Microsoft puts IE 9 into play

Browser update will come to Windows phones soon

Microsoft's one-year effort developing Internet Explorer 9 has come to fruition.

The new browser is now available for download here. Those using the release candidate version of the browser will get an automatic update to the release-to-Web (RTW) version. IE 9 is being launched as part of the South by Southwest event currently taking place in Austin, Texas. Ryan Gavin, senior director of Internet Explorer business and marketing, talked about some of the highlights leading up to the launch in a phone chat on Friday.

This final RTW version of IE 9 represents the ninth release since the first platform preview of the browser appeared at the MIX 10 Web developer event, Gavin said, but the browser has already made its mark in Microsoft's download history.

"We'll hit over 40 million downloads by the time we hit RTW at Monday 9:00 p.m. Pacific," Gavin said. "We're seeing now upwards of 2 percent share already on Windows 7 for IE 9, even in beta stage. It was the fastest adopted beta ever in Microsoft's history."

Gavin attributed the positive response to community feedback and Microsoft's "transparent approach with IE 9 in terms of how we built the browser." Microsoft used its platform previews to showcase its HTML 5 implementations leading up to the beta release. The platform previews also provided a glimpse for what developers can accomplish for their Web sites via hardware acceleration and IE 9's "clean, site-centric design," he added.

RTW Improvements

Microsoft typically bakes in features by the time of its RTW releases. The development team assessed more than 17,000 comments in creating this final release, according to Microsoft officials. Gavin described some of the improvements that happened from the time of the release candidate to this final RTW product.

"We've done a lot of work on low-end netbooks, specifically tuning for performance on lower end hardware, where, if you go to the IE test drive demo, there's a speed reading test, [and] if you run that over a lot of hardware, you'll see a lot of performance improvements with IE 9 in the final RTW version," he said. "On the area of our site-centric design and how clean the browser is…one of the pieces of feedback we got from our partners is that they love [site] pinning. They asked us if we can allow them to promote and market multiple sites that users have pinned all from a single page…so that's a set of functionality that we allowed. And we continue to make improvements in tracking protection including the respect for ActiveX controls, like Flash, and respect in our tracking protection work that we've done in our privacy front, as well as making the discoverability for that privacy work in tracking protection more prevalent in the browser."

In terms of user feedback, by far the most popular feature of the new browser is the ability to pin websites to the bottom of the screen as if they were applications.

"When a user pins their site, like Huffington Post for instance, on Windows 7, that results in a 50 percent increase in engagement on their site," Gavin said. "When a user pins them, it really does make them more like an app, which means their users are more engaged."

Another feature added to IE 9 is the ability to display tabs in a single row. A minority of users really wanted that feature, Gavin explained.

IE 9 Security and Privacy Controls

Security represents and another issue of consideration. Microsoft's current IE 8 browser was successfully compromised at the recent CanSecWest Pwn2Own hacking contest in which Google's Chrome browser alone escaped unscathed. The IE 8 holes were found by security researcher Stephen Fewer. Gavin indicated that Microsoft tried to get its IE 9 browser considered for the contest but was rebuffed.

"[The CanSecWest Pwn2Own hack result] was kind of a no-news here scenario," Gavin said. "We asked if they would include IE 9 in the contest, and they actually said, 'No,' because IE 9 wasn't out. So they included IE 8, and of course IE 8 has been out for a while. But if you look at some of the interfaces that we've done around IE 9 with security…and the privacy arena, IE 9 stands apart and we're quite proud of the work done there."

With regard to the potential security hole in IE 8, a blog post by a Microsoft employee recommends that "all users to upgrade to the new version of the browser in order to be immediately protected against potential risk," according to a translation of the blog from German.

Microsoft also offers privacy protection in IE 9 with its tracking protection feature, which has to be turned on by the user. This feature relies on volunteer-contributed lists of URLs to help block tracking by third parties, although it also allows users opt-in for tracking if they wish. Possibly, this approach will cut out the sort of third-party tracking that determines commissions on product referrals, which some users may want to happen, as in the case of Internet radio Web sites that direct users toward sites to buy music CDs. Gavin explained that IE 9 has no way to determine intent. "The browser doesn't know what a commission or an ad is," he said. Microsoft's approach is just to hand over control to the user about what gets tracked during a browsing session.

Microsoft has submitted its tracking protection technology to the Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C) where it will be reviewed by committees as a possible technical solution for adoption as a W3C recommendation. That effort is separate from any legislative or regulatory considerations, Gavin explained.

"That's the work that we've submitted at the W3C and Mozilla has since come out and said that they support that approach," he said.

Skipping the IE 8 Upgrade

Microsoft had earlier recommended that those upgrading to Windows 7 first start using IE 8 to ensure compatibility with Web-based apps and websites. However, Gavin suggested that organizations doing such OS upgrades could go straight to using IE 9.

"When I sit down with IT managers and CTOs, and you take them through IE 9, and they're working through a Windows 7 deployment process, they are very excited to go straight to IE 9," Gavin said. "IE 9 now blocks 99 percent of all malware, according to a third-party study by NSS [Labs], which is 33 times better than Chrome."

Those who've started their migration won't have another step to do with the release of IE 9, he contended.

"The reality is if they started work getting ready for migration from IE 6 to IE 8, that work carries nicely forward to IE 9. It's not as if they have to start all over," Gavin said.

He also suggested that there would not be a problem removing IE 9 after installation, even for consumer users. When IE 9 is removed, the system automatically rolls back to IE 8.

"IE is a system component of Windows, and that's because, increasingly so, the browser is only as good as the operating system and the device it's run on," Gavin said. "That a really a new paradigm that a lot of people still don't have their head around where they think of the browser and the operating system and the device as relatively disconnected, and that's really changed with hardware acceleration. So when you upgrade to IE 9, we'll have that delivered through Windows Update, which will prompt you and let you know it's an important update. You can click on that, it will install, and you'll have IE 9.  And if for some reason they need to roll back, all they'll need to do is go to that Windows update and you can see the list of installed updates there, and click 'uninstall' and it will roll you back to IE 8 quite easily."

IE 9 on Windows Phones

IE 9 will be coming to Windows phone at an as-yet unspecified date. Gavin said that the benefits of hardware acceleration will transfer to the phone when the new browser becomes available.

Microsoft plans to deliver its IE 9 update to Windows phones in its second update (code-named "Mango"), which is planned for release sometime this year. The first update to Windows phone, which will add copy and paste and support for CDMA, is expected to be released in the latter part of March.


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