Microsoft this week released a "platform preview" of Internet Explorer 9. This isn't an IE9 beta, mind you; it doesn't have the features you'd expect in a browser. It doesn't even have an address bar for that matter. Instead, the IE9 Platform Preview serves as a sneak peek at some of the new web technologies and standards that Microsoft is working on building into its flagship browser.

Microsoft says it will update the IE9 preview about every eight weeks, putting the first such update in mid-May with another to follow in mid-July.

The IE 9 Platform Preview is far from polished, or even finished, but here are our initial thoughts. We'll update this page as the software develops.

IE9

IE9 - web standards: an overview

How often have you seen the message, "This site best viewed in Internet Explorer"? If you used Internet Explorer, you likely would have no problems viewing the site. But if you use another browser - Mozilla Firefox, Apple Safari, Google Chrome, Opera, and so on - you could run into some compatibility problems.

The idea behind web standards is that ideally every web browser would be able to view any website. You'd no longer have to rely on using the leading browser in order to view websites the way they were supposed to be. And support for web standards means support for the latest and greatest web technologies such as HTML5. The result is better websites, and a better experience for everyone, no matter what OS or browser the use.

HTML 5

To give website designers, application developers, and others who want to track the new browser's progress a chance to try IE9, Microsoft has created what it called a "Test Drive" site that showcases the features and enhancements included in the Internet Explorer 9 preview.

What does IE9 bring to the party?

The Platform Preview of Internet Explorer 9 will run only in Windows 7, Windows Vista Service Pack 2 (SP2) and Windows Server R2. The latter two operating systems require the Platform Update that Microsoft shipped last October. That update was notable for adding other Windows 7 features, such as that operating system's ribbon-style interface , to Vista last year.

Internet Explorer has received a fair amount of criticism in the past for its tepid web standards support. With IE9, however, Microsoft is heavily touting its improved handing of new web technologies.

The IE9 Platform Preview provides improved HTML5 support, CSS 3 support (CSS is a technology that makes it easier for designers to specify how they want their sites to look), and an upgraded JavaScript Engine for better performance of web apps.

Also, IE9 will provide hardware acceleration for rendering graphics and text on a web page (Microsoft's press release didn't mention which GPUs will be supported, but it's probably safe to assume you'll need a fairly recent card), and built-in support for H.264 video playback using HTML5 (such as what YouTube currently provides for some videos).

Microsoft has several technology demos on its IE9 Test Drive site, such as a T-shirt designer, various animation demos, and even a variation of the classic game Asteroids. None of these demos use Flash; instead they all make use of web technologies such as JavaScript and HTML5.

How do I get Internet Explorer 9?

The IE9 Platform Preview is a free download from Microsoft; since it's nowhere close to being a finished project, it won't replace your current version of Internet Explorer. Be sure to download it and try out some of the demos.

Unlike full-fledged editions of IE, the IE9 Platform Preview does not replace existing versions of IE - such as IE7 on Vista or IE8 on Windows 7 - but runs alongside them on the same PC.

The preview is a 31MB download, and can be retrieved from the Test Drive site that Microsoft has set up.

OUR VERDICT

If Microsoft can match its promises, Internet Explorer 9 could be the product that takes the fight back to fast-gaining rivals such as Firefox and - more recently - Opera and Google Chrome. With unparalleled compatibility, HTML5 and the ability to make the most of modern graphics hardware, it is an enticing prospect.