Was IE9 worth the wait?

Microsoft’s latest web browser release, Internet Explorer 9, has emerged from the shadows after a rather public gestation period.

Was IE9 worth the wait?

I don’t really mind public betas so long as their function is to ensure the quality of the final product, but public betas that exist solely to be part of the marketing ramp tend to be rather unpleasant affairs (especially when the PR people are crowing about how many millions of people have downloaded the damnable thing).

When all is said and done, if it’s good enough to release then bloody well release it; if it isn’t then don’t inflict it on millions of your most enthusiastic users.

Under the bonnet, IE9 definitely has a quick browsing engine, but that depends upon your using the right version

There’s no doubting that IE9 is an awful lot better than some of its predecessors, but that’s a comparison that doesn’t set the bar astronomically high, given that there are low points such as IE6 in the equation.

There are still hundreds of businesses that are stuck with Windows XP because they need IE6. Why are they stuck with IE6? Because they were foolish enough to believe Microsoft when it told them that this was a great development platform, and here are the tools to write some rich, IE6-specific applications.

Once IE6 support was dropped from subsequent browser versions, these wretched customers found themselves abandoned up a dank and dreary cul de sac.

Of course, IE9 will not run on Windows XP – that would be too helpful of the IE team, whose number one priority is to winkle customers away from XP as fast as possible.

Customers who don’t upgrade aren’t spending money on new licences, and a powerful lever to pry them away from XP is to ensure that IE9 doesn’t work on it. Job done, the team delivered faultlessly, and never mind that other companies – Google, Mozilla and Opera – have shipped browsers that work just fine on XP.

Visual changes

There’s much to like in IE9. At first I liked its clean, minimalist design, but I’m an old-fashioned stick-in-the-mud when it comes to user interface design, and if there isn’t a proper File | Edit | Insert menu bar I start to feel a little twitchy.

Doubtless this is just a symptom of advancing age, but I feel that hiding everything useful behind a gear-cog symbol is a little Web 2.0, and it just doesn’t feel right.

I like the integrated searching within one edit box, even if the default engine is, predictably, Bing. I find the visuals of the edit box alongside the tabs annoying, first because there isn’t enough visual distinction between the edit box and a tab, and second because the edit box takes up valuable column width that could be used for more tabs.

The alternative would have been to devote one row to the edit box and another to the tabs, but I guess that would have spoilt the stripped-bare look and feel (although it is an option).

Under the bonnet, IE9 definitely has a quick browsing engine, but that depends upon your using the right version. You see, there are two: the 32-bit and the 64-bit versions. If you have 32-bit Windows, then you’ll only get the 32-bit version, of course, but 64-bit Windows comes with both.

You might think that sounds sensible, until you realise that the default version is the 32-bit one on both 32-bit and 64-bit Windows, and you have to dig deep to find the 64-bit version on 64-bit Windows. Why has this happened?

Well, there’s a perfectly sensible excuse – by focusing on the 32-bit version, the IE9 team was able to make it the best one possible, with the 64-bit version coming second. I could just about handle this grimly realistic attitude, were it not for a couple of key points.

First, 64-bit Windows 7 is the predominant version that’s shipping today, if the laptops that I see being bought and deployed are anything to go by; and second, the 64-bit version of Windows 7 has the old JavaScript engine in it, which is far slower than the 32-bit version, so Microsoft prefers to hide it from public view.

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