By Craig Buckler

5 Ways Microsoft Could Improve Internet Explorer 9.0

By Craig Buckler

fixing IELove it or hate it, Internet Explorer is here to stay. The news that Microsoft is working on IE9 was met with mixed feelings and caused intense debate among developers.

Rather than berate Microsoft and their browser, let’s offer some constructive advice for the IE development team. Here is my IE9 top 5 wish list:

1. Improve standards support

IE is lagging too far behind the competition and Microsoft continually plays catch-up rather than innovating.

In particular, please, please, please can we have native SVG and canvas support. This question keeps being asked and Microsoft continue to ignore it. I suspect there’s one big reason: Silverlight. Microsoft want to increase Silverlight’s following and probably considers SVG and canvas to be competing technologies.

Come on Microsoft — make your browser the best standards-based platform and the Silverlight users will come.

2. Make a decision about HTML5

In the past, Microsoft led by example. However, the company has adopted a wait-and-see policy with HTML5 and has neither fully embraced nor totally rejected the standard.

HTML5 may still be a draft specification, but it will never become a viable technology without Microsoft’s involvement and backing. Microsoft — please make a decision one way or the other and let us escape development limbo!

3. Stick with Trident but update it regularly

There are persistent rumors that Microsoft will switch to the WebKit rendering engine. It will never happen and nor should it.

We already have two mainstream WebKit-based browsers: Safari and Chrome. If IE switched, WebKit would become the world’s most dominant rendering engine. It would make web development significantly easier, but it would reduce competition and restrict innovation. We experienced many years of IE6 domination and no organization should ever have that power again.

Trident is undoubtedly improving, but it evolves at a snail’s pace and updates appear every couple of years. Microsoft — let us have regular incremental improvements.

4. Clean up the interface

IE’s interface is a mess. IE6 was clean and simple, but IE7/8 looks like a pile of regurgitated Windows controls. It’s ugly, confusing, wastes space, has options in odd places, and hinders rather than helps the user.

Part of the problem is Microsoft’s insistence on adding unnecessary features with trendy marketing names. How successful were Accelerators and Web Slices? How many people understand what they are?

Microsoft: concentrate on the basics and make web browsing easy. Users should be able to ignore the application and not need to learn it.

5. Better development tools

IE8’s developer tools were a vast improvement on previous incarnations, but they still look like a rushed last-minute addition to the browser. Microsoft produce some of the world’s most widely-used developer tools, so they have little excuse for not providing good-quality browser tracing and debugging facilities. At the very least, Microsoft should make it easy for third-party developers to hook into the rendering engine.

Have I missed your top wish for IE? Comments welcome, but let’s keep it positive, folks … we don’t need 57 “I wish IE would die” posts!

  • I don’t really see a need for better debugging tools in IE8 or 9. From my experience of IE8 so far, if you get your layout right in Firefox or Safari (using Firebug or the Inspector to help as you go along), it’s going to be pretty much exactly the same in IE8 too, which is great. It’s the earlier versions, IE6 & 7 where the problems always are, so they’re the ones that could benefit from better debuggers.

  • J

    Alternatively, they could just call it Firefox, solve the problem with memory leaks and i’d be happy…

  • SpacePhoenix

    They could change IE’s javascript handing so that it works more like javascript does in FireFox then there wouldn’t be the need for one javascript event handler for IE and another for every other browser

  • Martin Hassman

    There is good chance, that IE9 will support SVG, canvas and other things:

  • Timothy

    Console support in IE would be a killer feature! I love JS, but hate IE because of the lack of console support! PLEASE Microsoft… give me a console!

  • Andrew

    I would appreciate it if they added some CSS3 support. Border radius would be nice.

  • aegas

    Well whats the point of this post?

    i mean – MS does not care what customers have to say when its not positive.
    Look at the outlook 2010 “demo” in twitter, MS said they wound change any thing!

  • Andrew

    I guess I should have read the other posts before saying that.

  • Not defending MS but how is the browser any uglier than Firefox? I have them both open right now and they look pretty much the same and just as ugly

  • annedougherty

    Nice to see that standards compliance is the first thing on this list. The number of CSS hacks out there to get around IE’s quirks is astounding and should be unnecessary.

  • ian McNaught

    I disagree re: webkit. I would see your point if Trident had innovated at all in the last 10 years (innovated, not caught up!), but as it is it would be better they just switched. It would make developers lives so much easier, plus webkit is opensource anyway, so it could never be comparable to the hold IE6 has on the industry.

  • joshmiller

    Most of Microsoft’s hype over IE9 is speed. Interesting that speed isn’t on your list. Or is it one of those meta-features: “Do all this AND make it fast”?

  • davide

    I don’t agree with point 3.
    – Webkit is open source, and is regularly updated. This leads to the fact that updates could be installed via a simplier system, maybe even automatica (like Google does with Chrome), and the rendering engine could be updated regardless of the browser chrome, leaving MS the chance to make it the way they want, and don’t even care about it.
    – It would be easier to develop for, since we already make Webkit work in Safari and Chrome, and it would offer good development tools out of the box (the one shipped with Webkit).
    – The usage of an external rendering engine could make them focus on other important stuff.
    – Trident is born with mistakes and design flaws already inside, and in the whole IE6 era it did not see any improvement. Gecko and Webkit release unstable builds almost every day.
    – There still would be Gecko to offer competition. Even if Firefox moved to Webkit, the situation would be far better than the situation that there was with Trident since the former is open source, and it is not controlled directly by none of the browser producers.

    I really see no reasons why MS should stick with Trident… Do you?

  • Anonymous

    Why waste resources making Silverlight why not put those resources to better use helping out with IE?

    People who use IE don’t need innovations they need to get better standards support and it would be so much more financially viable to just use webkit get a few developers helping out with it. We already have to code for *so* many rendering engines, it would be really helpful for everyone if there was one less to worry about.

    Would also appreciate it if they forced the update like all the other browsers do. Heck Chrome even runs in the background updating you never even have to care about it.

  • Damian Dawber

    @Tyssen I think your response gives good reason why IE9 _should_ have better debugging tools — surely it should compete on all fronts, and that includes building debugging tools to compete with Firebug, Inspector and Dragonfly. Also, you did not actually analyse the IE8 debugging tools in themselves – going off what you said, they shouldn’t bother providing debugging tools at all: we’ll just build our sites in Firefox or Safari and see how they turn out in IE8. You make the big assumption that if everything works fine in Firefox and Safari, it will work fine in IE8… this IS NOT always going to be the case. Also, the dev tools do let you debug IE7, which is very useful.
    Concerning the debugging tools in themselves, they _do_ need improvement. They overall feel a bit clunky, and one thing I have noticed is that they don’t update very well when you alter the DOM (I find myself refreshing the page, closing the tools and re-opening them after some event takes place a lot).
    Thumbs up to native SVG and Canvas support!
    I think the webkit/trident engine adoption is an interesting point. I would have thought MS have the resources to build a good quick engine themselves and certainly with JavaScript-heavy applications (e.g. facebook, google wave) becoming the norm, the onus is on them to improve speed considerably. Regular updates to the browser are massively important for lots of reasons I suppose, but one thing I think updates do – one thing we need – is they encourage users to upgrade their browsers… there isn’t a great deal of debate about developing for FF2 and this, I believe, is in part due to the fact that lots of FF2 users have probably upgraded to FF3. I certainly felt it was a painless and natural progression upgrading opera from 9 to 10, and of course, 10 to 10.01 (like FF3.5.4 to 3.5.5) was automatic so no getting stuck with the problems of minor versions.

    Also, i would suspect the number of users doing their best to disable windows updates is pretty large, so anything that comes through there is less likely to make its way into the browser. Simple: user loads up the browser one day, browser informs the user it needs to udpate, updates, restarts the browser: IE9.01. Job done.

  • Stedi

    Yes, a simpler UI is really needed and JavaScript/DOM support from proprietary to W3C way of doing things!

  • Ben

    I can understand why MS don’t update Trident regularly, and that’s due to them having to keep businesses happy with their legacy systems.

    From a developer’s view, imagine if you had to test in hundreds of different versions of IE, all with their own quirks and bugs!

    They should just get it working from the start!

  • Vijay Dev

    Thanks for posting. Web designers like me spend countless hours just to fix IE issues, which I could have used to do something creative.

    Of course I wish IE to die, but unfortunately it cannot happen overnight! Microsoft has many other powerful products. Why cant they concentrate on those products and leave the browser for the open source community to develop.

  • ricktheartist

    How about #6 – Allow option to install IE9 alongside existing version of IE.
    For me, my hatred of IE is more about the extra hassle of testing all the different versions because they cannot co-exist on the same machine. All the hoops of Virtual Machines (which I have yet to successfully get a VM to use my VPN connection so I can test my development server before publishing – aaargh!) or dual-boots or simply having multiple computers – none of the other browsers require this. I understand why it has been this way, because of how “integrated” IE is with the OS – that was a bad choice to begin with that we have had to live with for the last decade. IE 9 is the this chance for it to correct this annoying mistake. I hope they take it.

  • Anonymous

    I think you missed one vitally important reason why trident should stay, that reason is diversity is the best defence against trojans, viruses an the like, if everyone went over to one rendering engine then it gives one target for the hackers to try an crack. Multiple targets with large market shares will force hackers to spread there resources, eventually there should fewer threats for all browsers out there.

  • i

    On the Make a decision about HTML5 comes down to this if 4 out of 5 browsers are using html5 and microsoft doesn’t want to use it. then the ie market share will keep going down because no one will be making websites for a browser that follow the standard markup language. This decision about html5 isn’t microsofts we the people decided this for them. end of story.

  • Robertux

    I know it could sound like an impossible wish but Microsoft has to face that one of the main features that the other browsers have is the cross-platform.

    I’m a Linux user/webdeveloper and I know that my sites have to work well on IE but I don’t want to switch to windows to see it or at least run it on a virtual machine. I would thank Microsoft if they make IE able to run in other platforms in order to have more people still using their browser.

  • @ricktheartist
    I second that. We wouldn’t be stuck with IE6 if people could run other versions of IE at the same time.

  • Point 3 has to be one of the dumbest things I have ever read on Sitepoint. Your argument is that you do not want another engine to become dominant. Yet as far as I am aware Trident is closed source, tied to the Operating system and painstakingly slow to support standards. Were as Webkit not tied to the operating system, supports a lot more than the current trident engine and most importantly is Open Source.

    For me moving to webkit would solve ie a lot of problems, and possibly one of their smartest moves.

  • W2ttsy

    #3 is redundant. I could understand the argument if IE/trident was actually forcing innovation, but it seems that the race is between web kit and gecko and that Trident has no real impact on what the others are doing.

    I think it would be best if MS adopted one of the open source frameworks and then did their best not to mess it up, maybe just put their stupid interface over it.

  • Wardrop

    Here’s where I think the problem lies. Microsoft, as hard as they try, can’t get their priorities right when it comes to the web. Microsoft are still very much stuck in the era before the web, and as a result, still rely on the business practises of that time. The internet and associated standards, are free flowing entities that shouldn’t depend on software or hardware support, that’s the beauty of the web – it’s platform independence, and cloud-like nature is what makes it so powerful. Here’s where Microsoft fail at that…

    Microsoft have always been about “Backwards Compatibility”. Backwards compatibility has served Microsoft well in the past, and is arguably one of the main reasons Windows has become so successful, but it’s starting to become their Achilles heel. To make backwards compatibility manageable, Microsoft have had to stick to fewer, more major, software releases. As I said, this has served them well in the past, and so that’s why Microsoft continues this approach for ALL their software. Unfortunately however, this approach isn’t “Forwards Compatible” with the ever evolving web. Sticking to only major releases of Internet Explorer, has resulted in developer frustration, and ultimately, the slowing of web evolution. To touch on what I said earlier, software should be a slave to the web – if it can’t keep up or support current standards, then it deserves no place on a users computer. Microsoft, still stuck in their old ways, wants the web to be a slave to them, which quite obviously isn’t working – I still don’t believe Microsoft get this yet.

    I assume, Microsoft is under the impression that if they don’t stick to fewer, more major releases of IE, then they’re going to upset software vendors who write web applications targeted at specific version of IE. At first, I don’t doubt that this will be the case. Software vendors have become accustomed to the release cycle or Internet Explorer, and so their own business models revolve around it. But this is where web standards come to save the day. In 10 years time, we’ll probably have CSS5 and HTML6 (or the equivalent) as the current, latest standard, but as long as the website you built today, complies with current standards, theirs no reason it shouldn’t work in a modern web browser 10 years from now.

    In summary, web standards completely solve Microsoft’s compatibility problem, Microsoft just don’t seem to have realised that though. As long as Microsoft release more frequent, standards-compliant versions of their browser, then there shouldn’t be any backwards compatibility problems in 10 years time, when you need to use that web application made in 2008, on a modern web browser.

    For as long as Microsoft stick to fewer, more major releases of IE, web developers will continue to suffer. This remains true no matter how good the under-lying rendering or JavaScript engines are that they use.

  • @i

    the ie market share will keep going down because no one will be making websites for a browser that follow the standard markup language [HTML5].

    I wish it were that simple. Most of IE’s competitors already have some level of HTML5 support. However, would you use it when 65% of the market could have trouble accessing your app? Users don’t know what browser they’re using and they certainly don’t care whether it supports HTML5. If your app doesn’t work they’ll blame you — not the browser. HTML5 needs Microsoft’s support.

    Well put. MS often care too much about backwards compatibility. However, when IE7 was launched, they were strongly criticised when IE6 apps broke. Adhering to standards is the key — web developers should use and evangelise them if they want MS to listen.

    @everyone discussing webkit
    MS have stated they will not use webkit. Their main reasoning is that they cannot issue a browser that they don’t fully understand or control. Like it or not, Trident is tightly integrated into Windows and third-party apps — changing it is likely to cause chaos.

    But how ‘bad’ is Trident anyway? It may be the slowest in terms of speed and feature evolution, but IE8 offers a good enough level of standards support. You may not get rounded corners, but the core technologies work.

    I’m always wary when people call for fewer engines/browsers — is it just to make their lives easier? Web development was simple when IE6 had a 97% market share, but look at the legacy that left.

    It’s great that we now have Trident, Gecko, Webkit and Presto all competing and pushing the boundaries of web technology.

  • sproket

    Here’s an idea.

    Rewrite the browser in C# and then implement a new scripting language to replace JavaScript called SharpScript. SharpScript would be like complete C# implementation within the browser minus unsafe extensions and maybe structs and few other less useful things.

    The browser could then do things like JIT the scripts to give them near native performance.

  • Ciprian Mustiata

    Being Microsoft I will do the followings, I will try to move in .NET wagon land.
    – Make WPF based animations, UI. May not sound such important, but being showoff of WPF, it will make other to appreciate the MS strengths
    – As Microsoft have from .Net 4.0 support for DLR and dynamic languages, use .NET JIT for running JavaScript. It will just make it run faster
    – using Silverlight sandboxing (.NET) it may reduce some treats of security

    Adding this features will make some persons anxious on MS being open to web, but it will make Microsoft to innovate. As of “standard web”, they will be constantly pushed to support standards, so they will slowly improve on that matter.
    Having WPF/.NET VM in browser for granted will mean for regular user that can expect native application speed from the web, with good look and feel.

  • Wardrop

    Having many popular rendering engines is a good thing, as long as they all adhere to standards. The importance of standards is critical. It’s such a shame that in the past, MS looked at standards as optional or flexible.

  • @sproket
    That would be good – Microsoft using their own language and managed code libraries to develop software. For some reason, they’ve never been too keen on doing that. Can you name any Microsoft software written using .NET?

    A .NET-based browser would be good in some ways – it’s be easier to achieve cross-platform support. However, I bet it’d be frustratingly slow.

  • sproket

    That would be good – Microsoft using their own language and managed code libraries to develop software. For some reason, they’ve never been too keen on doing that. Can you name any Microsoft software written using .NET?

    No, and that’s one my main griefs with .NET.

    They actually wouldn’t have to write it in C#, they would just have to make sure IE plays nice with the .NET framework.

    Another thought: I would make it so that all SharpScript MUST be signed. Then they could even extend the use of it so it could be used as a combo browser language and browser plugin language.

  • I would recommend full support of HTML5 and CSS3!

  • ali

    What about true PNG transparency rendering?!

  • What about true PNG transparency rendering?!

    It’s had it since version 7?

  • Wardrop

    I think Ali, you mean true transparency rendering of elements. I believe IE8 still relies on filters for this.

  • jmh

    couldn’t disagree more on not adopting webkit. How is an engine that is literally years behind the curve going to provide competition??? Its not and never will – they are incompetent plain and simple

  • Of course, if they were smart, the best thing MS would do for IE9 is – GET OUT OF BUILDING BROWSERS PERIOD! And maybe try focusing on building and maintaining operating systems and office software. Having their fingers in so many pots is the problem most companies get into that causes so many problems. If they would focus on what they are “good” at then maybe they’d have a better line of OS and office software. It would be nice to not have a browser that’s been duct taped together like IE has been since day 1.

  • Item number six would be to simply buy Firefox and slam the door on every other browser. Of course, that would poison Firefox, so maybe it’s not such a good idea.

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