Internet Explorer 9: Under The Hood

Internet Explorer 9: Under The Hood

You’d hope that as the latest iteration in a long line of browsers Microsoft’s latest, IE9, would be its best yet. Naturally, it is, but that would actually be to underestimate how much of a leap forward IE9 really is in terms of technology. In our other articles we’ve examined how much of a difference IE9 can make to the end user, but what you might not realise is how much of a difference it can make to web developers too.

In the past, IE has had something of a bad reputation among web developers for being somewhat behind the times when it comes to web standards. Indeed the 2001 era IE6 is now spoken of in derogatory terms despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that in its day it was the most popular browser by a huge factor. Chief among IE6’s supposed sins was its reputation for being buggy and its lack of support for modern web standards. In fact, at the time of launch, IE6 was the most advanced browser out there due to its early adoption of some of the bleeding edge standards. However, as newer, and more limber rivals came on the scene, this early code was neglected, then overtaken and surpassed by other browsers with more modern and stable code.

IE7 and IE8 came out to build on the success of IE6 and address its issues. IE9 however, is a bit special. If offers the best of both worlds; support for advanced features, support for the latest standards and great debugging tools.

Microsoft has come on a long way since the bad old buggy days of IE6.

Developer delight

So how specifically is IE9 going to delight web developers? First, there’s the external design. Its simple, stripped down approach, which removes the clutter from excessive toolbars and menus means that after all the developer’s hard work, it’s easier for the end users to see the final results, and that has to be a good thing.

IE9 will please users and developers with its clean and uncluttered look.

The second is raw speed. Visual imagery is part and parcel of any modern site, and thanks to IE9’s hardware acceleration and the ability to take advantage of the fast GPUs that even relatively modest computers today contain, a great many more images can be handled on screen at once than say, IE8. If you’re developing a game that employs JavaScript or animations, you’ll be able to rely on knowing that users running IE9 will be able to appreciate your work.

However, it’s not just through brute force that IE9 succeeds. Its JavaScript performance is an order of magnitude better than it was with IE8 – as much as 17.5x in some tests. If you’re developing a site that features JavaScript, as many do these days, that’s a figure you’ll very much appreciate.

HTML5

A key indicator that IE9 is a truly state-of-the-art browser is its support for the next generation of markup, HTML5. HTML5 has been touted as the future of the web, enabling browser code to perform many tasks that up till now have only been possible using browser plug-ins, which can be inconvenient at best, and buggy at worst, and all too often both.

It’s a technology that’s still very much under development, and by no means does IE9 handle all of it, but it does offer support for the most crucial aspects. The <canvas> tag is one of these and this enables the creation of scriptable renders using 2D shapes and bitmaps, without any need for technology such as Flash. In fact, it’s so clever you could use it to create basic games. 

Another HTML5 technology for creating 2G graphics within the browser is Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG). As it is vector based it’s ideal for creating diagrams such as pie charts, and IE9 handles it with aplomb.

One of the most well known features of HTML5 is the <video> tag, which finally brings native video playback support into the domain of the browser. In a world where video is one of the largest drivers of bandwidth on the Internet it seems incredible to think that browsers still require a plugin to get most of it to play. The <video> tag is designed to correct that situation. However, as with much in life, it’s complicated. There is still much debate between the leading browser vendors over which codec should be used by default. Apple and Microsoft support H.264, while Google and Opera offer native support for Ogg Theora and WebM. IE9 actually supports all three, but with Ogg and WebM you’ll need to manually install them.

Look ma, no plugin! Many video based sites such as YouTube are experimenting with playing HTML5 video formats.

HTML5 is also closely related to CSS3, the latest version of Cascading Style Sheets, which determines how things look in your browser. CSS3 is significant as it brings some very useful features such as Embedded font support, so users don’t need to have the font installed on their computer for it to render, and the ability to create effects such as transparency, shadows rounded corners and animations, bringing new levels of interactivity to a page.

In other words, if you want to develop a cutting edge website, IE9 is the browser you should be targeting and working with for the site to look and work its best.

Debugging

Way back when, IE6 was best known in the developer community for its bugs and while IE has improved its act tremendously since then, it’s mud that sticks. IE9 should finally cleanse its reputation in that regard for good thanks to the introduction of a great feature – integrated debugging tools. Hit F12 on any page and the bottom half of the page will open with developer tools with six tabs to choose from: HTML, CSS, Console, Script, Profiler and Network, and from here you can delve right in to work out any kinks in your website code. You can quickly and easily select elements of code and the debugging command will debug a chosen script on the fly. It’s not particularly fun or glamorous but having it right there, without needing to go out of the application takes away some of the pain of getting your site working correctly.

IE9 adds the convenience of built-in debugging tools – just hit F12 to activate.

IE9 will also please developers with some of its unique user features such as Pinned Sites. Designed to work with Windows 7, it enables Pinned Sites enhanced websites to be placed on the Windows 7 taskbar and act like a native application. Right clicking on the icon will take you directly to specific areas of a website. Users will be able to navigate your site and get to content faster, which for a website designer has got to be gratifying.

The IT Crowd

It’s not just coders that will find a lot to love about IE9 though. With its enterprise cred, it’s not surprising that IE9 fits in well in a corporate environment. IE9 can be deployed easily by being slipstreamed into a Windows installation image and it also has greater support for group policy. If you’re running a Microsoft Server backend you’ll enjoy greater customisation and management flexibility using IE9 than with any other browser. You can also be sure that security issues will be dealt with efficiently, thanks to enterprise-level hotfix support. It’s all handled through the Internet Explorer Administration Kit (IEAK), which lets you deploy IE9 remotely, and through version control, ensuring that everyone is on the same page – literally. Thanks to IEAK9, for both developers and IT support staff in mission critical environments IE9 is clearly the browser of choice.

IEAK9 is great news to IT support staff, enabling remote deployment and management of IE9.

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