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15 March 2011, 15:25

Microsoft releases Internet Explorer 9

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IE Logo Almost exactly a year after releasing the first preview version, Microsoft has made the finished version of its Internet Explorer 9 browser available to download. Internet Explorer 9 is available for 32- and 64-bit versions of Windows 7, Vista and Server 2008 in 40 languages – these can be downloaded from Microsoft's international website. There will not be an XP version, however. In the past it has taken anywhere from a few days to a few weeks for Microsoft to distribute the browser to the majority of Vista, Windows 7 and Server 2008 systems via the built-in automatic update mechanism.

A key development goal was performance. The first beta version of Microsoft's browser contained a compiling JavaScript engine, the performance of which has been further enhanced during beta development – IE9 now offers JavaScript performance comparable to that of Google's Chrome 10 and Firefox 4. For animations, a new front in the performance wars, its hardware acceleration means that Internet Explorer should even have its nose in front. A comparison of graphics performance on the IE blog, which claims that Microsoft's browser leaves the competition standing, has, however, attracted strong criticism from Mozilla.

Zoom Microsoft has setup a site with web technology demos for the new browser.
As has been seen in the platform previews, IE9 now supports a number of new web standards, including HML5 video, Canvas, SVG and CSS3 properties. Since the beta, IE9 has gained the ability to understand HTML5 tags such as [code[<section>[/code] and <hgroup> – this, along with CSS3 transformation in a 2D context, was present in the final platform preview.

By contrast, support for the Geolocation API – possibly the biggest omission in previous versions of IE9 – was first added in the release candidate. As with its competitors, Internet Explorer 9 must ask for the user's permission before disclosing location information to websites. In practice, however, it remains difficult to discover a user's location. Microsoft plans to further test several not yet mature new HTML5 features on prototypes in its 'HTML5 Labs'.

Another important new feature first included in the release candidate is tracking protection, which replaces the previous InPrivate filtering. This is able to filter out content from external domains, such as Google Analytics scripts, Facebook buttons, counting pixels and externally hosted scripts. It uses blacklists and whitelists, making it similar to ad blocker extensions such as AdBlock Plus. Microsoft does not itself intend to publish tracking protection lists, but does host them.

The browser even automatically creates a list in which it records all third party content that is loaded by multiple different websites (on installation configured as at least ten). Users merely have to activate this 'personalised list'. Microsoft has added tracking protection in response to pressure from the FTC, competition regulator in the US, to protect users' privacy from advertisers. Its competitors use a range of alternative solutions; Firefox uses an HTTP header and Google has announced a Chrome extension.

'ActiveX filtering' provides IE9 with a practical method of controlling plugins with security implications, such as Flash, Silverlight, QuickTime and Java. In contrast to the add-on manager, which is still available, ActiveX filtering disables all plugins and adds a blue no-entry symbol to the address bar when content is blocked. Plugins can then be whitelisted on a website by website basis.

An HTML5 video codec battle is currently raging between Google's open source VP8/WebM and the established H.264, also used by Microsoft. Internet Explorer can, however, utilise all codecs installed in Windows but does not install a VP8 codec. According to Microsoft Evangelist Dean Hachamovitch, the company is concerned that WebM could draw it into another patent trap (cf. WMV and MP3). If Google were to indemnify it against this eventuality, Microsoft would, according to Hachamovitch, have nothing against integrating it into its browser.

With respect to the user interface in IE9, it's a case of 'less is more'. The browser GUI is designed to be lean, leaner in fact than any other browser, allowing web content to take centre stage. Tabs have been packed onto the address bar, though users still have the option of a separate tabs bar if preferred. It will, in future, also be possible to switch between search engines without having to re-enter a search term. Some notification dialogs have been made more conspicuous and adherence to the Windows 7 task bar has also been improved.

See also:

(Herbert Braun / crve)

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