IE9 proves Microsoft is back in the browser battle, says analyst

Support for HTML5 puts Microsoft in front, argues Forrester's McLeish

Microsoft is back in the browser race, an analyst said today after the company unveiled a rough developer's preview of its next browser, IE9.

"They want to be more than a follower or just on features parity," said Forrester analyst Sheri McLeish as she talked about what she saw as a recommitment to Internet Explorer (IE). "And they've created a whole new team for IE. Microsoft is clearly taking the browser seriously again."

Among the newer faces on the IE team, said McLeish, is Ted Johnson, the co-founder of Visio Corp. and from January 2000 to March 2003, a corporate vice president at Microsoft . Johnson, who according to his LinkedIn account rejoined Microsoft in August 2008, now carries the title Partner PM Architect on IE, and is the senior architect responsible for the browser's graphics and rendering.

"Microsoft has lined up some very experienced engineers" for the IE team, McLeish said. "It's really a crack team."

The renewed emphasis shows that Microsoft is taking its browser, and the competition in the browser market, seriously. "You want that real estate," McLeish said, adding that IE is important to Microsoft, something others have questioned. "It's important from a pure visibility and branding angle. The browser is the way to promote search, for Microsoft that means Bing, and of course Microsoft has an interest in creating the best experience it can within Windows."

Microsoft may not believe that only its engineers can create the best Windows browser, but it certainly thinks they're up to the task. As proof, McLeish noted the hardware acceleration Microsoft's touting for IE9.

Earlier today, Dean Hachamovich, the general manager for IE development, spelled out IE9's performance enhancements during a 40-minute presentation at MIX10, the Web developer conference Microsoft kicked off Monday. Among them: background JavaScript compiling on a separate processor core, graphics processor acceleration of text and graphic rendering, and an upcoming update to the IE9 preview for hardware acceleration of HTML 5 video.

"IE9 is exponentially faster at dynamic rendering than its predecessor," said McLeish. "It's very slick, very speedy."

Hachamovich repeated a claim made last fall by his boss, Stephen Sinofsky, Microsoft's president of Windows, that IE9 had essentially closed the enormous JavaScript performance gap between itself and rivals made by Mozilla, Google and Apple . Today, Hachamovich showed a slide during his keynote that put IE9's platform preview as slightly faster than Firefox 3.6, slightly slower than Safari, Chrome and Opera 10.5 on the SunSpider JavaScript benchmarks.

"We're faster than many other browsers," Hachamovich said, pointing to the slide. "And we've only done a little bit of optimization for SunSpider so far."

On other browser benchmarks, IE9 has a longer way to go. According to Hachamovich, IE9 Platform Preview's Acid3 score is now at 55 out of a possible 100. Last fall, Sinofsky said the internal build of IE9 scored 32 out of 100.

The Acid3 benchmark checks how closely a browser follows certain standards, particularly specifications for Web 2.0 applications, as well as standards related to DOM (Document Object Model), CSS2 (Cascading Style Sheets) and SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics).

But it was HTML5 that Hachamovich repeatedly hammered home during his time on stage. "We planned IE9 from the ground up for HTML5," he said, talking about the still-unfinished revision of the Web's core markup language.

"It's almost an about-face," said McLeish of Microsoft's taking to HTML5. "Microsoft was not about to jump on the latest greatest thing just because enthusiasts clamored for it, but after some thoughtful review and the pressures of the market, they reevaluated their browser's capabilities, took a hard look at HTML5 and decided there was a lot of potential there."

McLeish saw the shift to support HTML5 as more evidence that Microsoft wants to be a leader in the browser race. "I'd argue that they're in the forefront with IE9," McLeish said. "Certainly, [Google's] Chrome and [Mozilla's] Firefox have their own labs, but I think Microsoft is out front in presenting this to developers. It's an affirmation that they're planning to give HTML5 their full support."

The IE9 Platform Preview can be downloaded from Microsoft's Web site and run within Windows 7 , Windows Server 2008 R2 or Vista Service Pack 2 (SP2). The preview is not a full-fledged browser, but essentially a frame for showing off the new browser's JavaScript and rendering engines.

"I think this shows that Microsoft is serious again about innovation," said McLeish. "And when Microsoft gets serious about something, you'd better be ready to get out of the way."

Microsoft has its work cut out for it in reclaiming its once overwhelmingly-dominant lead in browsers. IE has lost approximately 8 percentage points of share as measured by in the last 12 months, and now accounts for about 62% of all browsers in use. Even the introduction of IE8 a year ago hasn't stemmed the losses.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is .

Read more about internet applications in Computerworld's Internet Applications Knowledge Center.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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