Internet Explorer 9, which becomes generally available tonight at an event at the South by Southwest show in Austin, Texas, has come to the end of the browser's most elaborate release process.
Aggressive promotion of IE9 "platform previews" started a year ago, followed by a beta in September, a release candidate in February and now a final version.
One would think Microsoft (MSFT) is trying to reinvent the wheel with IE9. And perhaps it is. IE9 certainly looks different than any other version of the browser.
But, as is often the case with Microsoft, the company was forced to change when the competition closed in. Over the past two years, Internet Explorer has lost market share by 12 percentage points, according to Web analytics company Net Applications, while Safari has doubled its market share and Google's (GOOG) Chrome browser has grown ten-fold. Firefox has lost about 1.5 percent market share in the past two years.
IE9 has a decidedly stripped-down design, eliminating most of the buttons, search fields and menus that create browser clutter and draw attention away from what businesses and consumers care about most: Web sites.
But behind the spartan appearance of IE9 is more power and speed, as the rendering of text and graphics has moved from the CPU of a computer to the GPU (graphics processing unit) to boost performance. IE9 is also offering more support for HTML5, a popular standard for developers to create rich media on Web sites.
For enterprise IT, IE9's speed, security enhancements and more efficient use of hardware will be the motivation to upgrade. Here are five features new to IE that CIOs and IT managers should care about.
Enterprise IT managers are never ones to turn down more computing speed and power. IE9, according to Capriotti, was designed from the ground up to be the fastest browser on the market with a new JaveScript engine, called Chakra.
IE9 is also utilizing more of the PC's hardware to speed up browsers. All graphics, video and text in IE9 are accelerated using the GPU to help "businesses build Web-based apps that behave more like native Windows applications because they can have better performance through using both the CPU and the GPU - and better performance means better productivity for your company," says Capriotti.
Microsoft has been adamant that the bedrock for IE9 is GPU-powered HTML5, which is the most advanced version of HTML, the language that runs all Web pages. HTML5 uses the computer's GPU to provide in-browser support for richer video, audio and graphics, thereby taking the burden off the CPU and allowing the computer to run faster.
There's no shortage of browser speed tests between IE and rivals Firefox and Chrome, both of which are starting to use GPU-powered HTML5. Although no definitive "fastest browser" has been crowned yet, IE9's JaveScript engine and fuller use of microprocessors and HTML5 will give it IE a shot in the arm.
Keeping the Focus Web Sites
IE9's "less is more" design will mean fewer interruptions and distractions for business users, and Microsoft hopes that design and navigation features in IE9 such as JumpLists and AeroSnap will speed up access to business apps and Web sites.
"Pinning" is another key feature that can improve employee productivity, says Capriotti. Windows 7 lets you "pin" apps such as AIM and Outlook to the taskbar and access them there as buttons. But IE9 expands on this feature and allows you to pin actual Web sites to the taskbar and access them without having to open a browser.
"Employees can 'pin' work and personal sites to their Windows 7 taskbar and receive notifications and see JumpLists and thumbnail previews through the taskbar," says Capriotti.
One site, The Huffington Post, have seen money savings through the use of pinned sites and JumpLists.
Internet Explorer 8 maintained solid security ratings and IE9 is building on IE8's security features, says Capriotti.
IE9 will continue to protect users through security technologies such as SmartScreen Filter (blocks imposter sites that may download malware), Protected Mode (protects from Web sites that try to install programs on your PC) and Cross-Site Script Filtering (prevents malicious code from being injected into Web pages that can lead to information and identity theft).
IE9, using SmartScreen, did extremely well in recent research by NSS Labs that tested how well browsers block malware.
One security feature new to IE9 is support for Tracking Protection, which allows users to identify and block third-party Web site content that may be tracking online behavior. Firefox and Chrome also have technologies that block online tracking.
Another new IE9 security feature worth mentioning is the integration between SmartScreen Filter and Download Manager to check that files that users download come from a trusted source and do not contain viruses or malware.
Deployment, Management and Compatibility Tools
There are many ways to deploy IE9 in your organization, says Capriotti, including using Windows Update, System Center Configuration Manager (for larger companies), group policy or a network folder.
IT managers can use IEAK 9 (The Internet Explorer Administration Kit) to migrate customized IE9 packages for business users and manage user settings after IE9 has been deployed.
IE9 will be backward-compatible for browser functionality going back to IE6. Users can render sites that are out of whack with IE9 by clicking a "compatibility view" button that appears next to the URL field. This button only appears when a site is not fully compatible with IE9. IT admins can programmatically place sites into compatibility mode through group policy.
With Windows XP, however, there is no IE9 compatibility. IE9 works with Vista SP2 and Windows 7, but enterprises and consumers still running Windows XP will not be able to use IE9. This makes Microsoft the first major browser developer to end support for XP.
Support for Modern Web Standards
Microsoft is touting IE9 as its "most standards compliant browser ever" with full support for industry standards such as HTML5, CSS3 and SVG1.1.
Microsoft has been criticized for not adhering to Web standards in the past and has committed to "work closely with standards bodies like the W3C to help develop these standards through IE9," says Microsoft's Capriotti.
When enterprises build Web sites based on modern Web standards, says Capriotti, they can do so knowing their sites will work on IE9, as well as browsers such as Firefox and Chrome that have adopted industry standards.
"But the best way to build sites for Windows," he says, "is to build on HTML5 with IE9."
Shane O'Neill covers Microsoft, Windows, Operating Systems, Productivity Apps and Online Services for CIO.com. Follow Shane on Twitter @smoneill. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline and on Facebook. Email Shane at firstname.lastname@example.org
Join the CIO Australia group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.