With IE9; Microsoft gambles on Silverlight's newest rival, HTML5 and H.264 video

Earlier this month, Microsoft issued its second developer-oriented preview release of Internet Explorer 9.0 You can take it out for a test-drive or see the demos on the test site, which displays performance enhancements, HTML5 interoperability (Flash and Silverlight's latest rival?), and graphical demonstrations.

In a quest to amend the company's reputation for ignoring Web standards, Microsoft has provided more than 7,000 new compliance tests to the W3C, the standards body in charge of finalizing the in-progress HTML5 and CSS3 standards. Microsoft hopes its support for HTML5, DOM, and CSS3, in addition to new compatibility with a host of other standards-based HTML, scripting, and formatting, wil improve its Acid3 scores (a common though oft-criticized test of standards compliance for browsers). Currently, the IE9 beta scores of 68 out of 100, a far cry from Firefox 3.6's score of 94 but a huge jump from IE8's score of 20 and IE7's score of 14.

IE9 is using a new JavaScript engine called Chakra that was designed to improve the speed of script processing. One thing Chakra does is run a separate background thread in tandem with other processes on another core if one is available, taking advantage of the current multicore systems that many users now have. IE9 is the first browser to support a GPU for hardware-accelerated SVG support. No longer relegated to just video games, which tend to use vector graphics, GPU-based acceleration is one of the hot performance technologies gaining mainstream app adoption, such as in Apple's Mac OS X Snow Leopard and Microsoft's Windows 7. IE9 also now uses Windows' vector-oriented DirectX as its rendering engine rather than Windows' old-time, pixel-oriented GDI engine. These two changes should enhance IE's performance and let developers safely add more bling to their sites.

Microsoft will support HTML5 in IE9, but it is surprising that Microsoft will back just the H.264 codec. HTML5 doesn't specify any particular format for video, but Microsoft has decided that H.264 is an industry standard with strong support and very explicitly defined intellectual property rights. "The rights to other codecs are often less clear," says Dean Hachamovitch, Microsoft's general manager for Internet Explorer. "H.264 video offers a more certain path than other video formats and does so in a way that delivers a great HTML5 experience for developers and users," he adds

After years of going its own way, Microsoft's browser is moving in the right direction: standards, performance, and HTML5

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