This past week in Las Vegas, Microsoft held its Mix conference, an annual gathering of Web designers and developers, to talk about Web technology and innovations. One of the hottest topics was the Internet Explorer 9 Platform Preview-a much stripped-down sneak peek at the next version of the Microsoft browser.
It's interesting to see where Microsoft is going with its Web browser. Besides its newly launched commitment to the cloud, the upcoming version of Office 2010 includes Web-enabled versions of all the popular Office applications, and Microsoft knows full well many of its competitors are positioning their applications to be completely Web-based. When Google launched the Chrome browser, it was the first time in a while that you could legitimately use your computer to do all the business functions you would need, without any Microsoft software involved. This must have been quite a wake-up call in Redmond.
The two areas Microsoft seemed to really focus on in this upcoming release are speed and compatibility -- probably the two areas in which Microsoft is most often criticized. On the compatibility side, IE9 will greatly improve compliance with existing standards-specifically HTML5 and CSS3. This is an area in which Microsoft has been routinely criticized, and to its credit it admits to its shortcomings. On the speed side, Microsoft has completely rewritten the graphics and media rendering engines, plus engineered in support for modern (multi-core) CPUs. These changes position IE as a game-changer as far as performance goes.
So what can we take away from these early reviews and announcements? Well, clearly Microsoft sees the browser as the future of computing more than ever. It's obvious that the next wave of Web-based applications will require performance and functionality well beyond what Web sites have traditionally had. Microsoft is not looking to be a bottle-neck in this area, or further lose its hold on that front. The way it has embraced compatibility and adherence to standards makes it clear that Microsoft is not simply building a client for its applications, but rather what it considers the next evolution of the desktop operating system.
If you think about it that way, it makes sense. Imagine if you got the latest version of Windows and it really only ran Microsoft Office well. When you tried to install Quickbooks or Photoshop, you got an error that some of the functions weren't supported and the program wouldn't run optimally. Sounds pretty outrageous, but frankly, that has started to be the case in terms of the browser. Many non-Microsoft Web applications do no work well on IE, and many Microsoft Web apps don't work well on other browsers. If the browser is in fact the operating system of the future, and if Microsoft truly is all in for the cloud, it will need to fix this. IE 9 looks to be a giant leap in that direction.