IE9 hits one more milestone but still faces one final hurdle

Microsoft hit another milestone on its steady path to a final release yesterday. In my testing, it's been fast, but it's still subject to a frustrating level of site incompatibility issues. That's the biggest hurdle for Microsoft to cross between now and the finish line next year.

Internet Explorer 9 hit another milestone yesterday with the release of a sixth Platform Preview aimed at developers. As my ZDNet colleague Mary Jo Foley noted, Microsoft made the announcement on opening day of the two-day Professional Developers Conference in Redmond.

Judging by the response to the public beta release last month and the previous five platform previews, any reports of Internet Explorer's death are greatly exaggerated. Microsoft claims that its IE site has served up 10 million downloads since the beta release in mid-September. By contrast, the five platform preview releases leading up to the full-blown beta were downloaded a collective 2.5 million times.


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One stat that wasn't in yesterday's keynote is the level of developer support for the new browser. According to Microsoft's Ryan Gavin, senior director of the IE group, more than 900 sites now support IE9 features such as custom Jump Lists and notifications. That's a big jump from the 70 partners that were part of the September 15 launch event.

Since its launch, I've been using the IE9 beta as my primary browser (with Chrome 6.0 and the Firefox 4 beta as backups). As expected, it's noticeably faster than previous Internet Explorer releases, but I've experienced a surprising—and occasionally frustrating—level of site incompatibility issues. The problems range from sites that simply won't display to those that exhibit subtle inconsistencies in content. One support page for a leading PC maker, for example, incorrectly numbers list items on the page in IE9's standards mode. Clicking the Compatibility View button in the Address bar fixes the issue,

In fact, that Compatibility View button represents IE9's biggest hurdle. Over the years, developers by the millions have built browser-sniffing code into their pages. When that code detects any version of Internet Explorer, it serves up hacks and workarounds designed to compensate for rendering and layout problems in older IE versions. Ironically, those hacks cause new problems in the more standards-compliant IE9.

One noteworthy change in IE9 should make Compatibility View a little easier to manage. In IE8, Microsoft introduced a global Compatibility View List that users can choose to use, That list allows sites with known compatibility issues to display properly without requiring any action on the user's part. Updates to that list are delivered via Windows Update, which means that changes are slow to appear. For IE9, the architecture of this feature has been redesigned. According to Rob Mauceri, Group Program Manager for the IE team, the global Compatibility View list for IE9 is "more like an RSS feed, so we can update as frequently as we need to." In theory, that means Microsoft can add sites to the list based on feedback from users, and it can also remove sites from the list when developers fix those sites so they run correctly in standards mode.

Not surprisingly, Microsoft has not publicly committed to a release date for IE9. The next public milestone is a Release Candidate, which should be followed fairly quickly by final shipping code.

Microsoft confirmed for me yesterday that there's no formal dependency between Service Pack 1 for Windows 7 and Internet Explorer 9.  On Windows 7, you'll be able to install SP1 and delay deployment of IE9 or vice-versa. Nonetheless, I expect that the two projects are closely tied in terms of internal milestones at Microsoft. Last week, Microsoft delivered a Release Candidate of Service Pack 1 for Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2. Buried in the last paragraph of that announcement was a subtle change in the public timeline for SP1. Previously, Microsoft had committed only to deliver SP1 in the first half of 2011. With the RC, it now says we can "expect to see Service Pack 1 released in its final form during first quarter 2011…"

I think that's a major tipoff to the final IE9 release schedule as well. Last summer I predicted that IE9 would be ready in January, in time for a public unveiling at the Consumer Electronics Show. That date certainly isn't out of the question, and I am willing to bet that the actual release will be well before Microsoft's web-focused MIX Conference, which starts next year on April 12.

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