Whisper it, but Microsoft might get Internet Explorer 9 right

27 May 2010

I went to a preview of the new version of Internet Explorer in London last night, and for the first time in over a decade in this business, I left an IE briefing convinced that Microsoft had finally got it.

Why? Well, firstly Microsoft didn’t show off a single new browser feature. Not one. No resource-hogging wastes of space such as Web Slices, extra toolbars or other such nonsense that Microsoft has pummelled into previous versions.

It has apparently dawned on Microsoft that the reason people use a browser is to visit websites, not fiddle around with browser toys. “I pay money for the play, not the theatre,” said Ryan Gavin, the head of the Internet Explorer business group when I asked where all the new toys were hiding. “That’s why I’m not sitting here talking about this feature or that feature, because it’s really not that important.”

Instead, all the talk was about the stuff going on under the bonnet, in the browser engine itself. Gavin spoke of the improved JavaScript performance offered by the new Chakra engine. For the first time Microsoft is actually boasting about its JavaScript performance in the widely used SunSpider benchmark, instead of sticking its fingers in its ears, and claiming that JavaScript performance doesn’t really matter.

The company’s also talking with genuine enthusiasm about support for HTML5 and the importance of web standards. I know this is a little bit like Cliff Richard declaring his love for heavy metal, and it takes a little bit of getting used to, but it appears that Microsoft is a reformed character when it comes to web standards – and whether that’s by necessity or genuine desire, it doesn’t really matter. It’s a good thing for the web.

Gavin also demonstrated IE9’s new GPU-accelerated graphics and the performance was astonishing. He showed a bog standard HP netbook with an Nvidia Ion chip running 720p video without breaking a sweat. And not just one 720p video clip, but two running simultaneously. Google Chrome running on the same netbook struggled to handle even one.

Internet Explorer 9’s far from complete, and there’s plenty of time left for Microsoft to cock it up yet. But for the first time in my career I’m genuinely looking forward to an Internet Explorer release. I’m off for a lie down.

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