Welcome to the first of a series of blog entries not just telling you when the next WebBlast is.  The way we see it, WebBlast is about conversation, and we have plenty of that every three months.  So we thought we’d extend it a bit and raise a few industry talking points on here.  Let us know what you think.

And there is no bigger conversation it seems than the seemingly cockroach-like IE6 hanging around like a bad smell.  Will IE9 put an end to this thorn in every web developers side?  Possibly, but not completely.  So with all the major browsers releasing their wares around the same time, we thought we’d test drive the current market leader, and see if it can claw back the market share it’s been steadily losing for quite a while now.

First up, a quick review of where we’re at for the newcomers.  Microsoft was pretty late to the whole Internet party, with Bill Gates on record saying he thought it wouldn’t amount to much.  That was until a spring break gathering for the top echelon of the company back in 1995 where he performed a complete about turn, deciding to plough all his energies into beating the then ubiquitous Netscape browser.  And oh how did he succeed.

So, through the late nineties we had the browser wars, culminating in Microsoft releasing Internet Explorer 6 in 2001.  At the time, this browser was cutting edge, and given the rapid evolution thus far, no-one expected it to be the last update for some time.  But it was.  Microsoft, by Chris Wilson’s own admission got complacent, and just like like Fat Boy slim once said “I’m #1 so why try harder”.  And there we stayed.  For five long years.

It was only the rise from the ashes of Netscape that spurred the Microsoft machine into becoming a good web citizen, and to their credit they have done a very good job under the guidance of Wilson in releasing versions 7 and 8.  They were never going to go from IE6 to Opera-like standards compliance overnight, but It’s finally got them to here – IE9.  Their first browser they can say with a straight face that is properly standards compliant.

So is it?  Well on initial inspection it seems to do a good job.  ACID3 compliance is always a good test for the purists, and comes out remarkably well  (95 / 100).  But this I think is always a bit academic, and in the real world, who needs some of the hyper-obscure DOM manipulation that means a 100% score?  What we’re after as developers is the more day to day stuff, particularly around HTML5 and CSS3, and also a very quick Javascript engine would be nice too.  So lets focus on those and leave the propeller heads to debate the academic stuff.

Acid3 Compliance test

HTML5

One of the major arguments against us lot learning HTML5 any time soon has been Microsoft’s reticence to implement it.  Mozilla, Safari and Opera are all chomping at the bit, but they are not market leaders.  Ultimately, until IE embraces it, it’s all a bit ‘future’ for most devs.   That all changes with IE9, where support for core features such as canvas and video is included – maybe not to the level of other browsers yet in some areas, but definitely ahead of them in others –  but it’s a definite step in the right direction.  It means we can all get off our arses and learn our first new markup language for a generation.

CSS3

It’s kind of like London buses that we wait over 10 years for a new standard to emerge, and then two trundle along at once.  Entirely separate to HTML5, but potentially just as game changing is the introduction into the browser landscape of implementations of CSS3.  Again there are great frameworks out there such as Modernizr that emulate this at the moment, but there is no substitute for the real thing, and the introduction of such things as border-radius for rounded corners and  websafe fonts can only be a good thing.  At this stage they’re all using the –ms- prefix as they are not ratified standards, but it means we can use CSS3 today without fear of ‘breaking the web’ tomorrow.  It is Microsoft’s born-again commitment to standards that will make our life better in the future.

Javascript

The third big win for IE9 is the engine for running Javascript code.  Previously perceived as the ugly baby of web development, Javascript has been very  unfairly treated by the so-called ‘proper’ programmers for years, being called all sorts of nasty names like ‘fat’ and ‘slow’ and ‘a bit hard of thinking’.  But with frameworks such as jQuery, and the rise of asynchronous page refreshes known as Ajax, Javascript has become every bit as essential as the other disciplines in web development.  And in order to perform  these sometimes very advanced workflows, the processing engines needed to raise their game too.   For a long time IE pretty average in this department, but tests on IE9 show it is right in the mix now with it’s peers.  Moral of this story?  All current versions of the big browsers have the best Javascript performance.

Javascript performance

Source: IEBlog

Other bits

One thing I don’t like is Microsoft going back to their proprietary bells and whistles.  They do less of it in IE9, but the implementations of Web Slices and Accelerators really just looked like Microsoft trying to force new technologies on the browser market.  Unsurprisingly, they’ve largely been ignored in the marketplace.  So long as they focus on collaboratively making the browser a unified place to do great work, and less about proprietary rubbish, they’ll be headed in the right direction.

Conclusion

So, did they do a good job?  Yes they did.  Is it perfect?  Far from it, but it never was going to be.  Will it continue to get better in the future?  Hopefully, but a big concern is the departure of Chris Wilson to Google, as Wilson had been there working on Microsoft browsers since the very start.  He was as much to blame as anyone for IE6’s complacence, but has also been instrumental in raising Microsoft’s game since then.  We can only hope that Microsoft never gets to the near total dominance they enjoyed with IE6, in order to keep them hungry.  And that isn’t ever likely to happen again either.

It’s too easy to bag Microsoft for their past, but IE9 ticks a lot of boxes in the ‘trying hard to play well with others’ department.  Lets hope it’s just the springboard for some more real innovation and competition in the browser space.