Alert the antitrust police. Microsoft Corp. is back to doing what it was accused of years ago: taking advantage of its dominant position in personal computers to benefit its Web browser. It’s blatant. And it’s terrific.
Internet Explorer 9, available in beta, or test, form this week, is the best browser Microsoft has ever produced. If that isn’t saying much, this says more: It may turn out to be the best browser for Windows computers that anyone has produced.
And that’s saying quite a lot, given the proliferation of top-notch browsers that have eaten into Explorer’s dominance in recent years: Mozilla Corp.’s Firefox, Google Inc.’s Chrome, and even the Windows version of Apple Inc.’s Safari. Indeed, it’s a mark of how much the digital world has changed that nary a regulator’s eyebrow was raised by aspects of the new Internet Explorer that might have set off alarm bells a decade ago.
IE9 isn’t for everyone; in fact, it isn’t even for every Windows user. The browser, which is available as a free download, doesn’t work with Windows XP, the 9-year-old operating system that remains the most widely used version; it is compatible only with the more recent Vista and Windows 7 flavors.
Particularly with Windows 7, the new browser blurs the distinction between Web content and applications that run on your PC. You can now pin website icons to the Windows task bar, where they look and act just like the programs installed on your local hard drive, even down to the right-mouse-click that opens a menu of things you can do on the site.
The new software also goes well beyond its competitors in taking advantage of the hardware inside your computer. By and large, most browsers tap very little of a machine’s raw computing power, such as the potent graphics chips found in modern PCs. Developers writing software to run on many different operating systems aren’t that interested in optimizing it for just one platform.
Microsoft, though, has no such qualms. It junked the Mac version of Explorer years ago, and with IE9 it takes full advantage of its Windows-only focus by using the PC’s hardware to provide a speed boost.
Now a lot of other factors besides the browser affect how fast the Web feels to you. First and foremost is the quality of your Internet connection itself. The design of the site you’re visiting has an impact as well.
Still, the browser is an important piece of the experience, and IE9 is demonstrably faster than its predecessor. The difference is most noticeable on websites that are heavy on graphics or animation. With this browser, Microsoft is also embracing HTML5, the same online-graphics standard that Apple’s Steve Jobs has been touting as a faster, better alternative to Adobe Systems Inc.’s Flash software.
Microsoft even extends its quest for speed to the length of time it takes to launch Explorer. If you have a third-party toolbar installed -- say, the one from Microsoft’s arch-nemesis Google -- IE9 will tell you just how much it’s adding to your start-up time, and encourage you to disable it. If you still want to conduct searches directly from the browser, don’t fear: Explorer now lets you type a search term right into the address bar, a feature Chrome has had for some time.
Visually, the new browser is almost minimalist. Microsoft has cut down considerably on the number of buttons and menus visible by default. Messages and dialogue boxes that used to appear in the middle of the browser window, disrupting content, have moved to a less obtrusive bottom-of-the-screen location.
IE9 also has a new download manager that shows your progress in pulling content from the Internet and keeps track of where on your hard drive the saved files are located, while a new safety screen warns you of potential hazards and blocks risky activity.
The net effect -- no pun intended -- of all Microsoft’s changes is a browser that is thoroughly clean, fast and modern, attributes that haven’t always been attached to Internet Explorer. If the new software can also avoid the security lapses that plagued some previous releases, Microsoft will be able to claim that its No. 1 market share on PCs isn’t just because of who makes it, but of how good it is.
(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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