Will IE9 change the way we use the web?
Microsoft's newest web browser, Internet Explorer 9, sees the technology giant wrest some of the initiative from its rivals
The internet of the future is likely to look very different from the distinct pages and sites we visit today – that was the message as Microsoft launched the latest version of their much-maligned Internet Explorer web browser.
And while every major manufacturer always claims that theirs is a revolutionary product, the company that remains best known for Windows and Office might just be on the right track this time.
Headlines around the world greeted IE9 as Microsoft’s most ambitious yet, while others called it revolutionary. Respected website Techradar.com went so far as to call it “ie-mazing”.
Almost since it launched Internet Explorer in 1995, the browser has been troublesome for Microsoft.
Even when it was in use by 95pc of all web users in 2002, a tech-savvy audience maintained that it was not the best option available.
Firefox, the now-defunct Netscape Navigator and more recently Google Chrome have set the pace for speed and ease of use.
With usage now down to less than two-thirds of the online population Microsoft has staged a fightback that, for once, appears to be winning many experts round, even if browsers are all starting to look more similar anyway.
At the heart of IE9, however, are two key features: the first is a bid to make websites more like applications, which means that the depth of features of, say Microsoft Word, could also be available to any site where developers have sufficient resources.
In practice a chunk of that is largely cosmetic, but it’s a visual change that makes a genuine difference to the way people use the web.
In the words of Microsoft’s Leila Martine, head of Windows in the UK, “it’s making web pages first class citizens”. Given that users spend around half their time using a computer online, some might argue this is rather overdue.
Secondly, however, is the integration between hardware and software: with the advance of new web programming language HTML5, Microsoft is now able to offload much of the burden of processing graphics onto computer hardware that’s built for the job, the graphics processing unit (GPU).
This means that web pages are rendered at significantly greater speed – in a demo, the company showed IE9 to be at least five times quicker than Google Chrome.
It’s the combination of these two features, primarily, that Microsoft hopes will have a transformative effect on the internet: the download site for IE9 is called “beautyoftheweb.com”, and in some of the company’s demos there clearly are new possibilities.
Amazon, for instance, has built a site called Bookshelf, which combines the best bits of browsing in a bookshop – looking at covers, getting a sense of what else is around – with providing useful additional information about titles and genres.
The effect is genuinely unlike anything else that other browsers can produce successfully.
All this is not to say, however, that the web will change instantly. And anyway, Google, Firefox and other browsers are all heading in the same direction.
But what’s certain is that the development of applications, both for the web and for the iPhone and other mobile devices, has made many companies notice that the internet on a desktop or laptop PC was starting to feel strangely limited: Microsoft has tried to solve this by tightly integrating IE9 with Windows 7, as Google will when it launches its equivalent Chrome operating system.
What that means is that, in future, the line between being online and simply using a computer may become indistinguishable – but broadband, mobile phone and wifi providers will have to sort out getting us all connected first.