If Microsoft's new browser is as popular as the company hopes, it may reverse Internet Explorer's (IE) market share slide -- but it might also help to do something that the software giant has been trying unsuccessfully to accomplish for several years -- kill off Windows XP.
Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) released the first public beta test version of Internet Explorer 9 Wednesday at a launch event in San Francisco.
The new browser promises to provide a much faster surfing experience by using hardware acceleration present in modern PCs. That will likely turn out to be great news for many users running Windows 7, Windows Vista, and Windows Server 2008.
However, it's not good news for users running Windows XP, which doesn't support hardware acceleration. That means that IE9 cannot run on any version of XP, even though it's still the most popular version of Windows ever.
"There are a number of reasons that Internet Explorer 9 is not available in Windows XP that range from the need for Internet Explorer 9 to take advantage of modern hardware down to the specifics that Internet Explorer 9 Beta requires Direct2D support, a new technology introduced in Windows 7," a Microsoft spokesperson told InternetNews.com in an e-mail.
Direct2D is a technology incorporated into Windows 7 that aids hardware acceleration of graphics. The technology is also supported by a "platform update" that was added to Vista Service Pack 2 (SP2) and to Windows Server 2008.
Although it's been known since at least March that XP wouldn't support IE9, it may still come as a splash of cold water in the face for some users still running the nine-year-old operating system -- and there are a lot of them.
According to Web analytics tracking firm Net Applications, XP is still by far the most popular operating system in use with some 60.89 percent market share worldwide in August -- nearly four times Windows 7's market share, and twice the share of Windows 7 and Windows Vista combined.
That doesn't mean that XP's share isn't on the decline -- it is. After all, Windows 7 has been the fastest selling version of Windows ever with more than 175 million licenses sold in the first eight months after it shipped.
For example, since last October, when Windows 7 shipped, XP has lost slightly more than 10 percentage points of market share -- down from 70.48 percent. In the same time, Windows 7 grew to hold 15.87 percent share now, while Vista lost just under 5 percentage points to leave it with a 14 percent share.
The way it stands today, XP makes up two-thirds of Windows' approximately 90 percent share of operating systems in use. Microsoft would like to see XP usage fall to near zero, however, because it's expensive to support an operating system that's two versions out of date.
The company has done its best to provide an orderly phase out of XP but that has been problematic. Vista was intended to replace XP but never quite caught on with large numbers of users who were happy with XP and dissatisfied with Vista. As years have gone by, many users stayed on older hardware that today can't support features like the newer hardware graphics acceleration.
But moving to take advantage of new technologies as they emerge is one of the hallmarks of any successful PC company, according to one analyst.
"You really can't blame them [Microsoft] ... Letting customers run old products forever is a good way to go out of business," Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, told InternetNews.com.
Microsoft has repeatedly given PC OEMs reprieves when it comes to continuing to sell XP. That's about to end.
In mid-July, Microsoft halted all support for XP Service Pack 2 -- by far the most popular release of XP -- because it had reached the end of its specified lifecycle. The company will still support XP SP3 until April 2014 though.
Further, PC makers can no longer sell XP installed on new systems as of Oct. 22, the first year anniversary of the shipment of Windows 7. Dell ended sales of XP in early September in preparation for the cut off.
XP users do have choices left to them other than abandoning their old systems for new ones.
"Windows XP users still have a great experience in Internet Explorer 8 and we encourage them to upgrade if they have not already," the Microsoft spokesperson said.
Enderle agrees to a point.
"It's not like XP users don't have a choice," he said. "They can go with [Google] Chrome, Firefox, or even Opera," Enderle added.
Microsoft has not yet released a timetable of when IE9 will be released as a final product.