In-Depth

What IT Can Expect with Internet Explorer 9

IE9 promises native support for video and scalable vector graphics, but IT organizations likely will depend on Flash and Silverlight in the near term.

In March, Microsoft unveiled a "platform preview" of Internet Explorer 9, the latest version of its Web browser. With that unveiling came much talk about standards support based on the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) specifications, such as HTML5 and CSS3, which are currently under development.

In addition, the new browser will be capable of leveraging the graphics processing unit (GPU) within devices to accelerate two-dimensional scalable vector graphics using Microsoft Direct2D technology. IE9 will support HTML5-encoded video that runs natively in the browser, without using plug-ins such as Adobe Flash or Microsoft Silverlight. Microsoft has shown good performance test results on IE9 by tapping into the GPU hardware. However, if the GPU isn't present on a device, IE9 is supposed to be capable of emulating GPU hardware using the Direct2D technology.

With the launch of the IE9 platform preview, Microsoft issued a strong message to developers about best practices for Web sites: Start coding for the coming W3C standards. Instead of the old approach of using "sniffer" code to check for different browser versions to ensure the user experience, Web developers should write code that checks for the latest W3C HTML5 and CSS3 features and start enabling those features as various browsers start to support them.

Standardization Means Less Work
The goal for organizations and Web developers will be to write code once that will work across multiple browsers and on multiple devices, according to Microsoft.

"IE9 reduces these [cross-browser] differences and enables developers to use the same markup across browsers," said Tony Ross, program manager for IE at Microsoft, in an April 14 IE team blog post. "Enabling the same markup means supporting the right features to make the same HTML, JavaScript and CSS 'just work.'"

Microsoft has a firm foothold in the standardization process itself. The company is a member of the W3C HTML5 Testing Task Force, which is led by Kris Krueger, the Microsoft principal test lead for IE, as well as by employees of the W3C. Paul Cotton serves as the chair of the HTML5 Working Group. Cotton is group manager for Web Services Standards and Partners in the Microsoft Interoperability Strategy Team.

Each working group at the W3C establishes its own testing processes, and Microsoft has already contributed 8,500 tests for IE8 alone, according to Jason Upton, Microsoft partner test manager for IE. A Microsoft spokesperson says the IE9 team has updated the W3C test numbers with IE9 Platform Preview 2 and has submitted a total of 88 new tests to the W3C, bringing the total to 192 tests based on the Microsoft IE9 efforts.

On top of submitting W3C tests, Microsoft has its own internal test process. The company has devoted an entire room full of servers to test the various iterations of IE (see "Putting Internet Explorer to the Test").

The Continuing IE6 Nightmare
Many IT organizations may be skeptical about the Microsoft view on standards support in browsers given their experiences with IE6. The main problem for organizations is not avoiding a Flash or Silverlight plug-in, as is enabled by HTML5. Instead, they face problems maintaining legacy Web applications, many of which were written to conform with IE6. The common feeling among Web developers has been that IE6 was not a W3C standards-compliant browser. However, because IE6 remains in wide use, developers have to account for its quirks when writing HTML code.

"Most of the issue with IE6 is that it has definitely left a bad taste in a lot of firms' mouths or caused them additional work," says Sheri McLeish, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. "And from Microsoft's perspective, I think they're learning their lesson around the backlash they've experienced and the vulnerability they've had in the marketplace as a result of not making it easy for that upgrade migration."

She adds that with IE7 and IE8, Microsoft has been "much better at handling the compatibility between those versions." Developers can use an X-UA Compatible tag in the header of their HTML code, along with a Compatibility View list, to render the browser's display according to IE7 or IE8 standards modes. Still, if organizations need to use the IE6 quirks mode for proper Web-application functionality, they're fast running out of luck.

"Consistent with Internet Explorer 8, Internet Explorer 9 does not add an Internet Explorer 6 compatibility mode," a Microsoft spokesperson explains. The spokesperson adds that "nearly 90 percent of the top Web sites from around the world are compatible with Internet Explorer 8 without using the Compatibility View list, which puts us on par with other shipping versions of popular browsers."

Organizations can use application virtualization to avoid conflicts with IE6 legacy Web apps. One company that succeeded using that approach is Expedia.com, a travel Web portal that had ActiveX conflicts among its various Web applications. However, McLeish hasn't found much enthusiasm for that approach among her clients.

"[Application virtualization] tends to be slow, so it's an easier option to simply maintain multiple browsers on a profile and use IE6 in those circumstances than to necessarily go through the effort for virtualization," McLeish says. "So we see [the solution of] potentially supporting the use of multiple browsers in those scenarios."

Organizations expecting to run IE9 on Windows XP are out of luck. The browser will only run on Windows Vista or Windows 7. Microsoft explained the lack of XP support by saying that IE9 requires a "modern operating system" to run. However, critics have depicted the restriction as a means to push organizations away from the venerable XP, which is still used by 74.8 percent of companies, according to a study published in May by Forrester.



Which browser do you believe best:
Base Internet Explorer Firefox Safari Opera Chrome Don't Know
Ensures functionality of businesscritical enterprise applications 115
100.00%
69
60.00%
19
16.50%
0
0.00%
2
1.70%
4
3.50%
21
18.30%
Provides a consistent user experience across enterprise apps 115
100.00%
60
52.20%
25
21.70%
1
0.90%
2
1.70%
4
3.50%
23
20.00%
Effectively controls (restricts or enables) access to Web-based resources 115
100.00%
54
47.00%
29
25.20%
2
1.70%
2
1.70%
1
0.90%
27
23.50%
Protects the enterprise from Web-based security risks 115
100.00%
39
33.90%
38
33.00%
2
1.70%
2
1.70%
4
3.50%
30
26.10%
Supports the workforce to most efficiently access and use Web-based resources 115
100.00%
55
47.80%
30
26.10%
1
0.90%
2
1.70%
5
4.30%
22
19.10%
Internal Forrester Research Inc. data from a report done by Ron Rogowski

Microsoft has urged individuals and organizations to upgrade from IE6 with the idea that it's old technology (the browser was first released in August 2001). As such, the security of IE6 has often come into question. IE6 made the headlines in January as a potential security risk for organizations after attacks on Google Inc. and other companies were traced to Chinese hackers, who exploited a security hole in IE6.

Still, Microsoft is committed to supporting IE6 until April 8, 2014, as the browser is tied to the XP lifecycle. After that time, no security updates will be issued by Microsoft. McLeish sees organizational moves from XP as also being a catalyst toward addressing browser security issues.

"The operating system upgrade is going to drive a lot more follow-on for the browser upgrade," she says. "So I see firms planning to address these issues and make the appropriate project plans and be able to try to minimize the risk of those upgrades."

HTML5: A Standard by 2022?
Organizations that are more concerned about OS upgrades and legacy browser security issues may wonder why they should pay attention to Microsoft's call to arms to code to HTML5 and CSS3 standards. It turns out they don't have to worry much at all for now.

According to Ian Hickson, editor of HTML5 for the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group (WHATWG), the HTML5 spec is estimated to reach W3C recommendation status "in the year 2022 or later."

A May Forrester report on HTML5 led by analyst Ron Rogowski recommends organizations stick with Flash or Silverlight "for the foreseeable future." Another Forrester report on HTML5, published in April and led by Jeffrey Hammond, states that rich Internet applications using Flash or Silverlight won't be obsolete "for at least the next five years."

Ray Valdes, a research vice president at Gartner Inc., advised in a February blog post that developers "don't have to wait until 2022 to use HTML5 or a working subset of it." Sites that currently use an HTML5 subset include Google, YouTube and Vimeo, he noted.

However, Valdes added that the HTML5 working subset is "nowhere near the power of Flash." Flash is now used in about 70 percent of Web sites with high traffic, but HTML5 might eventually serve the task of enabling simple interactivity, meeting "average enterprise needs," he explained. Most enterprises lack proper governance to even care about the user's Web experience, he said. He recommends organizations establish a "usability-oriented development process," focused on user needs when it comes to creating and maintaining Web apps.

The type of organization that most needs to pay attention to HTML5 in the near future is one that provides Internet content. Those organizations may also have the task of supporting other devices besides PCs, including Apple products that don't use Flash.

"For publishers, [HTML5] is significant," McLeish says, "because what we're seeing with the markets for the iPad and the iPhone -- and the decision by Apple not to support Flash as a plug-in -- is going to drive the requirements to deliver interactive content via HTML5 for those types of devices."

Still, some content publishers have turned up their noses at HTML5. The online TV portal Hulu.com has said HTML5 currently doesn't meet its needs. Problems reported by Hulu include securing content, reporting to advertisers and controlling streaming bit rates, according to a May 13 blog post by the company. Hulu also found codec support issues with HTML5.

Video codec support has already become a splintering point among browser makers, with some camps advocating the proprietary H.264 codec (used by Microsoft, Apple and Google) and others sticking with Google VP8 codec (used by Google, Mozilla and Opera Software ASA). VP8 is now part of an open source WebM project that Google announced in May. Another codec that gets support from Google, Mozilla and Opera is the open source Ogg Theora. This fracturing codec support could prove to be another delaying factor for implementing HTML5 in Web sites.

Many observers may see IE9 as representing an exciting turn of events for Microsoft and standards support. As things stand, it seems IT organizations and Web developers will have an ample amount of time to contemplate the changes to come. If Microsoft proceeds as scheduled with preview releases issued every eight months, then users may see the next platform preview of IE9 arriving sometime this August.

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