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16 Sep 2010

Microsoft has launched its latest bid to be computer users' default window on to the web.

The firm has released a beta, or test, version of its latest web browser, Internet Explorer 9 (IE9), which it hopes will help revive its fortunes in an increasingly competitive market.

Since 2003, the company has seen a 97% lead in market share dwindle to 60%.

IE9 will compete with new versions of other popular browsers such as Mozilla's Firefox and Google's Chrome.

Google Chrome now commands more than 7.5% of the market, despite only being first released in December 2008.

Mozilla, which has recently launched a test version of Firefox 4, has nearly a quarter of the market and in some countries is the dominant web browser.

Many browsers received a boost when the European Commission forced Microsoft to offer users of its Windows operating system a choice of browser, rather than Internet Explorer as a default.

Ina Fried, who covers Microsoft for technology site CNet, said the new software brought Microsoft "back in serious browser contention".

"Internet Explorer still dominates in market share, but they have been losing out for years to Firefox and more recently Chrome mainly because of where they were on the technology front," she told BBC News.

"This release gets them back in the game technologically and really takes advantage of Windows [7]."

"The question now that they have a better browser technologically, is will they gain back some of that market share?"

IE9 contains a range of new features, many of which are designed to make the browser perform more like an application - the small programs commonly found on smartphones.

These specialist pieces of software, which offer a customised and intuitive way to interact with a website, are gaining increasing popularity.

IE9 is designed to help blur the boundaries between applications and the browser.

To do this, Microsoft has adopted technology that allows the browser to tap directly into a computer's graphics chip, rather than just its processor.

This "hardware acceleration" makes web pages more nimble and behave more like software running directly on the computer.

"The web browsers of the day weren't taking advantage of the power of the hardware, really only about 10%, skimming the surface of the power of a PC," Tami Reller, corporate vice president of Windows, told BBC News.

"We wanted to make sure we're using 100% of the PC to bring the best experience possible."

The new browser also supports forthcoming global web standards, such as HTML5, which allow web developers to create rich and immersive web sites with graphics and video.

"There are [one] billion Windows customers and about 60% of their time is spent browsing the web. The sites and the content that customers are gravitating towards is very graphically rich - they want to watch videos, manipulate and see photos," said Ms Reller.

The standards are already used by other browsers.

They are overseen by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), founded by web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

Previously, web developers had to use plug-ins, such as Flash and Silverlight, to create these rich experiences.

IE9 also supports scalable vector graphics that, as the name suggests, scale to the size of the window and adjust the resolution and size accordingly. These have been a standard of other web browsers for many years, but Microsoft has never supported them.

"For the new browsers coming out you can make a page that mixes HTML5 and scalable vector graphics," said Sir Tim, speaking at an unrelated event.

"It is a very, very powerful engine whether you are using it on a smartphone or a very, very big screen."

Using the new browser, the firm showed off a version of online store Amazon that had an app-like feel. The site - called Book Shelf - resembled a virtual bookstore with pictures of the front covers of books which could be dragged around on screen and that revealed more information when clicked.

Other firms which have created optimised sites include Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Twitter, Amazon, eBay and CNN.
'Final release'

The browser also introduces new functions, such as so-called Pinned Sites, a user's favourite websites that can be accessed directly from the Windows Taskbar, without having to open the browser.

And instead of clicking the "favourite" star or dragging an icon to the bookmark bar, you can drag it to the Windows taskbar.

Other features, such as a combined search and address bar and a simplified menu, will be familiar to users of software such as Firefox and Chrome.

"It is a coming-out party for Microsoft in what is probably the one of the most important products that they have in their portfolio. It's a pillar product," said Rob Enderle, principal analyst for the Enderle Group.

"It moves the bar for the rest of the browser environment. Microsoft has kind of chased Firefox for most of the last decade. This is their chance to step ahead."

However, its success may be held back - at least in the short term - because the browser cannot be used with Windows XP, still the dominant Microsoft operating system.

While there is no firm release date for the full version, industry watchers warn that any delay allows competitors to catch up.

"Chrome releases new code every six to eight weeks and Mozilla is committed to pushing out new Firefox releases about every six months," said Ms Fried.

"Microsoft has a fairly long lead cycle and I wouldn't expect the final release to come this year, so we are talking about next year."


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