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Pinning Hopes

An interview with the Internet Explorer program management team

The major Web browsers are engaged in a fast-pasted competition to gain market share, racing to deliver new releases and claim faster performance and the most useful feature set. One of the most anticipated releases of late was Internet Explorer 9. The IE team did a major overhaul of the world’s leading Web browser, boosting performance with a new JavaScript engine and hardware acceleration, and enhancing user experience and task flow with a variety of new features including “pinned sites.” Benchmarkrecently talked with IE Lead Program Manager Jane Kim and Group Program Manager Rob Mauceri about what’s new in IE9, browser technology, and where the browser experience is going in the future.

Benchmark: To start off, please highlight the major changes users are seeing in Internet Explorer 9 and describe the ways that you’ve enhanced the user experience.

Rob Mauceri: I think probably a good place to start the conversation here is with a bit of framing around why we build a browser for Windows. Our focus is really on our Windows customers and ensuring that they have the best experience possible when they use the Web. Browsing the Web is over half the time that Windows users spend on their PC – and we want to ensure they have an experience that is fast and clean, that they can trust and rely upon.

And so with IE9 we really took a step back and looked at how we could change the browser in a way that allows people to do the things that they do when they browse –which is to focus on sites, not the browser – to get the most out of the PC device that they have and use every day.

We made some major investments around the user experience, but we also made major investments in the underlying developer platform – very specifically, building out on top of hardware acceleration and the great capabilities that all modern PCs have with graphics processing units or the GPU.

But I think a good place to start is around some of the user experience enhancements in IE9, so I’m going to hand it over to Jane.

Jane Kim: When we first started planning the IE9 user experience, we took a look at the patterns that we see on our PC – primarily Windows 7 – and we found two important things that really set the stage for the IE9 user experience. First, users use and enjoy the Windows 7 experience – launching and switching on the task bar is really intuitive, Snap for a side-by-side view is really fun and increases productivity. And second, as Rob mentioned, users spend most of their time on the PC on the Web.

With these two findings and our commitment to the highest quality HTML5 experiences, we really re-imagined the Web and thought about how sites should feel like applications – like the Windows 7 applications that users are already familiar with today. And since users care primarily about their sites, the browser should just get out of the way and melt away in the background.

That frames three major investments that we’ve made on the user experience. First is a natural extension of Windows 7; second is a site-centric experience; and lastly, just having fast and fluid browsing.

Benchmark: OK, tell us how you brought these ideas to life.

Jane Kim: We’ll start with the site-centric experiences and bringing the site’s content to the foreground. We started with just screen shots of sites and then we took away all the browser controls and really thought about what it meant to be a browser. The site content was the primary focus and we added back only the controls that were necessary for browsing.

Instrumentation was a key part of that. We have a telemetry system where we go and sample millions of Windows users that opt into our instrumentation program, and from this data we can understand the use of features and how they’re used with each other. From looking at all the different commands that users can do within a browser today, we started to see patterns around the most common controls that they use – the back button and the address bar being the crucial elements of navigation. And so we made these really prominent.

The next part of this is how it integrates with Windows 7, and making it familiar for Windows 7 users. Being able to take your favorite sites and pin them to your task bar, along with your other applications, is what we’re calling ’pinned sites.’

The key here is, if users take their favorite sites in their tab and pin it to the task bar, their site is now behaves like an application on their system. And when the sites themselves program Jump Lists or add notifications, it creates a closer relationship to the user and their site content.

Rob Mauceri: We saw that for many of our customers the first thing they do in the morning is start up the browser and go to Facebook or a news site that they like to read. So we wanted to make it really easy for them to just jump right in without that extra step of launching their browser.

So that was one aspect of it – as Jane said, making it feel like more of an application. And then bringing more of the Windows experience into that – so you have Jump Lists, which let you get to a specific part of the site. And the site can also implement notifications.

Benchmark: What types of notifications do you mean, and how are they implemented?

Rob Mauceri: For example, if you pin Facebook, whenever somebody posts on your wall or sends you a message, a little red asterisk shows up as an overlay on top of the Facebook icon. Or when you have Hotmail pinned, you can see the current number of unread messages. In that way, it begins to blur the line between a Web site and an application.

Developers who are doing this are starting to see a higher level of engagement from those users who do pin their sites, and that’s turning into actual business value.

Benchmark: Do you have any specific examples of that?

Rob Mauceri: The retail site Gilt –a specialty clothing retailer – has implemented pinned sites, and for the users who visit Gilt through the pinned site, they’re seeing 39 percent more visits with pinned sites than non-pinned sites for IE9. Users that pin a site spend 45 percent more time on the site than users who don’t pin it. As a result, those users that pin add two-and-a-half times more product to the shopping cart than the non-pinned users.

So there’s more engagement and, in the end, more business value for those developers who are implementing pinned sites. And a better experience for the end user.

Benchmark: When you have a site pinned to the task bar, it opens in a new window, not in another tab in your main window if you already have IE9 open?

Rob Mauceri: No, it opens in its own window. As Jane described, we’re putting the focus on the experience of the site and not the frame. There are a few things that we did to help emphasize that. You probably noticed that the forward and back button pick up the brand color from the site itself.

Benchmark: Yes.

Rob Mauceri: And again you have the Jump List and notifications, so it’s really meant for you to experience 110 percent of the site, if you will – like an application.

Benchmark: What is the Jump List you referred to in IE9 and how does that work?

Jane Kim: In Windows 7 there’s this concept called the Jump List, where when you right click on the application on the task bar, it allows you to jump to specific parts of the application or even to specific tasks like, for example, create an email.

And so let’s use an example of Hotmail pinned to your task bar. Hotmail developers have gone in and added capabilities like create an email or check your calendar. So instead of having to launch Hotmail and then use the website to navigate around, you can just right click on the Hotmail icon and start an email directly from there.

Rob Mauceri: Another example I’ll offer is Pandora, the online radio station. If you pin Pandora into your task bar you can right click to start Pandora and have it go right to one of your stations using the Jump List.And that’s a pattern that you see in other Windows applications like Word, Excel, Outlook.

Benchmark: So a website developer needs to create special Jump List functionality just for IE9 if they want to take advantage of it?

Jane Kim: That’s correct, and a lot of popular sites have already done this today.

Benchmark: About how many sites have implemented it so far?

Rob Mauceri: It’s in the thousands at this point. New sites are doing this work every day. In one of our recent developer conferences we had a 30-minute presentation and somebody the audience came up to me afterwards and said, ’yes I just implemented Jump List for my site during the presentation.’ It’s a pretty lightweight development task.

Benchmark: Jane, what else about user experience is new and noteworthy?

Jane Kim: Some other elements around fast and fluid browsing, with the attention around performance. I want to share how we think about performance in terms of user experience.

Traditionally, people measure performance with a stopwatch, and we recognize that there are different ways of measuring how fast your JavaScript engine is or how fast your layout is, et cetera. But one emphasis that we placed in the user experience is to really remove the cognitive load and make feature use easier.

For example, our new tab page where you go and create a new tab. We found through telemetry that when users create a new tab they often go back to a site that they’ve been to before. So we optimized around your popular sites, using recognition of that site as the key piece of that design.

And so, similar to the task bar, the same icons are used to represent the site, and the activity meter uses the color of the site to help reinforce how easy and recognizable it is to users.

Benchmark: Is this really any different than what Safari or Chrome are doing, because they have similar functionality for new tabs?

Jane Kim: Yes, I think the main difference is our emphasis on recognition. Safari and Chrome are using a thumbnail model to represent a Web page. What we’ve found is that it might be even harder to recognize that site, since Web pages change and a lot of websites have a white background. So since sites really emphasize their brand and make that really present, that’s the key we honed in on.

Another integration point is that, since these are the sites that you use all the time, we make it really easy for you to pin them to your task bar. Let’s say that you go to Facebook all the time. It appears in your new tab page. If you grab that tile and drag it to the task bar you’re able to pin it.

Benchmark: Okay. How else have you streamlined user experience?

Jane Kim: Another one to note is how we handle downloads with SmartScreen Application Reputation. It’s a service that goes and checks the reputation of a download. Traditionally, browsers have over-warned users about the danger around downloading files. With SmartScreen Application Reputation, it recognizes that a file is common and used broadly and it won’t over-warn users. Instead, only when it’s really important and appropriate, and you need to get the attention of the user, that’s when we warn them, letting them know that there’s uncommon files found.

This just reiterates our commitment around a really fast experience and trying to reduce the cognitive load to users.

Benchmark: Since you brought it up, we’ve noticed that the notification mechanism is different now on IE9?

Jane Kim: Yes, they’re designed to be quieter by default. They’re located at the bottom of the screen so that it doesn’t grab the user’s attention. When they really need to find it, they can see it.

Benchmark: Rob, you mentioned some under-the-hood changes in IE9, for example, hardware acceleration. What are the changes you’ve made that are intended to enhance the overall performance of the browser?

Rob Mauceri: When we looked at the HTML5 spec and the new capabilities that were being defined there through the W3C, we knew we were really going to need a new approach to how we build the browser itself – to look from the ground up at how to build these new rich capabilities, things like HTML5 video, audio, canvas for rich graphics, CSS3 and SVG. All these things were going to be really demanding on the system in terms of how they stressed the browser.

And so we focused on how to make the most of the underlying hardware, and that’s where we built in hardware acceleration for all the text, images, graphics and media that you have in the browser.

Similarly, when we looked at the kind of applications that developers are building on the Web, we saw that JavaScript performance was becoming increasingly important. So we built a new JavaScript engine, which we call ’Chakra,’ in IE9.

Chakra takes advantage of the underlying hardware. It uses multiple cores and the CPU to do both compiled JavaScript – compiling it down into native code – as well as fast interpretation of the script. It does this in a hybrid way. While it’s interpreting the JavaScript code, it’s also compiling it, so the code that’s called frequently runs faster.

Throughout the platform previews and releases of IE9, we showed progress on the Webkit SunSpider benchmark – probably the most commonly cited benchmark around JavaScript performance. We steadily improved from where we were in IE8. We actually lead on that particular benchmark right now – IE9 is faster than any of the other browsers.

To put that in perspective, if you look at the difference from IE8, IE9 is about 20 times faster on that particular benchmark.

Benchmark: How does your implementation of hardware acceleration compare to the other browsers?

Rob Mauceri: They each have a different approach. It comes full circle to what we talked about earlier – we build the browser for our Windows customers to have the best experience on Windows and make the most of the underlying PC and device hardware that they have. Through that approach, and by focusing on Windows and the PC, we were able to build hardware acceleration in a very deep way.

Other browsers have different priorities and built browsers for different reasons, and when you build a browser that has to work across different platforms, you can’t necessarily build the same level of depth in terms of the underlying device. You have to build things with layers and abstractions. We think we have a really strong approach for how the browser uses the hardware.

Benchmark: One can certainly appreciate the purity of the approach in developing purely for Windows users. However, as a site owner, I’ve got to develop my site for everybody, whether they’re using Windows or something else. How does IE9 fit into that landscape where a developer has to have a site that displays and performs well regardless of the browser that’s being used on the other end?

Rob Mauceri: That’s something we hear from developers all the time and heard throughout IE9 development, and that’s why a big part of our focus in building the underlying platform was around what we call ’same markup.’ That means supporting the same Web standards-based markup, the standards that come from the W3C and ECMA and other standards bodies, so that the same markup runs in IE9 like it runs in other browsers.

You don’t have to do anything distinctly as a developer. In fact, you can take the same HTML pages that you’ve been creating for years and when those images are rendered, when the text gets rendered, it’s done through GPU hardware acceleration; there’s really nothing special for the developer to do.

If I had a call to action for developers around IE9 it’s, ’serve IE the same markup, the same code and script that you serve to other browsers.’

Benchmark: Is there any other advice you’d offer to developers?

Rob Mauceri: Yes. Very specifically, there’s a pattern around coding for different browsers; in some cases developers check for the specific browser and then offer a certain code path. The pattern that we want developers to use and that we’ve been talking about on our blog for the last couple years is around using feature detection, not browser detection.

So when you build your page, you test for the availability of a certain feature. For example, maybe it’s HTML5 video – if the browser supports it you use it. If it doesn’t support it, you have some fallback code, maybe you use the Flash video player, for example.

Using that pattern, as opposed to a pattern that tests for a specific browser or specific version number, is something that we’ve been encouraging developers to use.

Benchmark: What else?

Rob Mauceri: The second thing that I’ll call out here is for developers to take a look at the platform previews for IE10 and what’s coming next. The feedback that we got during IE9 from those previews was super valuable, and ultimately resulted in a higher quality platform and a better browser for everybody. We hope developers will engage in the same way with IE10 and the previews that we’ve started there.

Benchmark: We’re guessing that in your ideal world, everybody using IE would be switched over to IE9 now, however, that’s likely not the case. What is your was adoption rate and what’s the mix right now across your different browser versions?

Rob Mauceri: IE9 adoption is going well. We offer IE9 through Windows Update to all of our customers running Windows Vista and Windows 7, the platforms it’s designed for. We ramp up the update over a period of a couple months. That’s so that, as it’s rolling out, we can be sure that everybody’s having a good experience. We feel good about where we’re at on IE9 adoption.

Benchmark: Will my site display as well on IE7 or 8 or 9 without any changes? Isn’t there a button on IE9 in case there’s a problem with the way a site displays?

Rob Mauceri: Right. IE9 by our own internal measures is as compatible with the Web as a whole as IE8 or perhaps a little bit better. Of course, IE9 runs the Web-standard markup by default. And we have specific compatibility modes for running sites that were optimized for IE7 and IE8, as well as the oldest standard that’s known as QuirksMode.

Benchmark: Okay, any comment to amuse our readers on IE6?

Rob Mauceri: We continue to see IE6 share go down and we’re happy about that, as we move customers to modern versions of the browser.

Benchmark: You mentioned IE10 a couple of times. Is there any one feature that you’re really excited about in IE10 that you can share with our readers?

Rob Mauceri: Our focus right now, like it was in the early days of IE9, is really around the platform. And so there is a set of standards support around CSS that we showed at MIX, our developer conference in April, things like CSS3 gradients, some really exciting layout features – we’re doing multicolumn layout on a page, something called flexible box layout, and grid layout.

These are new ways to lay out pages efficiently that today require a lot of JavaScript and manipulation of the page and a lot more code, that you can now do natively with CSS. So we’re pretty excited about those features. Today if you go to ietestdrive.com you can grab the platform preview. We put some samples up there that you can try yourself.

Benchmark: How do you see the browser landscape a year from now, or three to five years from now?

Rob Mauceri: It’s interesting to look at some of the patterns that have established themselves over the last couple of years. Clearly there is a blurring of the line between the Web and native applications, and that’s something that we invested heavily in IE9 – we talked about some of that today, hardware acceleration, getting a more native-like experience out of the Web and Windows – and that’s something that clearly I think expands.

Another direction I think is the continuing growth of the mobile Web in browsing across new kinds of devices. Also at MIX a couple months ago, we talked about IE9 on Windows Phone, and where you’ll see the same patterns that you see in IE9 on the desktop – support for same markup and standards, and hardware acceleration, because the phones all have GPU’s on them now as well. The same patterns andapproach becomes equally important over time on these kinds of devices.

Interview Rob Mauceri

Rob Mauceri

Rob Mauceri is the group program manager for Windows Internet Explorer and led the team responsible for the recently released IE9. For the last 15 years Rob worked on Microsoft’s Web services, platform, and tools across Office and Windows.

Interview Jane Kim

Jane Kim

Jane Kim is a lead program manager for Windows Internet Explorer and manages IE9 user experiences. Jane joined Microsoft 10 years ago, working across Office and Windows to design user experiences.

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