Microsoft recently released their Internet Explorer 9 Beta to less a fanfare and more a raised eyebrow with a surprised murmur. Internet Explorer has been a much maligned browser, particularly since IE6 which was the target of a campaign by web developers to get rid of it.

Versions 7 and 8 offered more features but was left looking sedentary whilst competitors Firefox, Chrome, Opera and Safari ploughed ahead with speed increases and features like HTML5 support, Javascript compilers and (in some cases) a minimalist interface.

But owing to being the default browser setup on Windows, to Windows dominating the home PC market and to the apathy of most home users who aren’t discerning when it comes to browser alternatives, IE still dominates the overall market share. A more meaningful statistic would be an increased market share over the past year. In this arena there’s one winner, Chrome:

browser market share

Chrome mixed things up when it was launched two years ago and provided a genuine rethinking of how browsers should work given the modern Web. Why should a Javascript crash take out his whole browser session? Why should one tab affect another? Why can’t Javascript run faster? Thus tabs loaded in their own process space in memory, therefore the new Javascript compilation engine. It was designed to run for newer web pages which were more like applications than just web pages, citing their own Google Documents service as an example of a site better served by their browser.

IE9 aims to catch up.

The below charts show IE8 being creamed (via overclock.net):

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Notice that one of the browsers had a very similar name? And didn’t seem quite so badly outclassed? IE9. It’s changing things for Microsoft’s maligned browser, and it’s doing it as a response to Chrome.

An Omnibox, improved Javascript support, improved HTML5 support and a slick minimalist interface are all concessions to Chrome, easily the newest browser in a market well marshaled and dominated by the seasoned IE. But here’s the twist, IE9 is ahead of Chrome (and indeed Firefox) in a key growth area for browsers; hardware acceleration. GPU support isn’t due to be built into Chrome until the next major version, 7.0. IE9′s Beta is already doing it.

Elsewhere, whilst the Omnibox is a shared feature, the browsers differ when it comes to how much of the web page is given real estate, with tab placement giving more height to the page. The menu bar is gone, the navigation controls have been rearranged and navigation buttons actually change colour given the site being browsed at the time. Even Chrome doesn’t do that, but that’s likely because it’s not trying to better blend into Windows 7.

Microsoft’s improvement has certainly been noted but a valid note of caution remains; indeed if not without Chrome’s strong show, would IE have evolved to the stage it’s at now? Conversely, does IE’s resurgence not force Chrome to stay on its impressive genesis? GPU support in Chrome 7 aside, Chrome 6 still has work to do when it comes to HTML5.

It’s enough to make me look at IE again. Willing. To look. That’s all.

Do you think Chrome has anything to fear from IE’s makeover? Do share your thoughts in the comments section below.

By Greig Byrne