Today at Microsoft's Mix conference in Las Vegas, the company showed off the next generation of their venerable (and oft-maligned) Web browser, Internet Explorer 9. It's a huge step in the right direction, but it will literally leave some users behind.
What Microsoft showed off was just a demo, a developer's build, but already IE9 is faster and more responsive to Web standards than its predecessor, IE8. Many of us don't use IE and indeed haven't used it in years, favoring Firefox, Chrome, Opera, or Safari, but it's still packaged with every new Windows computer here in the States and thus commands a huge marketshare. So what's new for the old beast? Most importantly: HTML5. HTML5 is the next generation of HTML, which is the underlying language for pretty much the entire Web. Its most visible feature so far has been its ability to embed video and audio into sites without an accompanying plugin—iPad lovers have been championing HTML5 as the solution to their favorite device's lack of Flash, for example. IE9 supports HTML5, including the h.264 format that's been generally decided on as the future of Internet video.
The new Internet Explorer also adds DirectX for video rendering, which in an onstage demonstration resulted in a superior ability to play back HD video in HTML5 over competitors like Chrome. But even more than speed, that also means that normal playback is simply less taxing on the computer than with other browsers—a nice touch.
Unfortunately, all this next-gen Web standards support means not every OS can handle IE9—including, oddly enough, Microsoft's own decade-old Windows XP, which despite its age is still widely used in low-power machines like netbooks. Eliminating XP support is a ballsy move, but a necessary one for IE's future: Microsoft can't cater to the past.
If you want to try out an early version of IE9, you can download it here, but be warned: it's very early, meaning you're not going to be replacing your current browser quite yet (there's no address bar, for one thing).