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Microsoft's Internet Explorer 9 embraces - yes - HTML5

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Microsoft is focusing on performance and HTML 5 standards support in Internet Explorer 9, the next version of its web browser.

IE is the most widely-used web browser, though its market share is in decline thanks to strong competition from Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, and others.

At the Mix conference in Las Vegas on Tuesday, Microsoft announced a new platform preview, available for download here.

On the standards front, it includes CSS3 features such as opacity, rounded corners, and selector APIs. SVG is now supported, something of a surprise given the company's efforts to promote its Silverlight plug-in for rich graphics in the browser. It is not yet clear, however, whether the Canvas element is supported.

Support for the audio and video tags is also promised, though it is not in the current preview. Microsoft showed H.264 720p video running directly in the browser.

A new Javascript engine, code-named Chakra, compiles Javascript in the background, on a separate CPU core if available. Figures from the SunSpider benchmark show IE9 scoring better than Firefox 3.6 though a little behind Google Chrome, Apple Safari, and Opera.

More significantly, it is at least six times better than IE8. Microsoft argues that these benchmark differences are now "approaching the duration of an eye-blink", implying that other factors become more important to real-world performance.

IE9 also makes full use of hardware acceleration, speeding up HTML and graphics rendering, including that for the new SVG support. The company calls this "GPU-powered HTML5", which improves actions such as scrolling or viewing 3D graphics by handing over processing to the graphics card. The preview uses Direct2D for this support, which means it requires Vista SP2, Windows 2008, or Windows 7.

Despite its standards efforts, the current IE9 preview is still not able to complete the Acid3 markup test, scoring 55 out of 100. While not promising full 100 per cent support, Microsoft says it will continue to improve, though several rival browsers already pass the complete test.

Microsoft's efforts to improve Internet Explorer received support from web standards advocate Molly Holzschlag, who works for Opera. The forthcoming IE "will kick butt", she told Mix attendees at a workshop on Sunday. In her view, it is now Apple, Adobe and Google who have less open processes than Microsoft, Opera and Mozilla with respect to web standards ®

Update: This story has been updated to better reflect comments made by Opera's Molly Holzschlag about the major browser vendors.

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