What IT Pros Should Know about IE9

Still no tools to aid transition from IE6.

Microsoft answered questions on Monday as part of an Internet Explorer 9 Webinar devoted to what IT managers should know about the new Web browser.

IE 9, finalized in March, was a year-long effort by Microsoft to create a new browser based on emerging HTML 5 specifications. The specs, still at the Working Draft stage at the Worldwide Web Consortium, are used by IE 9 and other browsers to take advantage of some HTML 5 features today.

At present, IE 9 is just starting to take off. Net Applications' April data shows IE 9 as having a 2.4 percent market share. It's just ahead of the Opera 11 browser with 1.6 percent use, according to the data.

During the Webinar, Chris Jackson answered audience questions that were moderated by Kevin Remde, Microsoft's senior IT pro evangelist. Jackson is principal consultant and technical lead of the Windows application experience SWAT Team at Microsoft. He regularly focuses on application compatibility issues in his blog.

IE 9's Features

Some general IE 9 characteristics were addressed in the Webinar. IE 9 supports hardware acceleration of graphics and video, tapping the PC's graphics processing unit. The debugging of sites can be done using developer tools accessed by hitting the F12 button on the keyboard. The browser, which will run on Vista- and Windows 7-based machines, is considered to be "integrated" with Windows 7, using Windows-like features such as site-pinning and jumplists.

A Microsoft product manager explained last month in an HP support forum (registration required) that the site-pinning feature in IE 9 will only work if the user is running Windows 7.

"HTML5 will work equally fine on Windows Vista and Windows 7," the unidentified Microsoft product manager explained in the support forum. "However, the Pinned Sites feature only works in Windows 7."

Security in IE 9 is enabled through a SmartScreen filter that checks the reputation of Web sites visited. There's also a tracking protection privacy feature that can help block access to clickstream data by third-party advertisers. IE 9 can work with Windows Vista and Windows 7 in protected mode, which restricts the browser's privileges. Protected mode is turned on by default for restricted sites, the Internet and intranets. However, Jackson noted that Microsoft SharePoint doesn't run so well with protected mode turned on.

The browser can be managed by using Group Policy settings. It can be distributed to users via Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager and updated via Windows Update and Windows Server Update Services. Jackson said that his preference for Group Policy users is to push out a stock build of IE 9, but he acknowledged that it might not always be possible in some cases.

Migrating From IE 6 to IE 9

Much of the Webinar discussion explored what to do when moving from IE 6, which shipped with Windows XP -- still the most used operating system worldwide. Jackson said that the transition from IE 6 to IE 9 is like the transition from IE 6 to IE 8. He said that about 25 percent of stuff gets touched in making such a move. In a small number of cases, solving the problem may require virtualization or changing the code.

Jackson noted that right now, few tools are available to aid IT pros in making the jump from IE 6 to IE 9. The Microsoft Assessment and Planning Toolkit can be used to show the installed base of toolbars and browser helper objects in a computing environment, but that's about it. He added that tools to help with such transitions are still evolving.

IE 9 gives users options for displaying Web content via the compatibility view button in the browser. Jackson said that compatibility view "lies about the version of the browser you are using." If a Web site doesn't display well in HTML 5 code, it's possible to roll back via the site's user-agent string (X-UA-Compatible), which is specified in the header or via a metatag.

Jackson previously discussed scenarios for enterprises to consider in setting the compatibility view for Internet Explorer in this blog post. However, he generally recommended setting a tag.

"You can choose to opt into the standards as it makes sense for your business," he explained in the Webinar.

Surprisingly, Jackson argued the case that IE 6 had high standards compliance in its day, but that was 10 years ago. It had compliance with IE 5 plus the new standards of the day. IE 9 currently has compatibility modes for IE 5.5., IE 7, IE 8 and new one for IE 9 that supports HTML 5.

Common Pitfalls

One of the more common problems that Jackson sees with browser migrations is that developers will experience versioning problems. The logic will be written incorrectly for the Web app. For instance, an HTML 5-based site will specify to be put in a different rendering mode that doesn't work.

A second common problem has to do with the position of the DOCTYPE declaration. IE 6 had a bug where if the DOCTYPE wasn't specified in the very first line of code, it got ignored, reverting the rendering to quirks mode. Microsoft subsequently fixed that problem, which caused multiple sites running in quirks mode to revert to standards mode. Jackson explains in this blog post that removing the DOCTYPE declaration will get the behavior back to quirks mode. Developers can also specify "IE=5" in the X-UA-Compatible tag to force the site back to quirks mode rendering.

Developers looking for guidance on whether to use HTML 5, Silverlight or Adobe Flash got a noncommittal response from Jackson. He said there's room for both HTML 5 and Silverlight, and there's no right answer on which to use. He did recommend that if an IT shop already has an HTML-based Web app, that they should consider moving to an HTML 5-based Web app. Jackson said that he thought HTML 5 is "going to be a big deal," but he didn't elaborate.

He was emphatic that IT shops should stop using IE 6. The browser has been shown to have major security holes in the recent past and it will lose free security update support from Microsoft in April 2014, concurrent with Windows XP's exit from Microsoft's "extended support" lifecycle status.

The hour-long Webinar, "What Every IT Manager Should Know About Internet Explorer 9," can be accessed on demand here.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for 1105 Media's Converge360 group.

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