The new platform preview, arriving seven weeks after the first version of IE9 that programmers could try, embodies Microsoft's ambition to remake its browser and restore an IE reputation tarnished by years of relative stasis and of indifference to Web standards. During those years, Mozilla's Firefox rose to claim about a quarter of Web usage and Google's Chrome burst on the scene with the mission to make the Web faster. Those organizations, along with Apple and Opera, are also working on a host of new technologies to make the Web into a more powerful foundation for Web applications, and this is where Microsoft's role is evolving.
Microsoft's IE9 progress is notable, given how IE critics long have offered both those tests as evidence of IE's shortcomings. At the same time that Microsoft has come onto the playing field set up by its foes, though, it's also trying to steer the browser debate in its own direction, with two words: "same markup."
That's shorthand for avoiding new technologies in earlier stages of maturity and browser support. Earlier IE9 attention has focused on hardware-accelerated graphics and text, said Internet Explorer General Manager Dean Hachamovitch, but "I think it's same markup's turn."
Here's why the "same markup" push is important: it turns on its head one of Microsoft's biggest weaknesses, IE's historic lack of support for Web standards. Instead of neglecting Web standards, the company is trying to define them.
In so doing, it's trying to steer the Web in the directions it prefers. At the same, it's putting its weight behind only one of two primary standards bodies in charge of HTML5, the next version of Hypertext Markup Language: the World Wide Web Consortium.
"The W3C is the HTML5 standards body," Hachamovitch said.
But, it turns out, not the only one. Here's some history.
The W3C did indeed oversee the creation of HTML. But the most recent version with its imprimatur is 4.01, released in November 1999. A decade is a long time in Web years.
What happened in the intervening period? Two things. First, the W3C worked for years on the ultimately fruitless effort to create XHTML 2.0, a more formal Web standard but one that wasn't compatible with the existing--and thriving--Web. Second, beginning in 2004, browser makers Opera, Mozilla, and Apple formed a less formal group called WHATWG, the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group.
WHATWG worked on what ultimately would become HTML5. The W3C, meanwhile, restarted its HTML work and abandoned the XHTML 2.0 effort.
Microsoft's position notwithstanding, WHATWG retains clout. It's most formally called out in the W3C's HTML5 draft, which states, "The contents of this specification are also part of a specification published by the WHATWG," and includes a link to the WHATWG mailing list where active HTML discussion still takes place.
This dual-organization approach certainly can be awkward, even though many of the same participating individuals are involved in both. But to some extent it reflects differences in approach.
There is a certain amount of spaghetti thrown against the wall with the WHATWG's style--new technologies can arrive in browsers at different times and in incompatible ways. But standards bodies face a constant tension between a utopian vision and the messy real world. For every problem caused by chaotic development, there's a matching problem caused by formality.
Standards bodies don't capture the full reality of the computing industry, either. Hachamovitch won't call WHATWG a standards body, and nor does Wikipedia, but it's got many of the same means and ends in mind as the W3C. There are de facto standards, too. The Windows operating system, for example, is entrenched enough that a vast ecosystem of products exists above and below it.
Of markups and hiccups
And there's the Khronos Group, which along with Mozilla is working to standardize a 3D Web technology called WebGL that's making its way into Chrome, Firefox, and the WebKit browser engine that underlies Safari. Note that Microsoft's Direct3D technology competes directly with Khronos Group's OpenGL, which is used in Mac OS X and Linux, iPhone and Android phones, and WebGL.
Standard or not, Hachamovitch has no love for WebGL.
"I think it's different markup," he said. "You're telling developers, 'Go write something else.'"
Another data point is support for SVG, a W3C standard called Scalable Vector Graphics. It's a prominent feature in IE9, but one that Microsoft spurned for years. To take advantage of SVG, Web developers will have to learn new technology. Those with an edge, though, are the programmers who cut their SVG teeth using the other browsers that already support it.
While Microsoft might benefit from a more stately pace of standard development, though, and one in which it has a louder voice, don't view the company's stance as merely self-serving.
Hachamovitch has a point when he makes note of Mozilla's decision to stay on the Web Sockets sidelines for now. Chrome includes an older version of the Web Sockets feature to improve communications between Web servers and Web browsers, and until the specification settles down, Mozilla isn't adding support. That means Web developers thinking about building services using WebSockets must worry about which browser is using that service.
And this all comes around to one of the characteristics of the Web: It's fluid and organic. A thriving ecosystem can be a strength, but the attendant chaos also can be a weakness.
"Developers have the power to make the Web great. If they're spending all their time doing a little bit of special markup for this browser, another little bit of special markup for that browser, it's diluting (their work), Hachamovitch said. "Developers pay with their time."
Microsoft has good reason to re-engage with the Web technology realm. The Web is getting steadily more important, dot-com bubble and recent economic shocks notwithstanding, and Microsoft can't afford to be left behind.
IE's share of usage has steadily dwindled in recent years, losing out chiefly to Firefox, Safari, and Chrome. In April, IE share sunk below 60 percent from 76 percent in May 2008, according to browser research from Net Applications. This vote of dwindling confidence is a long-term trend Microsoft needs to worry about.
But there's more to the IE share situation than meets the eye. Drilling a little deeper into the statistics shows that IE8 rose from 27.01 percent to 28.05 percent from March to April (including IE8 emulating earlier IE versions and derivatives such as Maxthon). That 1.04 percentage point increase is greater than the 0.6 percentage-point total gain of Chrome from 6.13 percent 6.73 percent from March to April.
Chrome usage is growing relatively quickly, to be sure, but the gains by IE8 show that IE's tremendous installed base of users, though they upgrade slowly, is a powerful asset. Rival browser makers collectively continue to draw users away from Microsoft, but that could get harder as the competition becomes IE8 and IE9 rather than the reviled, comparatively ancient, and now finally fading IE6.
One thing is certain amid the changing landscape, though: with IE9 and its participation in multibrowser standards work, Microsoft has an increasingly important place at the Web technology table.