Analysts sometimes refer to Microsoft as the archetypical "fast follower," a company whose skill rests in recognizing an emerging trend and then adjusting strategy to embrace or crush it. Case in point: Internet Explorer, the company's Web browser originally introduced in August 1995, which quickly overran Netscape on its way to dominating the then-emerging browser market.
Part of Microsoft's strategy for Internet Explorer adoption involved bundling the browser with Windows, which in turn led to years' worth of antitrust fun-and-games with the federal government. Nonetheless, thanks in large part to its early lead, IE remains the nation's most-used browser-one whose market share in recent years has been threatened by the emergence of leaner, meaner competitors such as Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox.
Enter Internet Explorer 9. Like a fat and aging boxer forced to run laps until he's back in fighting trim, Microsoft has stripped the newest version of its browser down to its essentials: The search and address bars have been consolidated into one; and the translucent frame is designed to place the Web, as opposed to the browser interface, front and center. The stripped-down interface seems heavily reminiscent of Google Chrome, which isn't a bad thing.
Microsoft claims that IE 9's design allows it to leverage both HTML5 and Windows 7 to deliver rich content faster. And the beta version, unveiled during a high-profile Sept. 15 event in San Francisco, certainly feels light on its feet. For those using Windows 7, new browser-centric features include the ability to drag and pin a Website tab on the Windows 7 taskbar, as well as "Aero Snap" windows onto the right or left of the screen-the former useful when you want to organize multiple Websites, the latter when you want to view two Web pages side-by-side.
You can also use IE 9 with Windows Vista-but Windows XP users who want to experience the new browser are out of luck; apparently, IE 9 will never run on your antiquated warhorse of an operating system. This may have been a mistake on Microsoft's part: Analytics firm Net Applications suggests that some 60.89 percent of the U.S. market still runs Windows XP, versus 15.87 percent for Windows 7 and 14 percent for Windows Vista.
Even if you don't subscribe to those exact numbers-and assuming that Windows 7 will, in fact, eclipse its predecessors' market share sooner rather than later-the fact remains that a lot of the population continues to rely on Windows XP. Microsoft recognizes this, which is why it made the decision in July to extend the XP's end-user downgrade rights for the life cycle of Windows 7; also keep in mind that extended support for Windows XP SP3 only expires in April 2014. Given all that, it seems contradictory for the company to slam the door completely on XP users being able to run a Microsoft browser newer than IE 8, supposed hardware acceleration issues or no.
For those who can use IE 9, though, Microsoft has included more features designed to help navigate the Web faster. Clicking the small "New Tab" icon at the top of the browser will open the "Your Most Popular Sites" page, which lists the key sites you visit-a feature similar to one present in Apple Safari, which can also present your Top Sites in a grid format.
Other useful "speed" options include a "Manage Add-Ons" window that allows users to disable programs that slow down browser performance, and a discrete Notification Bar ("Would you like to make Internet Explorer your default browser?") that doesn't stop you from browsing in order to give it an answer.
For those who like their privacy, InPrivate Browsing allows for surfing the Web without leaving traces that can be discovered later. IE 9 also features a baked-in SmartScreen Filter that evaluates potentially suspect Websites based on their reputation, and notifies the user accordingly with pop-up windows and a list of suggested actions. Paired with the standard Internet Explorer options for adjusting Privacy and Security, it's clear that Microsoft wants to present IE 9 as its safest and most discrete browser ever-but as with all such things, users will ultimately determine if it meets their requirements.
"By default, Internet Explorer respects your privacy and doesn't send your keystrokes to search engines," Dean Hachamovitch, general manager for IE, said during Microsoft's Sept. 15 press conference. "The address bar is obviously respectful of privacy."
In practice-which is how everyday people will experience it, with likely no knowledge of Acid test scores-IE 9 feels quick. After nearly a week of testing, the beta has yet to crash or choke on a particularly rich Website, problems that I experienced with fair regularity whenever using previous Internet Explorer versions. Will it persuade a longtime Firefox and Google Chrome user like me to switch back to the IE franchise? That remains to be seen-but based on a few days' test driving, I'm willing to give it a chance.