For the past several weeks, I've been quietly using beta versions of Internet Explorer 9, Microsoft's next web browser. It's better than you think it is, much better in fact, and I've had to suppress laughter as a few leaks occurred, prompting charges that Microsoft was somehow copying Chrome with the new, minimalist IE 9 user interface. Not so, as it turns out. In fact, IE 9 is unique, innovative, and, in a dramatic twist, the first time where Microsoft's OS integration plans actually makes sense.

That is quite a turnaround. Looking back over the past 15 years, my biggest and longest lasting complaint against Microsoft was the artificial and disastrous way it "integrated" IE into its then-untouchable NT OS, forever tarnishing the product and setting up Windows for over a decade of easily avoidable security vulnerabilities. The lie of Windows/IE integration was laid bare during Microsoft's epic antitrust trial, but by then the damage had been done: IE was part of Windows, and would forever be tied to the OS.

But what a difference a decade makes. Today, Microsoft still controls the market for web browsers, sure, but it's also lost about 25 percent of its usage share thanks to heightened competition first from Mozilla with Firefox and then from Google with Chrome. These browsers out-innovated Microsoft's offerings, seized usage and mind share, and embraced open web standards in a way IE never could because of the two-edged sword of legacy compatibility needs.

 

The result of this torrid history, amazingly, is Internet Explorer 9. Unlike its immediate predecessors, IE 9 is not about more for more's sake. Instead, IE 9 takes the same path Microsoft plowed with Windows 7 and then Windows Phone 7. It's clean, simple and fast. It gets out of the way, letting web site content take center stage. It's everything that IE has never been, then, and in addition to being the best browser that Microsoft's ever made, it may very well be the best web browser on the market, even in this early public beta version. Maybe.

Internet Explorer 9 Beta
Simple, clean, and wicked fast: It's the IE 9 public beta.

Regardless of its eventual ranking, IE 9 is the real deal. And if you've written off Microsoft's browser offerings, it's time to rethink that. Here's what's new in the IE 9 public beta.

Next: Clean, Simple, and Beautiful Design