Microsoft's latest browser has the best performance when it comes to touch interfaces, and that's because Microsoft is able to focus on just one platform, while other browser makers must accommodate multiple OSes, IE's team lead and corporate vice president, Dean Hachamovitch, said at Redmond's Build developer conference.
But what stuck out about this release of Internet Explorer 11 was its inclusion of technologies that Microsoft's browser seemingly resisted for years: Most notably WebGL, which brings 3D graphics to the browser, and SPDY, a new communication protocol designed to speed up the web.
Both technologies were championed and pioneered by Microsoft's chief rival Google, and have long been included in Firefox and Opera as well. Both have also been reasons for these competitors to sneeringly refer to IE as "not a modern browser," since it didn't support the standards embraced by its rivals. Bu that all changes now. It's remarkable to see Chrome Experiments such as Yi-Wen Lin's Blossom running in IE.
One exciting new web technology still lacking in Internet Explorer is WebRTC, which allows browsers to access your PC's webcam and microphone and to conduct multimedia communications, essentially duplicating Skype just using browser technologies. I was encouraged that this time when I asked Hachamovitch about adding WebRTC to IE, he replied that his team was involved in the project's working group. Previously, Microsoft had just stressed the security risks that WebRTC poses.
The Best in Touch
But those topics were actually not what the IE team speaking at Build was keen on emphasising. Rather, the goal was to hammer home the superiority of IE11 when it comes to touch interface performance. And with one of Windows 8's, and now 8.1's mantras being "touch first," that makes sense.
The IE team showed demos where IE11 rapidly responded to touch input, while Firefox and Chrome staggered, even slowing down when a speeding-up gesture was applied to the demo. IE responds to touch for things like displaying those drop-down or fly-out menus often found on websites, while with Chrome or Firefox, you can't predictably navigate those interface elements with touch alone.
It's true that the whole idea of accelerating web activity using the PC's graphics hardware was a Microsoft innovation, later copied by the other browser makers. With IE11, another acceleration is implemented for JPG display. The team demonstrated this by showing large JPG images that simply snap in when viewed in IE, while the other browsers took noticeable time to load them.
Hachamovitch maintained that two different browser interfaces of IE on Windows 8.1 makes sense; one for the new-style, full screen, tablet-focused view and another for the desktop. And indeed, IE11 brings improvements to that modern, full-screen browser incarnation. Now, you can have the address bar and tabs showing permanently, and as in IE10 on Windows 8, you can uniquely swipe to the next page of a multi-page web article, since the browser preloads the detected following pages.
IE11 can also now sync favourites, tabs, and even frequent sites across your different Windows 8.1 devices. And with Windows 8.1 and IE11, sites can now display tiles with live updates on the Start screen.
Developer tools have been redesigned in Internet Explorer 11 with a cleaner look and a site for developers at modern.ie/en-us, which offers best practices and sample site code.
For now, Internet Explorer 11 is in the sole domain of Windows 8.1, but Hamacovitch hinted that Windows 7 users wouldn't be left in the cold, which only makes sense, since we're talkng about over half a billion installed PCs running that OS.
You can read more about what the IE team has done with this latest version of the browser in a blog post with the pithy title, Introducing IE11: The Best Way to Experience the Web on Modern Touch Devices, where you can check out the demos referred to above.