Explorer 9 and a better web
Looking for the best way to surf the web? In recent years, Internet Explorer has been the last place to look for innovation - the likes of Firefox and Google's Chrome browser have led the way in making web-surfing faster and more rewarding. Now Microsoft claims it's regaining the lead in the browser wars with Internet Explorer 9.
The company has poured a lot of thinking time and investment into its latest version of the browser. While Explorer is still used by around two-thirds of all web users, it's clear that the advance of first Firefox and then Chrome has made Microsoft wake up and smell the coffee.
Executives say they have realised that PC users spend around 60% of their time on the web - so a good browser is vital to the whole Windows ecosystem. So what's different, and will it convince anyone who has deserted Explorer to return?
Speed is the first thing you notice. I was shown a demo in which the fish in an animated web aquarium swim around happily in Explorer 9, while struggling to move at all in the latest version of Google Chrome. Microsoft says this is all down to what it calls hardware acceleration - any site with graphics is sent to your computer's graphics processor, which previously has not been used by a browser. "Instead of using 10% of the power on your PC, we're now using 100%," says Leila Martine, who runs the Windows consumer business in the UK.
But the big claim is that this re-engineered browser finally brings a web experience which has been stuck in the past right up to date.
"Over fifteen years the web has progressed," says Leila Martine, "but not to the same degree as other technologies."
So Moore's Law has meant chips have got faster, computers have got more efficient, devices have got smaller and more powerful - but websites still look as if they are marooned in the 20th century. Now, or so Microsoft claims, you will get the all-singing all-dancing multimedia sites which the latest web technologies make possible.
A number of sites have already been optimised for Internet Explorer 9; among them Amazon, eBay and IMDB. But what struck me when I was shown Amazon's impressive new Book Shelf, where it was easy to pick a book and riffle through the pages, was that it looked just like an app of the sort you now get on a mobile phone.
"This looks like an application," Leila Martine agreed, and went on to show me how website owners could create site preview buttons that would sit on your computer task bar, much like the button you click to launch a phone app. "From a brand perspective they're able to create much more rich and immersive web applications."
We've heard a lot lately, notably from Chris Anderson of Wired Magazine, about the death of the web as apps give users a more pre-packaged user-friendly experience. Now it looks as though Microsoft is trying to "appify" the web, something that will certainly have brand owners and advertisers licking their lips.
For once, Microsoft's rivals may need to take some notice of what the once sleepy giant of the browser business has been up to. I'm not sure that Firefox or Chrome users will flock back to Explorer - and of course it's only Windows users who will be able to use it. But as Google itself says in a statement about the new browser "competition drives innovation for the benefit of users".
With new open standards and new browsers competing for the attention of users and websites, it seems the web is adapting, not dying.