Internet Explorer 9 Beta Impressions

I am just going to come out and say it: I can actually see myself making Internet Explorer 9 my default browser – no feeling of shame in admitting that whatsoever. I am not entirely sure if that is a complement or just an admission that IE 9 beta tries to stay out of the way that you actually don’t bother thinking twice about its very presence as a running application on your computer.

It has been a little over 48 hours since my first encounter with IE 9 beta. It was both a terrifying and pleasant experience: terrifying because what IE 9 beta is is something that is unlike Microsoft – at least on the surface. The impression is that it does more to stay out of the way more than to try to help; which is a good thing because no web surfer really cares that much about the browser – over and beyond the fact that the browser gets you online and make the web reachable. For all intends and purpose, it is just a means to an end – which is the internet.

With IE 9 beta, Internet Explorer joins the browser revolution (and wars) that has been going on for the last couple of years courtesy of Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome. Firefox and Chrome have battled it out in JavaScript speeds and the latter introduced a more minimalist user interface that captured the attention of most people who spend much of the their time online. The current beta version of Firefox 4.0 brings changes to the user interface as well with essentially the objective of giving web sites and applications more screen real estate.

Internet Explorer 9 beta has a minimalist user interface which is serves to achieve the IE teams goal of making their browser the theatre and by extension of that analogy, thus the web becomes the show. While not entirely revolutionary in and of itself, it is something that is long overdue and frankly increasingly necessary as many people continue to spend their time online.

One of the things that I don’t like about IE 9 beta interface is the fact that the address bar shares the same line with tabs. While it works well when there are not many tabs opened, this can quickly become a usability nightmare as the number of tabs increase in any given surfing session. While this strictly not a problem on Windows 7, it would be a nightmare on Windows Vista.

IE-Tabs

I am not sure how this shapes the debate on tabs over address bar but this is no different (from a usability perspective) to having address bar (or one box as you may prefer) over tabs. Besides, this totally reduces the visibility of the URL that is currently loaded.

I have not particularly looked at any features of IE 9 beta but that is something that will come with time as I get to use the browser more. However, as mentioned using the browser (within a sane limit of opened tabs) is actually a pleasant experience. So far, I have had to launch Firefox 4.0 beta to run along with any opened sessions on IE 9 beta. While the beta of IE 9 shows all the sign that Microsoft is back in the browser game, it also brings out one aspect of Firefox that any of the competing browsers are yet to successfully and meaningfully clone: extensions. While all the other browsers have extensions, none of them approach Firefox available extensions count.

With the eventual release of Internet Explorer 9 and Firefox 4.0, the age of minimalist browser user interface will have firmly settled in. This will essentially water down any uniqueness that Google Chrome has had since its first version. All up coming releases of the top three browsers essentially have product specifications that read the same – minimalist user interfaces and hardware acceleration in one form or the other.

Microsoft has the largest market share and with the potential to leverage its dominant Windows operating system in helping Internet Explorer reclaim lost glory. Internet Explorer 9 represents a credible attempt to stop the market share erosion but will that be enough to bring back those who have left IE?

Mozilla continues to innovate (through amazing experiments e.g. panorama) with Firefox; behind them, they have a community that is as involved and committed to the browser’s progress over the years. Firefox’s strongest (and unique) strength lies in its large collection of extensions. The sheer number of extensions speaks of a committed developer community that continuously and faithfully updated their extensions to keep up with new browser releases. Firefox 4.0 will bring about a new approach to extensions development that will make the work of extension developers and user easier than it has been before. With JetPack, extensions and the base platform (Firefox) can evolve separately meaning that the browser can be updated without the need to equally update extensions that are written to run on JetPack; it will be possible to install JetPack add-ons without restarting the browser as is the case pre-JetPack.

Google Chrome? I can’t see anything uniquely differentiating about Chrome at the moment; don’t get me wrong – whatever Google has implemented in the browser is already being copied by the other two browsers so those are advantages that are largely transient in nature. That is not to say the Chrome (Chromium) team is not pushing the envelope – but at this time, they seem to have all their eggs in the air – there is no guarantee that any of their experiments and developments will prove to be a foundation on which to build further dominance of the sector. It would seem that the apparent inertia of the top two browsers would be an advantage that the Chromium team will leverage. Though the indication (based on Firefox 4.0 beta and Internet Explorer 9 beta) is that Mozilla and Microsoft are gradually shifting gears – more so focusing on their key strengths.

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