Microsoft have been busy recently. Among other things, they recently pushed out the latest successor to the ancient web browser, Internet Explorer 6. The venerable (?) IE6 has been around for so long, overstaying its welcome long ago, and is now being shown the door. By the parent company, no less.
Indeed, Microsoft have finally gotten on the “End IE6″ bandwagon, symbolized by the Internet Explorer 6 Countdown website. It seems to be the first time the company has officially shared it’s view of the old browser.
In addition, IE9 was officially released earlier this week. It follows much fanfare, multiple public previews, betas, and a release candidate, representing a large step up in features and standards support.
The elephant in the room
A sticky issue regarding the demise of IE6 is Windows XP. The equally venerable operating system ships with IE6, which can be further updated, though only to IE8. Microsoft has explained that due to a technical limitation, IE9 will not work on Windows XP systems. This presents a damper on the efforts to phase out IE6 altogether, due to XP users not upgrading because they are not able to (corporate systems come to mind here) or do not know how – or maybe don’t even care. Windows XP still represents a very large chunk of the operating system usage numbers.
However, Windows XP is approaching the end of its support cycle, and once that drops off, hopefully IE6 will drop off along with it. Even before that, IE6 has been declining in global usage trends for some years anyway.
Keep in mind that Windows Vista ships with IE7 and can be upgraded to IE8 and then IE9, and that Windows 7 includes IE8 and can upgrade to IE9; it is hoped that Windows Vista and 7 systems will be upgraded to IE9 in short order, depressing the IE6 and IE7 numbers at the least.
The web’s future is looking better
On to the more positive details, the aspects of IE9 and what it means for users and web developers.
IE7 was a big step up from IE6, and IE8 was a further (smaller) step up. IE9 appears to be a very big step up, making IE6 appear infinitesimal in comparison. I’ll go through both perspectives and provide some points for each on what I believe makes IE9 a notable update.
For the users
Jump lists – a new feature that come into play when IE9 is running on Windows 7. They provide a way to gain quick access to parts of a website. It works by dragging a site’s tab to the taskbar, creating an icon. Clicking the icon will show options that the site offers. This does require that the site have implemented some code to support the feature. Twitter and Facebook have already done this; no doubt there are others as well.
Speed! – IE9 appears noticeably faster in rendering pages than its predecessor. No concrete comparison, just one person’s observation. It would be interesting to see benchmarks of all current browsers once Firefox 4 and Opera 11.1 are released (soon, supposedly).
Simplicity – previous IEs have been less than attractive. IE9 greatly simplifies the UI, having combined the URL and search boxes, and reduced the icons to a small strip at the end of the URL bar.
Download manager – finally! This is one feature that IE has lacked for years while the alternative browsers the ability to manage downloads. This is a much-appreciated feature in IE9.
For the developers
An additional resource is the When can I use… website, maintained by Alexis Deveria. WCIU is a listing of various web standards (e.g. HTML, CSS, JS, DOM) and indicates the level of support for each in common web browsers. This includes desktop browsers as well as mobile versions, and can show support numbers for multiple versions of each. It’s a very useful resource to see at a glance whether a particular standard can be widely used.
The site has a listing of the changes in feature support from IE8 to IE9: IE8 vs IE9. Ones that I particularly appreciate include:
- HTML5 – Audio element
- HTML5 – Video element
- HTML5 – New semantic elements (e.g. section, aside, nav, header, footer)
- CSS3 – Rounded corners
- CSS3 – Multiple backgrounds
- CSS3 – Opacity
- CSS3 – Selectors (now in all current major browsers)
- DOM/JS – getElementsByClassName
On the flip side, there are some areas in which IE9 is still lacking, where one or more of the other browsers has support in place. Some items that I would like to see added to IE10 are:
- HTML5 – New form elements / attributes
- CSS3 – Multiple columns
- CSS3 – Text-shadow
- CSS3 – Gradients
- CSS3 – Transitions
Despite the above shortages, the listing does show a marked improvement in IE9; indeed, according to the summary table, the latest browser’s standard support has doubled over IE8. It’s still behind the other browsers, true, but it has made progress. I think that, at the moment, IE9 has support for the majority of web standards that are widely used today, or that developers typically would like to use. The outstanding items appear to me as “extras”, nice-to-haves but not absolute necessities.
The new jump lists feature will provide some convenience for accessing websites. Admittedly the audience for such a feature is currently small (IE9 + Windows 7), but it couldn’t hurt to do some exploration and test implementations. The utility of this feature will depend on where it is implemented – it will likely be overkill for a basic site, while a big application such as Twitter or Facebook could benefit. It will be up to the webmaster to make this decision.
The feature appears to be easy to implement – it just takes a set of meta tags in a website’s
head section to make it work. An example implementation from the Twitter website:
<meta name="msapplication-task" content="name=New Tweet; action-uri=http://twitter.com/home; icon-uri=images/ie/tweet.ico" /> <meta name="msapplication-task" content="name=Direct Messages; action-uri=http://twitter.com/inbox; icon-uri=images/ie/dm.ico" /> <meta name="msapplication-task" content="name=Mentions ; action-uri=http://twitter.com/replies; icon-uri=images/ie/mentions.ico" /> <meta name="msapplication-task" content="name=Favorites; action-uri=http://twitter.com/favorites; icon-uri=images/ie/fav.ico" /> <meta name="msapplication-task" content="name=Search; action-uri=http://search.twitter.com; icon-uri=images/ie/search.ico" />
Scott Hanselman has written up a thorough tutorial on implementing jump lists. Plenty of code, screenshots, and explanations available.
Once again, IE9 is a big step forward, as it should be. However, no product exists in a vacuum, and there is still much that is needed – there will be more new features and technologies to be added in the coming years.
Here’s hoping Microsoft don’t take another prolonged period to release a major browser release. At the rate they have been going, they will not be able to catch up to the rest of the pack anytime soon. I think they should look at doing smaller point releases (at least) once a year. It would reduce the wait time for individual capabilities to become widely available, and at least make it seem like progress is being made at a regular pace.