FAQ: Say hello to IE9

Microsoft pulls aside the curtain, sneak peeks its next-gen browser

Microsoft yesterday unveiled a very early edition of its next-generation browser, IE9. So early, in fact, that it's more "pre" than pre-release, pre-beta or even pre-alpha.

Ladies and gentlemen, say hello to "IE9 Platform Preview."

That's a new name for Microsoft, and one meant, as one company manager said yesterday, to evoke the "major change" the software maker believes it's taking in Internet Explorer development.

Just what is Platform Preview? Can you even run it? And if so, do you want to?

Those are just some of the first questions you'll undoubtedly have over the months ahead as Microsoft starts adding muscle to the bare bones framework of IE9.

Microsoft's calling this a "Platform Preview." Is that just a fancy name for beta? Not even close.

This build is not a fully functional browser by any stretch. It lacks critical user features, including an address bar (what?) and a back button. Instead, Microsoft is billing this as a lightweight frame wrapped around the IE9 rendering, layout and JavaScript engines that it's passing around so developers and the technically adventurous can try it out and let Microsoft know what they think.

Will there be a beta? Yes, says Microsoft. What it's not saying is when it will ship a feature-complete beta. And since this is the first time that the company's cranked out what's essentially a developer pre-alpha -- or even pre-pre-alpha -- there's no history to go on to speculate when that might be.

Can I run the preview in Windows XP? No.

IE9's graphics processor powered-acceleration requires Direct2D and DirectWrite, APIs created for Windows 7 , then back-ported last October to Vista Service Pack 2 (SP2). Windows XP? Flat out of luck.

Will IE9 run on Windows XP when it ships in final form? Don't count on it.

In its own FAQ , Microsoft took on the question, but didn't answer it. "It's too early to talk about features of the Internet Explorer 9 Beta," the company said.

But the chances that IE9 will run on the 2001 OS are slim to none. Elsewhere in that same FAQ, Microsoft said as much when it noted that IE9 relies on "technologies [that] depend on advancements in the display driver model introduced first in Windows Vista." That's the tip-off, as Vista completely departed from the XP driver model, one of the issues that gave early Vista users fits.

It would be impossible to backport those technologies to XP, economically brainless to do so for an OS slated for retirement in four years, or both.

When will Microsoft release IE9? The company isn't saying.

How do I use the Platform Preview without an address bar? To browse to a page, select Open from the Page menu, or press Ctrl-O. In the Open Web Page dialog that pops up, type the destination URL, then click OK.

If I download the Platform Preview, what happens to the real Internet Explorer? Nothing. The preview and IE7 or IE8 co-exist peaceably, a new twist for Windows, which won't allow users to install, say, both the creaky IE6 and the newer IE8.

Do I have to have IE8 on the PC before I can try the preview? Yes.

That's not a problem for people running Windows 7, since IE8 is bundled with the OS, but if you're running Vista, you must first upgrade to IE8, if you haven't already. Windows Vista (and anyone running Server 2008) users must also have installed the October 2009 Platform Update that, among other things, brought Windows 7's hardware acceleration support for 2D, 3D and text to the older operating system.

I watched the webcast of the MIX10 keynote, where the Microsoft presenters must have said "HTML5" a hundred times. What is HTML5? The next-generation of HTML (hypertext markup language), the underlying development language of the Web.

A lot of the interest in HTML5 revolves around how it could replace rich-media plug-ins like Adobe's Flash or Microsoft's Silverlight for embedded audio and video. Apple is a proponent of HTML5, for instance, because it could replace Flash -- a technology the company, especially CEO Steve Jobs, seems to dislike at best, despise at worst -- for playing video.

Other browser makers, including Mozilla (Firefox), Google (Chrome), Apple (Safari) and Opera have been beating the HTML5 drum for some time, so Microsoft's late to the party. But as Sheri McLeish, an analyst with Forrester said today, "When Microsoft gets serious about something, you'd better be ready to get out of the way."

For more on IE9 and HTML5, check out Paul Krill's story in InfoWorld .

And FYI ... by our count, Microsoft's people used the term HTML5 just 39 times in Tuesday's MIX10 keynote.

Will Microsoft update the preview? How often? Yes, about every eight weeks, says Dean Hachamovich, the general manager for IE.

Will IE9 be the first Internet Explorer browser not released in conjunction with a new version of Windows? No, but unless Microsoft boosts Windows 8 development to light speed or delays IE9 for a couple of years, it will be the first since 2001, when Microsoft launched IE6 just months before the debut of Windows XP.

Where do I get IE9 Platform Preview?Here .

You'll also find a short user guide and release notes -- the latter include known problems with the build -- at the same location.

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Gregg Keizer

Computerworld (US)

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