Despite some surface similarities between Internet Explorer 9 and its predecessors, not to mention competing web browsers like Chrome, it's important to understand what a huge departure this is. IE 9 is not the IE you know and possibly love (put up with, more likely). And it's not following in the steps of the competition. Instead, IE 9 is doing its own thing. And on that note alone, Microsoft deserves some credit.
But it is the deep integration bits that suggest the software giant is on to something here. With IE 9, web sites become first class citizens in Windows, and can sit alongside native Windows applications. This makes so much sense, and is so obvious, that it's astonishing no one has thought about this before. What's also interesting is that any of the other browser makers could, in fact, offer similar functionality. And you may argue, heck, Chrome already does, by letting you create application shortcuts for web sites. But it's not the same thing. It's not the same thing at all.
The reason Chrome, Firefox, and other browsers will never take this final logical step of truly integrating web sites with the OS is that their makers don't make the OS. They make a browser. And what they want is for you to use their product. Microsoft, as the maker of the OS, is free to really innovate with IE, and let the browser fade into the background. By taking away pointlessly redundant UI and bloat, Microsoft has made the superior product, assuming of course that your concern here (as is mine) is the users, and not the browser itself. With IE 9, users get a seamless browsing experience in which the applications they use--whether they're on the PC or on the web--are presented equally, as they should be, and as the user thinks about them. Other browser makers would never allow such a thing because it would diminish their product.
Some of this work is profound and obvious, like the pinning and jump lists and taskbar thumbnails and so on. Much of it is subtle, but no less profound. The removal of non-essential UI. The New Tab page that isn't an advertisement for the browser but is rather a simple stepping stone to the sites you want to access. An overall conviction that the browser isn't the destination at all, but is rather just a tool you use to get to the functionality that's really important to you: Gmail, Yahoo, CNN.com, whatever.
What's really amazing about all this, to me anyway, is that IE 9 delivers on the Windows integration that had always been the weakest aspect of this browser to begin with. Years and years after artificially binding IE to the OS, Microsoft has finally stepped back, thought about what this really means, and provided Windows integration that makes sense. After all the complaining, after all the hand-wringing, Microsoft has finally made a great case for OS integration. This is integration done right.
I have some quibbles about IE 9, of course. I still feel that the Home button should be over by Back and Forward, and--go figure--that is exactly where Microsoft puts it, but only when you pin a site. Otherwise, it's over in the wrong place on the right side of the window. Come on, Microsoft, how about a little consistency?
Also, I feel that the notification bar is alternatively too subtle--you'll click on a download and wonder why nothing has happened, when in fact it's waiting on you, unseen at the bottom of the window--and too chatty: I get a pop-up reminder about browser performance every time this thing starts up. How about a switch that says, "I know. Now stop pestering me"?
There are also lingering concerns about site compatibility, real world performance (especially with many add-ons loaded), and some weird older UIs that really should have been updated by now. Why does Internet Options look like a Windows 95 UI still? Come on guys, it's 2010.
These are small issues. And when you combine the lack of huge problems with the sheer number of improvements in this release, you can only reach one logical conclusion: Microsoft, finally, has gotten it right with Internet Explorer 9. Check out the public beta when it becomes available later today. You will not be disappointed.