It's ironic that the main focus of yesterday's Internet Explorer 9 beta launch in San Francisco was to de-emphasize the browser itself.
The modern browser, with all its tabs, buttons and search fields, has become too cumbersome and draws attention away from what consumers and business users really care about: Web sites. IE competitors Firefox and Chrome are also stripping down their browser interfaces to the bare essentials.
"People go to the Web for sites, and Web sites have become boxed in by the browser," said Dean Hachamovitch, Microsoft's Internet Explorer GM, in his keynote. "With IE9 we are unboxing the Web browser experience so users can focus on sites."
To this end, Microsoft has created IE9 as a browser that "uses the whole PC" — meaning that the rendering of text and graphics has moved from the CPU of a computer to the GPU (graphics processing unit) for more power and speed. IE9 is also offering more support for HTML5, an increasingly popular standard for developers to create rich media on Web sites.
From a design and navigation perspective, Microsoft is pulling out lots of new tricks to integrate IE9 with Windows 7 user interface features such as Pinned sites, Aero Snap, JumpLists and thumbnail controls. The goal is to help users explore the Web without browser clutter getting in the way.
Although some IE9 features appear lifted from competitors like Google's Chrome browser (the minimalist look, the unified search and URL bar), IE9's stripped down interface is unlike any of the browser's previous versions.
It remains to be seen if IE9's simplified "window to the Web" aesthetic will give Microsoft back its lost browser market share.
Microsoft vows to be Web-site centric and keep users happy, so download the beta here and decide if the new look is chic or weak. But before you do that, check out five ways that IE9 integrates and enhances Windows 7 UI design features for Web browsing.
Windows 7 lets you "pin" apps such as IE, iTunes, AIM, Outlook and others to the taskbar and access them there as buttons. IE9 expands on this feature and allows you to pin actual Web sites to the taskbar and access them without having to open a browser.
"We're saying 'Look at the site!' instead of 'Look at the app,'" Hachamovitch says.
This essentially takes the "bookmarks" or "favorites" bar browser feature and also puts it in the taskbar, so you can go directly to a Web site from the desktop.
When a pinned site is launched from the taskbar, the site's colors and logo are integrated into the browser frame. For example, the Amazon logo sits next to the back and forward buttons and those buttons share Amazon's color scheme.
JumpLists, a popular feature in Windows 7, lets you right-click on a button in the taskbar and get a menu of recently opened documents or various tasks associated with that application. Examples include recently opened documents in the case of Word or Excel, or frequently played music in Windows Media Player.
By default, a JumpList contains an app's shortcut and the ability to close one or all windows on the list. If you want to keep a specific file or document around, you can pin it to the JumpList.
IE9 applies the JumpList functionality to Web sites, making site tasks such as creating a new e-mail message (Gmail), changing a music station (Sirius) or accepting a friend request (Facebook) available by right-clicking on a pinned site button. It is up to the site's developers to create JumpList capabilities.
Windows Aero Snap for Web sites
The Windows 7 Aero Snap feature lets you lock any two windows side by side on the screen.
In IE9, this feature is extended to site tabs within the browser. You can tear off a tab and drag it away from the browser and snap it into place on one half of the screen. The site can then easily be dropped back into the browser as a tab. This is useful, say, if one of your commonly used tabs is Google Docs and another is YouTube and you're taking notes on a piece of video, or if you're comparing products on Amazon and Best Buy.
You can't pull out tabs in IE8 and must open a new browser to position two sites next to each other. Firefox and Chrome both allow you to pull out tabs, but the tab will not snap directly — it has to expand to a full browser window first. And once it expands it cannot be dropped back into the browser as a tab.
New Tab Page
IE9 includes a Web page that lists sites that you tab and visit frequently. Each site is represented by a tile with a large favicon and a title. You can track your browsing habits with an activity meter on each tile.
From the new tab page, you can also reopen closed tabs, reopen your last browsing session, and start an InPrivate Browsing session.
The One Box feature in IE9 integrates search functionality into the address bar, so you can navigate to a site, search for a site, switch between search providers, or access browsing history, Favorites, or suggestions from search providers.
The key difference between IE9 and other combined address bars (Google Chrome currently has one) is that IE9 doesn't automatically send your keystrokes to search services, says Hachamovitch.
By default, the "search suggestions" feature in IE9's address bar is turned off, so what you type is not shared with search providers. But you have the option to turn the search suggestions feature on and it's easy to choose which search providers you want to use (Bing, naturally, is the default).
Shane O'Neill covers Microsoft, Windows, Operating Systems, Productivity Apps and Online Services for CIO.com. Follow Shane on Twitter @smoneill. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline. Email Shane at email@example.com.