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Microsoft+IE9: Holier than Apple open web convert?

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It is a remarkable turnaround. Microsoft, the company that more than any other was responsible for freezing web standards by first killing the browser competition and then failing to update its browser for five years, has come out with a browser that is - at the very least - decent.

Internet Explorer 9 combines hardware-accelerated graphics with a just-in-time compiler for JavaScript and significant support for some of the new standards that form HTML 5. It also has a de-cluttered user interface that seems close in philosophy to Google's Chrome: the browser gets out of the way of the web content or application.

It is not unequivocally the best browser on Windows. It does not win every performance test, nor is its HTML 5 support as extensive as that in some other browsers. Integration with Windows is strong though, as you would expect, and its privacy controls are excellent. Microsoft has also fixed some long-standing annoyances, such as the rudimentary download management in previous versions. IE9 has a download manager that means users can easily find their downloads once completed. Overall IE9 is good enough that using a third-party web browser is no longer an obvious choice.

The interesting question is "why"? Was Microsoft simply so annoyed by the steadily shrinking market share for IE that it decided to make its best effort to reverse the trend? Is it a strategic move to subtly promote Bing search, Bing Maps, and Microsoft's other internet services? Or has Microsoft experienced a sudden conversion to the web standard religion?

I recall a press briefing at Microsoft TechEd Europe around ten years go when I asked about the future of IE. The answer I was given was that Microsoft considered HTML incapable of delivering the rich experience users demanded, and that future investment would be focused on integrating Windows applications with web services.

A side-effect, which Microsoft did not mention, would be to increase the Windows lock-in. One reason why Microsoft competed strenuously with Netscape in the nineties was that concepts like the Netscape webtop, a browser-hosted working area, threatened to marginalise the host operating system. By defeating Netscape, and then freezing HTML, Microsoft protected its application platform.

Today Microsoft has reversed its position, and is working to make browser applications nearly equal to native applications. Corporate vice president Dean Hachamovitch writes in the IE9 release announcement: "With IE9, consumers can keep sites at the center of their browsing experience, pinning them to the taskbar and interacting with them the same way they do applications ... with hardware-accelerated HTML5, developers can use the same markup across browsers to deliver a new class of Web experiences that feel more like apps than sites."

Microsoft is not doing this primarily to promote Bing or to compete with Chrome and Mozilla's Firefox. What makes more sense is that the company realises it must have a broad-reach platform alongside Windows to succeed in the diverse world of mobile devices and increasing numbers of Mac computers, and that its efforts with .NET and Silverlight are not able to be that broad-reach platform.

The IE team seems to have no love for .NET. At Microsoft's Professional Developer Conference in Seattle, Washington, last year, Microsoft articulated its Internet platform strategy while hardly mentioning the Silverlight browser plug-in at all. Another piece of evidence is that Microsoft has all-but dropped support for XBAPs, XAML browser-hosted Windows applications built with the desktop .NET Framework. XBAPs are now disabled by default in the Internet Zone, and work only on Windows intranets.

It may be significant that at the same moment when Microsoft has become an HTML 5 advocate, Apple, whether by accident or design, updates its iOS mobile operating system in a manner that protects the advantage of native applications by disabling the just-in-time JavaScript compiler for HTML 5 applications that are pinned to the home screen.

Apple wins if developers target its platform alone. Microsoft wins if developers target only Windows; but that strategy is no longer viable, so it is better off promoting common standards.

In one sense then, Microsoft's embrace of HTML 5 is a sign of weakness rather than of strength. At the same time, it is a considerable achievement and one that will boost the browser platform across the industry.

Microsoft's browser share may have diminished, but IE is still the most popular browser globally, and will always be popular among enterprise admins because of its integration with Windows management tools. The appearance of IE9 will make a real difference to the reach of modern browser-hosted applications.

That said, Microsoft as a whole is not united on the subject. It is curious, for example, that at the same moment IE9 is released, the developer team has completed Beta 2 of Visual Studio LightSwitch, which is designed for rapid development of database applications . LightSwitch targets Silverlight, and while it is an impressive product in its way, it would make more sense if it built HTML applications that would run across multiple devices.

LightSwitch illustrates how hard it is to discern Microsoft strategies. At any one time it has multiple strategies. Nevertheless, the launch of IE9 is a pivotal moment in the company's history, as it tilts away from .NET clients and towards cross-industry web standards. ®

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