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Microsoft Launches Public Beta of Internet Explorer 9

With the release of its IE 9 beta, Microsoft on Wednesday promised that Web surfing would be, from here on out, about the sites and not about the browser.

Wearing a black shirt with white letters reading, "βeauty" (using the Greek beta symbol), Microsoft's Corporate Vice President of Internet Explorer Dean Hachamovitch touted a newer "simplistic" user interface in IE 9 that supports the latest Web standards, such as developments in HTML 5 and CSS 3.

Microsoft's latest browser release can now be downloaded by the public and is available in 33 languages. The beta is available here.

At its "Beauty of the Web" launch event in San Francisco, company officials accompanied the browser release fanfare with a strong upgrade message, communicated through a bit of stagecraft. For example, the event was held in a large room that looked like a futuristic version of an upscale Best Buy retail store. The stage was equipped with high-powered laptops and oversized LCD flat screens where technology partners demonstrated live examples of IE 9-powered Web sites.

The launch of IE 9 beta comes as Microsoft vies to retain its supremacy in the browser market over upstarts such as Google's Chrome browser, as well as the long-time open source contender Firefox from Mozilla. IE's market share over the past two years has dropped 15 percent, but it's still the predominantly used browser with a 60 percent market hold, according to Net Applications' data. In that same two-year period, Firefox has seen modest gains in share, along with Apple's Safari browser, whose share doubled. Meanwhile Google Chrome is white hot, with a near seven-fold increase in market share, according to Net Applications.

Hardware Acceleration Makes the Difference
One of the key operational features of this new browser is hardware-accelerated HTML 5, which helps IE 9 unlock "90 percent of a PC's computing power," Microsoft claims. Company officials contrasted that figure with the standard "10 percent" of computing power tapped by earlier iterations of IE and other rival browsers on average.

Microsoft's partner developers at the IE 9 launch event demonstrated their Web wares on large LCD screens and even late-model laptops. On hand were representatives from Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn and Netlog, Amazon.com, eBay, CNN, Hulu, Orbitz and Flixter.

The general view of the partners was that the hardware acceleration feature in IE 9 differs from previous experiences. Design, processing speed and the ability to stream media on the Web are affected.

"It's really just faster, which, when you're in the content business, makes all the difference," said Daniel O'Shea, engineering manager at Sparkart, a digital services agency based in Oakland that designed the HTML 5-coded Web site for the rock group, "The Killers."

"We can concentrate on site design more instead of backend stuff," O'Shea said. "[IE 9's use of the] PC graphics chip for the hardware acceleration and the faster JavaScript engine help a lot."

Meanwhile, for Matt Raminick, a senior interactive designer for the surfwear company Quicksilver, the fact that IE 9 no longer requires browser plug-ins and Flash technology is also a plus.

"The problem you had before is that sites took too long to load and streaming was fuzzy and the process dragged on," he said. "With the browser and HTML 5, we're really taking advantage of being able to be live all the time in real time. That's what the Web is about, being live."

Game Gets Raised for Plug-Ins
The HTML 5 spec is still developing as part of a standards-making process, but it promises native video and graphics processing in the browser. It will allow Web developers to create experiences that previously required plug-in extensions, such as Adobe Flash or Microsoft Silverlight. In that vein, ahead of the IE 9 launch, questions were raised as to whether IE 9 and HTML 5 make Silverlight redundant.

"What happens is that the game gets raised for plug-ins such as Silverlight and Flash," said Brian Hall, general manager of Windows Live and Internet Explorer. "We've been working closely with our Silverlight team on how this gets integrated and what this all means and they're excited about the possibilities but it's definitely a new game with higher stakes."

Those higher stakes may include a lightning-fast video capability, global positioning system services via the browser, and dragging and dropping items into a browser session from a desktop on a Windows 7 OS. There also may be built-in-browser applications that work offline.

"We feel like the Web sites themselves are the show and the browser is the theater," Hall said. "And that's the approach we're going to take going forward competitively. And with our own in-house development, we will continue to keep pushing the envelope."

About the Author

Jabulani Leffall is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in the Financial Times of London, Investor's Business Daily, The Economist and CFO Magazine, among others.

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