The reinvigorated web browser
April 08,2010 by jkay • Leave a Comment
At Workbooks we are very interested in the evolution of the web browser - it has only recently become possible to deliver a compelling rich User Interface like the Workbooks Desktop without requiring all manner of plugins. The good news is that the evolution is accelerating and with it the browser's speed and capability.
Eighteen months ago Google launched Chrome which was dramatically faster than any other browser available at the time. A browser performance and functionality war has been underway since then. In those eighteen months, and despite some hiccups, Chrome has become the world's third most popular browser - after Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Mozilla's Firefox and ahead of Apple's Safari and Opera's eponymous browser. It's well documented that Internet Explorer's market share has been declining at an increasing pace since its peak in 2004 - that decline accelerating further since Google's entrance into the market and likely further still with the advent of the European Union's "browser ballot" screen. Google have also announced Google Chrome Frame, a plugin to Internet Explorer, which brings Chrome's features and performance to Microsoft's browsers for websites that are modified to use it. Finally there is now a proliferation of new ways of accessing the Internet using things other than PCs where there is nothing Microsoft in sight: from PS3s, iPhones and iPads for example.
Internet Explorer was first released nearly fifteen years ago; the other week Microsoft unveiled a "Platform Preview" of the next version, dubbed Internet Explorer 9. It's not even "alpha" software - we have no idea when it will be ready - and yet it has excited a lot of commentary. My view is that it signals a radical departure for Microsoft and they should be applauded for it.
As is Microsoft's way they are still a little picky about which open standards they embrace but IE9 includes much that other browsers are also adopting so eventually if you choose a modern browser from any mainstream vendor it will be capable of rendering video, storing data to work with while offline, and showing beautiful charts which scale smoothly as you zoom your browser - all without requiring any external software ("plugins"). As an added benefit it will get easier for developers to write web sites which work consistently across all major browsers without major compromise through a "lowest common denominator" approach: the lowest common denominator is now getting a lot higher.
IE9 is notable also for the speed it promises. It has become very fashionable - and easy - to criticise the performance of Microsoft's browsers. It's refreshing that with IE9 Microsoft has ditched its denial of there being a performance issue with IE and decided to address the issue: now it's going to be "crazy fast".
Depending on the benchmark IE9 shows upwards of a sixfold improvement over IE8 which itself is twice as fast as IE7. Although it's unlikely IE9 will take the speed crown for most tasks from current leaders Opera and Chrome or overtake Safari it does at least mean we will be able to stop focusing quite so much on IE performance as an issue.
Prior to IE9's announcement it was looking increasingly likely that Microsoft's market share decline would only increase however now it's clear that Microsoft have decided not to abdicate from the browser market; Chrome Frame will likely be marginalised to be a tool for those IE users who are unable or unwilling to migrate to the latest version of IE.
But more significant than any of the above is that I think IE9 is going to be fundamentally different from previous versions of IE: it delivers most of what it does using open standards. It's well documented that many organisations are still stuck on IE6 - even though IE6 has had its funeral - because that browser included a raft of proprietary extensions that did not make it into IE7 or any subsequent browser. Open standards are easier for developers and allow users to avoid lockin.
This is all great news for the user: whichever browser you use it is getting faster, more stable and more functional.