IE10 is the day the Web won for apps, not browsers

Does it matter that the reason IE9 and IE10 are much better browsers than IE8, with far more standards, all accelerated by the hardware that's in all modern PCs, isn't because Microsoft wanted to make a better browser, but because Microsoft wanted to make Windows 8 the best place to run Web apps?What's left to ask for in IE10?

Does it matter that the reason IE9 and IE10 are much better browsers than IE8, with far more standards, all accelerated by the hardware that's in all modern PCs, isn't because Microsoft wanted to make a better browser, but because Microsoft wanted to make Windows 8 the best place to run Web apps?

What's left to ask for in IE10? Text shadow is there. Spell checking is there. It supports a broad set of standards - almost everything except WebGL, which Microsoft considers a security risk, and WebM, which it doesn't consider a standard. If you can think of anything left to ask for, it will stand more chance of making it into the browser if there's a reason for app developers to want to use it in Windows.

Two years ago, soon after the very first demonstration of hardware acceleration in IE9 at the post Windows 7 PDC, while we were scouring the Microsoft Careers site for hints about the future of Windows, we found a job advert that set us thinking about the importance of Web technologies for Windows 8. Now that we've seen Windows 8, it's worth looking back at it.

"The web is the center of most consumers’ PC experiences and the platform of a new generation of developers," ran the advert. "This is a rare opportunity for Windows to redefine its application model. Upcoming web applications are evolving features of traditional client applications. We will help them: we will have the best platform for standards-based web; we will help web developers take full advantage of the power of Windows client computers; and we will let end-users experience these new applications in ways that a browser cannot. In short, we will blend the best of the web and the rich client by creating a new model for modern web applications to rock on Windows."

We mentioned this to the head of the Internet Explorer team, Dean Hachamovitch, who smiled broadly. That description is chromeless Web apps in Metro IE10 on Windows 8 using the WinRT APIs - and it's the culmination of rather more than two years of work, particularly on the hardware-accelerated Chakra JavaScript engine that makes IE10 and Metro Web apps perform well.

In retrospect, we've seen the IE team spend a lot of time biting their tongues; we watched them being berated for not including ECMAScript Strict in IE 9 at the Web 2.0 conference just before they were able to announce it for IE 10 at MIX this year. Since IE9 came out, the most frequent request we've seen in the comments on the IE blog has been for a built-in spell checker - which says something about the performance and quality of IE9 on the platforms it runs on. The second-most common request has been for text-shadow. (Suggestions that IE use WebKit for rendering have disappeared since IE9 and Chakra hit their stride, and the other common complaint is that Microsoft publishes its videos in Silverlight or H.264, in answer to which see the point about WebM above and then discuss whether Google going back on the W3C decision not to specify an HTML5 codec brings its own set of problems to the Web).

I'm sure the spell checker made its appearance now because this is the first time they could show it in Windows 8, especially when you consider the timing of the Windows 8 announcements after the expiry of the anti-trust agreement (we don't yet know if IE10 on Windows 7 gets spell checking). I'm equally certain that text-shadow is there so Metro apps can use it, just as media queries went into IE9 so they'd be there for Windows Phone 7.5 and flexbox went into IE10's first platform preview so that they could use it with the new W3C Microsoft-proposed grid standard to build the Metro Start screen.

Building a good browser for Windows is important, but not nearly as strategic as building a Web applications platform into Windows 8. Is that a bad motive for improving IE; does it mean we should mistrust Microsoft's adoption of Web standards and its participation in standards bodies?

Certainly, it's way past time that the Web technologies got a proper test suite so you can point at something more accurate than the Acid Test when you want to compare browsers and Microsoft's test-driven development methods have produced thousands of test cases that all browser makers can take advantage of.

And while Mozilla is pretty strongly focused on making the Web better for the same of making the Web better, one of the reasons Google wants to have its own high-class Web browser is so that more people will use something that effectively has the Google toolbar built in so they can get the tracking information about what you do and where you go so they can sell more ads on search (the same kind of tracking signals that caused the spat over whether Bing was copying Google based on information from the Bing Bar on Google developer's systems). Apple invested in Safari because the original plan was for the iPhone and iPad to run Web apps rather than native apps, as well as to make sure that there was a good enough browser to stop the Mac being a second-class citizen.

The Web is big business and just about everyone on the W3C committees and in what a cynic might call the WHATWG cabal makes their living from it. If interests other than altruism move Web technologies forward - and don't compromise them - is that a problem or a benefit?

Mary Branscombe