Microsoft today launched the public beta test of its latest bid to retake the initiative in the browser wars, highlighting its upcoming Internet Explorer 9 (IE9) at a gala in San Francisco on Wednesday.
The event marked IE9's official release to prospective testers by Dean Hachamovitch, Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) corporate vice president of IE, who spent much of his half hour onstage at the event showing off the new browser's user interface redesign.
With IE9, "we're using the whole PC to browse in a way that puts sites at the center of your experience," Hachamovitch said. "The browser is the backdrop of the Web [and] the Web is about sites, not the browser."
Additionally, the new IE9 UI only displays the controls needed to browse, and favorite sites can be pinned to the task bar. It also supports another Windows 7 feature -- jump lists -- for handling common tasks without having to open a browser window.
"The clean, new design puts the emphasis on sites, not on the browser," Hachamovitch added.
Another new IE9 feature, called One Box, incorporates search into the address bar, company statements said.
IE9's download manager also implements Microsoft's Smartscreen anti-spam and anti-malware filter, which uses reputation data to suppress warnings for safe, frequently surfed sites while showing more severe warnings for questionable sites.
In a move to tackle problematic plug-ins, a new Add-on Performance Manager notifies the user if an IE add-on is taking an unusual amount of time to execute and slowing down the browser experience. Similarly, a hang recovery feature isolates a crash to limit its impact to only the affected tab.
"Add-ons cause 75 percent of all [browser] crashes," Hachamovitch added.
But IE9 also offers improvements for site developers, not just end users. Microsoft has spent the past six months hammering home its contention that IE9's standards compliance is second to none -- a message it's been promoting with four platform "previews" since March meant to inspire developers to create sites and add-ons using IE9.
Hachamovitch also highlighted some of the companies that have already started to implement sites based on IE9's new features, including Facebook, Red Bull, Quiksilver, Rough Guides, LiveStrong, Twitter, Dailymotion, the Wall Street Journal, CNN, and Orbitz. The sites take advantage of IE9's more powerful HTML5 graphics engine, enhanced CSS3 support, and Document Object Model (DOM) improvements.
It's an important launch for Microsoft, which has been witnessing a slow decline in the use of its browser for the past several years, falling from more than 90 percent market share to 60.4 percent, according to Web analytics firm Net Applications. Competitors like Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome, meanwhile, have been able to make successful headway in the space.
But one factor in Microsoft's favor might be that more recent evidence suggests IE's slide may be leveling off, according to Net Applications data.
In any case, reversing Microsoft's market share slide is a major goal of IE9, and Hachamovitch highlighted several indicators of likely success for the new browser -- such as the fact Microsoft has more than a billion customers for its products worldwide, and that 2.8 million users had already downloaded the IE9 platform previews.
The beta of IE9 is available for download from Microsoft's Beauty of the Web site in 33 languages, the company said.