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Microsoft looks to rise to the challenge issued by Mozilla, Google, Opera, and others

In our series on browsers, we looked extensively at the latest versions (including test versions) of the top 5 mainstream browsers -- Opera 10.0, Firefox 3.6 (a1 at the time), Safari 4, Internet Explorer 8, and Google Chrome 4 (this series had four entries which you can find here 1, 2, 3, and 4).  We found that Microsoft Internet Explorer had some compelling strengths, such as its security, but overall used too much memory, CPU, and was too slow.

Microsoft is aware of these concerns and it has been racing to develop a successor to IE 8 -- Internet Explorer 9.  IE 9 looks to be everything IE 8 wasn't -- fast and lean.  With the forthcoming release, Microsoft looks to give Internet Explorer a makeover akin to the Windows Vista to Windows 7 transition.

The foundation of this effort was discussed in depth at the Microsoft Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles by Windows unit president Steven Sinofsky.  At the core of the changes is hardware acceleration of text and graphics.  Microsoft's Dean Hachamovitch, general manager of Internet Explorer, said the technology will be akin to Google's Native Client, used by Chrome to better utilize the processor's power, and Mozilla's WebGL, used by Firefox to provide hardware acceleration for 3D graphics.

The browser will use Direct2D, rather than the previously used GDI (Graphical Device Interface).  The hardware-acceleration will provide support for technologies such as sub-pixel positioning, which smooths text, reducing eyestrain.  The acceleration also allows the browser to keep up with displaying rich graphics, such as interactive online maps.  In side-by-side testing, Microsoft reports that an online mapping utility runs in IE 9 at 40 to 60 fps with low processor usage, while running at only 5 to 10 fps and 50 to 60 percent CPU usage in IE 8.

Mr. Hachamovitch describes the night and day comparison, stating, "It's a remarkably different level of performance.  It's like the difference between watching Pixar or an Xbox vs. watching an old PC chug along."

He adds, "This is a direct improvement to everybody's usage of the Web on a daily basis.  Web developers are doing what they did before, only now they can tap directly into a PC's graphics hardware to make their text work better and graphics work better."

The browser will also be much closer, reportedly, to the high bar of standards compliance set by the likes of Opera, Safari, Chrome, and Firefox.  Microsoft in August joined the HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) standards effort and this month it set a dozen members to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) meeting, a standards summit.  IE 9 reportedly will have almost full support for CSS 3.

Adrian Bateman, a Microsoft program manager who's involved in the standardization effort, describes, "High-quality specifications that improve interoperability between browsers are important. Our goal is to help ensure these new standards work well for Web developers and will work well in future versions of IE."

The standards and hardware acceleration efforts are merged, as Microsoft is looking to use the Direct2D support to speed up the rendering of advanced standards like Cascading Style Sheets, reducing the stress on the developer.  States Mr. Hachamovitch, "Web sites didn't have to change behavior and code in a different way [to utilize Direct2D].  With a lot of other technologies, it takes a lot of work and a lot of time to figure out how to do something different. It isn't necessarily an interoperable, standards kind of thing -- it's something from one particular vendor. We're taking interoperable implementations of things like CSS, things that developers are using and expect to work everywhere, and making them demonstrably better."

While it's unclear if SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) will finally receive official support in the release, it looks like Canvas graphics are finally likely to be onboard.  Eliot Graff, an IE lead technical editor, is working with W3C to edit the Canvas standard.  Currently on Acid3, a compatibility test, IE 9 scores a 32, versus a mere 20 percent for IE 8.

Microsoft is also working to speed up its Javascript (JS) engine.  In this respect, Microsoft lags significantly behind Chrome's V8, Firefox's TraceMonkey, Safari's Nitro, Opera's Futhark and Caracan JS engines.  John Montgomery, a leader of IE's browser compatibility and tools team says the company is giving a much better showing in the SunSpider JavaScript benchmark.  He states, "We're whipping through these faster than (IE) 8 was.  We're pretty early in the development process. There's still some stuff we can still squeeze out of the engine, but we're doing a lot better than we were."

Microsoft really needs a hit when it comes to browsing.  While it still holds a dominant position, thanks largely to its business users, its marketshare has been sliding thanks to competitors like Firefox, Chrome, and Opera.  The browser by some recent estimates has slid below 60 percent for the first time in years, while Firefox's market share may have risen as high as 30 percent.

With IE 9, Microsoft still might not offer quite the level of standards support as, say Opera, but it is taking a compelling approach -- it is saying that most of the standards it supports will receive some degree of hardware acceleration.  While not new, Microsoft certainly seems to be tackling the topic of hardware acceleration on a much broader scale than is found in the current implementations of Firefox and Chrome.  In all Microsoft's Internet Explorer 9 looks to be an intriguing release, a sign of a positive direction from the browser team, and just maybe enough to win back some of the customers Microsoft has lost to its rivals.

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By nafhan on 11/20/2009 10:33:14 AM , Rating: 5
Does it matter how they make things go faster? If coding for the GPU is faster and easier (i.e. cheaper) than optimizing for general purpose CPU's, then that's the best thing to do from a business standpoint.
Personally, if something runs faster without me needing to upgrade my hardware, I'm going to be happy about it.
Oh, and Flash sucks :)

By therealnickdanger on 11/20/2009 11:01:12 AM , Rating: 3
Believe me, I'm ALL for things going faster, but we're approaching a tipping point where a lot more development is headed toward GPU-acceleration WITHOUT much discipline. How long before we NEED a 300W GPU to surf the web in place of a 5W CPU? I'm speaking tongue-in-cheek, but I think you get my point.

By CSMR on 11/20/2009 11:42:26 AM , Rating: 3
Using the most efficient hardware for the task is what generates power efficiency. E.g. the NVidia Tegra can decode HD video (1080p h264 or vc1 I think) using 1-2W power. Consumer level GPU stuff on PC can be done on with current-generation integrated graphics (which are power efficient and becoming more so). Professional applications e.g. rendering will naturally need more.

By nafhan on 11/20/2009 1:45:21 PM , Rating: 2
The lowest common denominator is going to be what keeps things from getting too out of control. For consumer level stuff such as web browsing, they will need any GPU/"hardware" accelerated stuff to work on Intel's integrated graphics or they will be leaving a huge portion of PC users in the dust. The current trends in hardware acceleration are just making better use of hardware that everyone already has, NOT requiring anyone to buy new stuff. System requirements keep pace with the low end, and hardware acceleration isn't going to change that.

By tastyratz on 11/20/2009 2:50:00 PM , Rating: 3
absolutely. Throwing more grunt at the problem doesn't actually FIX the problem, its just tapping a new source of power.

Just how much does a poorly coded app literally actually cost us from our pocket? Don't forget these power hungry machines under load consume significantly more power - and that comes at a cost on our monthly bill.

I as well believe that faster computing is no excuse for sloppy quick coding. Make the product faster because of clean tight code, and benefit from the most optimal processing medium (albeit gpu or cpu) in an effective manner.

By InternetGeek on 11/20/2009 2:52:58 PM , Rating: 3
You guys are heading into a long debate about programming. There are various camps as far as software practices go. One camp says we don't need any kind of coding discipline (functionality-centered), the other camp says we should view software as an engineering discipline (architecturally-centered).

Some says the debate is about whether people are hackers or enterprise developers. Accusations fly from one side to the other, but most of the arguments go around whether programmers are attached to their software to modify it or good practices and patterns are used so anyone can help.

Have fun ;)

"Can anyone tell me what MobileMe is supposed to do?... So why the f*** doesn't it do that?" -- Steve Jobs

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