond reader Warren. "The Group Policy management capabilities are one of the key components that I'm using to gain traction."

It's notable that even Microsoft doesn't recommend deploying IE 9 with Windows 7 in a production environment. In a Sept. 21 "Windows for Your Business" blog, Microsoft indicated that IT pros should go with IE 8, which will provide an upgrade path for IE 9 when it becomes a more mature product.

Still, not all our respondents were fans of rolling out Internet Explorer to their company's users. "I'd rather see people using IE 9 than IE 8 or -- heaven forbid! -- IE 6," says reader Dan Hallack. "But the long release cycle means that whatever issues it does have will be around for ages. And Microsoft has burned us too many times. The worst thing that could happen is that a huge community of users decides IE 9 is 'good enough,' as happened with IE 6, and we end up with another 10-year albatross around our necks."

Hallack doesn't see only doom in the future, however: "Today, Internet Explorer is a halfway decent browser, and Microsoft deserves credit for producing something that's not terrible, this time."

In the end, it may not matter if Internet Explorer is better than the rest. "As usual, Microsoft is playing catch-up and not innovating. I'm OK with that, as it usually means that the company's stuff will work -- unlike Firefox, which has at least at many holes as any version of Internet Explorer and still had a memory leak last time I checked," says Warren.

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