Friday, August 6, 2010

Microsoft Releases Platform Preview 4 of IE 9

Microsoft today released the fourth "platform preview" of Internet Explorer 9, the company's next-generation Web browser.

The platform preview is not a complete browser since it lacks an address bar and some navigation and security features. It's a prebeta release that shows off the IE team's integration of HTML 5 support, scalable vector graphics and hardware-accelerated graphics -- all hallmarks of Microsoft's technology focus with IE 9.

Platform preview 4 of IE 9 can be downloaded at Microsoft's test page here. It runs on Windows 7 and Windows Vista, but it doesn't work with Windows XP.

Dean Hachamovitch, general manager of Internet Explorer, said that this latest IE 9 platform preview is "nearly complete" in a blog post. He asked that designers, developers and partners begin testing platform preview 4 to get ready for the forthcoming beta version. Kevin Turner, Microsoft's chief operating officer, recently said that IE 9 will be released as a beta sometime in September.

Platform preview 4 will be the last test platform issued before the beta release of IE 9.

The big news with this platform preview release is that Microsoft has integrated its "Chakra" JavaScript engine inside IE 9, with the script engine based on ECMAScript 5. Hachamovitch said that the integration improves the browser's performance, and that Microsoft had plowed new ground with this technology.

"Through this deep integration, the performance of real world websites significantly improves, and IE9 becomes the first browser to have a shared DOM [Document Object Module] between the browser and the script engine based on ECMAScript5."

ECMAScript 5 is based on the ECMA-262 specification for enabling client-side scripting in Web browsers. The spec reached the final candidate stage of approval in May of 2009 and has offshoots such as JavaScript and JScript. Hachamovitch said that the integration based on ECMAScript 5 "prepares the entire system for the future." For other scripting languages (such as VBScript), Microsoft plans to use the older model of having the scripting engine interact with the browser's DOM through the Component Object Model (COM).

"IE9 will continue to support additional programming languages through the legacy model, but we strongly encourage developers and enterprises to take full advantage of the benefits of JavaScript moving forward," Hachamovitch explained.

Platform preview 4 showed improved test results according to benchmarks that Microsoft reported. The WebKit SunSpider JavaScript test showed IE 9 platform preview 4 at about the same performance level as other top browsers, beating out Mozilla's Firefox and Apple's Safari in speed results, but still lagging behind Google's Chrome and the Opera browser. Platform preview 4 now scores 95 of 100 on the Acid3 test (100 is a perfect score). However, Microsoft tends to downplay the importance of Acid3, saying that it doesn't test the most commonly used features.

Microsoft's blog includes a table showing a summary of cross-browser testing results. It depicts how well the same code markup runs on various browsers. According to the table, IE 9 platform preview is at near 100 percent compatibility for HTML 5, SVG 1.1, CSS 3, DOM and JavaScript.

Microsoft's main goal with IE 9 has been to unburden developers from having to code for different browsers. In most cases, developers have been coding for quirks based on legacy browser performance, particularly Internet Explorer 6, which is still widely used. Microsoft is now advocating that developers should code for features to take advantage of them when they get supported in browsers. That approach also helps to avoid potential display problems that can occur as browser makers issue various versions of their products.

With the platform 4 release, Microsoft has rolled out new tests. They allow users to compare IE 9 performance with that of other browsers. An overview of the tests is described by Rob Mauceri, group program manager for Internet Explorer.

Josh Rose, program manager for Internet Explorer, shows how hardware acceleration affects audio performance in IE 9 platform preview 4. Patrick Dengler, senior program manager for Internet Explorer, demonstrates scalable vector graphics performance. Native graphics support for the canvas element is demonstrated by Seth McLaughlin, program manager for Internet Explorer.

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Wednesday, August 4, 2010

IE Use Grows Worldwide, but Europe Loves Firefox

Microsoft this week touted global market share gains for Internet Explorer 8 over rival browsers, citing July data from Net Applications.

In May, IE's browser market share stabilized. It had previously been on a losing streak, dropping a percentage point each month from July 2009 to April 2010, according to Net Application's data. This week, Ryan Gavin, senior director for Internet Explorer business and marketing, noted an upward trend. Net Applications' data now show small gains for IE in July.

"Net Applications reports overall Internet Explorer share grew 0.42% worldwide in July, while Firefox lost 0.90% share and Chrome dipped 0.08% in share," Gavin wrote in a blog post. "Most interesting is the fact that Internet Explorer 8 continues to be the fastest growing browser with a 0.98% increase worldwide in July -- and now represents more than 30% of browser usage worldwide."

In July, Net Applications showed Internet Explorer (all versions) with a 60.7 percent global market share. Mozilla Firefox trailed at 23 percent, followed by Google Chrome with seven percent and Apple Safari with five percent.

Other browser market trackers exist besides that of Net Applications. These trackers consistently show Internet Explorer to be the predominant browser, although the stats and conclusions tend to differ somewhat.

For instance, StatCounter found that IE had an overall 53 percent market share worldwide in July. Firefox placed second at 31 percent use, while Chrome had a 10 percent share and Safari held at four percent. StatCounter, in contrast to Net Applications, sees IE continuing a downward trend since July 2009. Firefox follows a relatively flat trend, while Chrome shows a continuing an upward trend, accord to StatCounter.

Stat Owl showed IE overall with a 62 percent market share worldwide in July. Firefox followed at 22 percent, with Safari at nine percent and Chrome at 7 percent. Like StatCounter, Stat Owl showed the IE market share continuing a downward trend. Both counters disagree with Net Applications with regard to IE's market share status.

All three counters agree that Chrome has been increasing, or even doubling, its market share over the last five months or more.

A different picture is shown when looking at browser use in Europe. According to July StatCounter data, Firefox is a close competitor to IE in Europe with 38 percent market share compared with IE's 43 percent share. One article even suggests that Firefox is poised to overtake IE in the European market.

Those following the browser wars can expect the stats to shift yet again as Microsoft advances its efforts on its latest browser, Internet Explorer 9. According to Kevin Turner, Microsoft's chief operating officer, IE 9 will be released as a beta sometime in September. Turner delivered the news as part of Microsoft's Financial Analyst Meeting last week.

IE 9 is currently available as a test "platform preview" release for Windows 7 and Vista (but not XP). Microsoft has been releasing test versions of IE 9 every eight weeks, but they've so far lacked the functionality of a beta. IE 9 will offer faster JavaScript performance and native video playback using HTML 5 technology, Microsoft has said, citing various test results beating the competition.

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CIA, Google Invest in 'Future' Web Algorithm

The search giant Google and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency are investing in a company working to track Web-browsing behavior.

Both companies are funneling money into Recorded Future, a company researching a new Web-browsing analytics tool that could be used to estimate the future browsing habits of people surfing the Web.Boston-based Recorded Future scans thousands of Web sites, Twitter feeds and blog postings, analyzing connections to predict future activity. According to Recorded Future's Web site, the company's Temporal Analytics Engine sets itself apart from traditional search algorithms "by looking at the 'invisible links' between documents that talk about the same, or related, entities and events."

When the Temporal Analytics Engine is ready, Google plans to implement it into Google's own page retrieval and ranking algorithm for improved search results.

In the case of the CIA, it's very clear why it would be interested in the company's emerging search algorithm. Not only can the engine help connect dots between seemingly unrelated searches, events or communications; it could help to predict situations, including possible terrorism targets.

Speaking on the practice of trawling the Internet for information, then CIA Director General Michael Hayden told an audience at a 2008 conference, "Secret information isn't always the brass ring in our profession. In fact, there's a real satisfaction in solving a problem or answering a tough question with information that someone was dumb enough to leave out in the open."

Google and the CIA have invested undisclosed amounts into the company and are advising Recorded Future. However, there is no indication that Google and the CIA are working together in that regard.

"For further discussion about how companies like Google -- and Microsoft -- track users and use private data, see this July Redmond magazine article on the topic

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Office for Mac 2011 To Arrive in Late October

Microsoft today disclosed retail pricing and release plans for Office for Mac 2011.

Office for Mac 2011 is the seemingly neglected cousin to the Windows-based Microsoft Office productivity suite. The Apple Mac-based version has a dedicated Microsoft Macintosh Business Unit development team operating on a production cycle that varies from the Windows team. For instance, the latest Windows-based suite, Office 2010, was released earlier to consumer users, back in June.

Office for Mac 2008 is the current Mac version, but Microsoft announced today that it plans to release its newest productivity suite for the Mac platform, Office for Mac 2011, "at the end of October."

For those currently buying Office for Mac 2008, Microsoft has a technology guarantee program that allows for a no cost upgrade to Office for Mac 2011 if users meet the program's criteria. The offer is good "between Aug. 1, 2010 and Nov. 30, 2010, at Microsoft or an authorized reseller," according to the company's announcement. Office for Mac 2008 licensees have to register here by Dec. 31, 2010 and send in their product keys and sales receipts to qualify.

Office for Mac 2011 will be offered in two commercial retail editions: a Home and Student edition and a Home and Business edition. The Home and Student edition's estimated retail price will be $119 for a single installation or $149 for a Family Pack that allows three installs. The Home and Business Edition will cost an estimated $199 for a single installation or $279 for two installs (Multi-Pack version).

There also will be a Microsoft Office for Mac Academic 2011 edition that will have features equivalent to the Business edition. It will be sold by Microsoft and "authorized academic stores" for an estimated $99 for a single installation.

Apparently, the only difference between the Student and Business editions is that the Student edition lacks the Outlook for Mac e-mail client application. All three productivity suite editions include Mac versions of Excel, PowerPoint and Word. Microsoft also included support for Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) in Office for Mac 2011. However, the familiar OneNote program used in Windows versions of Office is notably lacking in this Mac release.

"OneNote will not be a part of Office for Mac 2011," a Microsoft spokesperson said via e-mail. "For this release, the team focused on Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook, in addition to VBA support for the new version."

Microsoft's plans for Entourage weren't announced, but Microsoft has said in the recent past that it plans to replace Entourage with Outlook for Mac when it releases Office for Mac 2011. Students who don't want to use a Web-based e-mail client application might have to consider upgrading to the Business edition, according to a Microsoft spokesperson.

"Entourage 2008 for Mac will continue to be supported in the current Office 2008 for Mac suite," the spokesperson explained. "However, Entourage for Mac will not be a part of Office 2011 and students do receive Outlook through the Academic edition, however for the Home and Student Edition they would need to step up to the Business Edition or purchase Outlook separately."

Microsoft does offer a free Outlook Express client for the Mac, but it currently seems to support Mac OS 9.x instead of OS X, as needed for Office for Mac 2011.

Entourage was always conceived as a separate program from Outlook, according to an explanation by Microsoft Most Valuable Professional Michel Bintener, so the two programs don't have equivalent features. Microsoft also has a Web-based version of Entourage called "Entourage 2008 Web Services Edition," which is supposed to be a bridge application to Outlook for Mac.

Currently, Entourage 2008 works with Exchange 2007, Exchange 2003 and Exchange 2000, although not all features are supported, according to this chart. Presumably, Outlook for Mac will offer a more robust e-mail client for IT shops to manage, but Microsoft provided few details in its announcement. Microsoft's forum on Entourage and Exchange is a catalog of confusion with few answers. So far, Microsoft has said that Outlook for Mac will uses a file-based database and support information rights management, but that's about it.

Office for Mac 2011 will be available in 13 languages, including two new languages (Polish and Russian). Microsoft plans to announce more details about language support in late October.

Office for Mac 2011 will feature the "ribbon" user interface menu system. However, it will continue to support the "elements gallery," which is a floating pallet of tools. It will support Office Web Apps and enable coauthoring on documents. IT pros will be able to import .PST files from the Windows version of Outlook to Outlook for Mac 2011.

Volume licensing for Office for Mac 2011 is similar to that of the Windows version, with options such as Open, Open Value, Select and Enterprise Agreements. "Volume licensing starts at 5 licenses and above," according to the Microsoft spokesperson.

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