Internet Explorer 9 - Better, but not good enough.

April 3, 2012 at 2:22 PMPhonicUK

The impression Microsoft seem to be trying to give with their new "The browser you loved to hate" adverts basically comes across like this:

"Hey guys! Look we know we used to suck, but look how good we are now! Look we can do HTML5 and CSS3 and all the awesome and cool stuff you like!"

If some recent statistics are accurate, it would seem to have worked, at least for now. I would wonder how many of those users are simply people 'trying it out' only to go back to another browser later.

The problem Microsoft have is that it is not enough simply to be 'as good as' the other browsers - you must be better than them if you want to win market share, and they're not even keeping up with some of of the basic functionality. It's 'nearly as good as' if you're a tad generous.

It's not enough to simply support the newest technologies. While that will win you a few friends from developers giving it flack for being too behind to develop for, the end user experience is still a major issue.

I'm just going to outline some of the features IE most needs that are standard in other browers: 

1. A mechanism for extending browser functionality that does not rely on executing native code and instead operates in a scripted, sandboxed environment. 

You can write Chrome and Firefox extensions that provide meaningful and useful functionality purely in Javascript. Not only does this mean extensions are cross platform (not that Microsoft cares about this aspect) and some components of extensions can be shared between different browsers (which they would benefit from) - having extensions isolated in this manner is a major security benefit over native code that has much greater access to the system.

2. Friendly browser configuration.

IE's configuration page doesn't appear to have changed... well ever. It's clunky, difficult to navigate, and some of the most important settings are buried in a long, unhelpful list in the 'Advanced' tab. On a slow mobile connection and don't want your browser to download images to save on bandwidth and time? Have fun finding that.

3. Tab 'Pinning'

For a lot of people, their browser isn't just an application. It's an operating environment all on its own.

The ability to quickly and easily access frequently used web applications without using significant screen real-estate is very important to the power user. I can 'pin' my 3 Gmail tabs and other frequently used web applications while only consuming as much space in the top as one regular tab. Especially important for things like GMail that are left open constantly.

4. Themes and appearance customization.

IE9 goes very much for the 'one size fits' all approach to its appearance. You'd be forgiven for dismissing this point as purely cosmetic, but aside from benefiting users who really need to alter the browsers appearance (both Chrome and Firefox have themes available with extra large, high contrast buttons for users with mobility or visual impairments) - it improves the experience for everyone else who wants to customize the application that they likely spend more time using than any other.

IE9 would need to implement all of the above to simply 'catch up' with the other major browsers. And to go back to my original point, it needs to do more than that. 

So the above points aside, the top features I'd like to see in Internet Explorer that other browsers don't have before I'd consider recommending it to everyone:

1. Prevent 3rd party applications from installing browser plugins/extensions without the users consent.

A users web browser is a major vector for spyware/adware/malware to expose itself to the user, often in the form of toolbars, or inserting ads into pages.

A mechanism where by a 3rd party extension was not loaded unless the user explicitly gave permission to (via something like a UAC prompt so an application can't give permission to itself) would help defeat this as an exposure vector. Better yet if there was a public rating and commenting system so users could get some idea about how a plugin will actually behave before allowing it to run.

2. Better bookmark management and searching.

Chrome almost comes close to ideal bookmark management. I can select large numbers of pages and drop them all in a folder. But it's missing one thing: Content searching.

Letting me search through just the titles of the bookmarks isn't massively useful in itself, but the ability to find all my bookmarks where the pages contain a phrase or a set of keywords (and then group them into a folder) would be massively useful.

3. Graphical history and bookmark browsing.

Mobile browsers have been doing this for a while, why don't desktop browsers?

If I remember that a page I bookmarked had a blue background with white text (or some other visually distinct feature) - being able to look through my recent bookmarks or history with thumbnails of the pages would make it far faster than just looking at the names and titles.

Chrome does this for your 'most visited' page but nowhere else. Storage space is vast enough that 4K worth of thumbnail for each bookmark and for the last weeks or so of browser history isn't going to leave many people clamouring for disk space. Especially if it's sensible about it and lets the about of data stored be configurable and not taking the snapshots when disk space is low.

If Microsoft can implement all of the above (and more) then I'd possibly consider using it myself and advising the general public to. In the mean time? Meh.

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