Like many of us, Microsoft does its best work when it's running scared. Back in the mid-1990s, when Bill Gates & Co. thought that pioneering Web browser Netscape Navigator posed an existential threat to Windows, they responded by bundling their own new browser, Internet Explorer, with Windows 95. That led to the little legal kerfuffle known as United States v. Microsoft. But the truth is that Internet Explorer got so good so quickly that things would have been dicey for Netscape no matter what.
Microsoft's share of the browser market passed 90% early in this century. With Netscape vanquished, the Internet Explorer team went into hibernation, ignoring the software until it was an embarrassing, archaic mess. Even versions 7 and 8 released after an army of volunteer geeks resuscitated Navigator as Firefox in 2004 and began chipping away at Explorer's monopoly weren't exactly scintillating.
Last week, Microsoft unveiled the first beta release of Internet Explorer 9, or IE9 for short. It's easily the most impressive browser upgrade to hail from Redmond, Wash., since the original skirmishes with Netscape. And I don't think it's mere coincidence that it's the first one the company has hatched since its scariest current competitor, Google, got into the browser business by launching Chrome two years ago this month.
As beta software, IE9 is by definition a somewhat glitchy work in progress. Past Internet Explorer upgrade schedules suggest that the final version will show up sometime in 2011. If you're curious and not overly cautious go ahead and download the beta here.
(One new Internet Explorer feature shuts out a sizable percentage of its potential user base: it now works only with Windows 7 and Windows Vista. Sorry, XP holdouts Microsoft isn't about to reward you for refusing to upgrade your nine-year-old operating system.)
Just as early versions of Internet Explorer cheerfully mimicked Navigator, IE9 pays the sincerest form of flattery to the minimalist Chrome, emphasizing simplicity and speed over bells and whistles. Instead of cramming in an address bar for URLs (http://www.time.com) and another for Internet searches (TIME magazine), it has one Chrome-like field that's smart enough to figure out what you've typed. (Searches get routed to Microsoft's own Bing engine, but you can switch the default to Google.) Various notifications and warnings pop up at the bottom of the browser, so they're easy to spot without being aggressively in-your-face.
IE9 is compatible with Vista, but it's most at home in Windows 7. Drag a browser tab out of the browser and onto the Windows 7 taskbar, for instance, and the site it contains gets pinned there, letting you launch it with one click thereafter. Proprietors of major Web destinations such as Amazon.com, eBay and the Wall Street Journal already support Jump Lists, a Windows 7 feature that lets you hop directly from a pinned icon to a specific subsection of the site in question, such as your Amazon shopping cart.
Some of the most significant tweaks lurk under IE9's hood. Microsoft has rewritten much of the browser's code for sprightlier performance; it has also started treating each tab as an isolated computing task, so crashes and other technical difficulties on one page don't render the entire browser unusable.
For the first time, Internet Explorer now sports cutting-edge support for HTML5, the collection of emerging standards that permit sites to deliver slicker graphics and typography, richer interfaces that feel more like traditional software and video that doesn't require a plug-in such as Adobe Flash. Like an eye-popping 3-D game, the software takes full advantage of your PC's graphics hardware, enabling glitzy animation at high speeds.
This browser is so on top of next-generation Web technologies, in fact, that it has zipped ahead of most of the Web itself. For now, the most impressive evidence of its capabilities are demos that Microsoft and its partners have ginned up. But when better sites are built, IE9 will be ready.
Not being ready for the new Web wasn't really an option for Microsoft. Research firm Net Applications says that Internet Explorer retains 60% of the browser market, but it long ago lost the confidence and attention of most of the people who care enough about browsers to make a considered choice. (On my site, Technologizer, it's only the third most popular browser Firefox and Chrome are No. 1 and No. 2.) IE9 is the first version in eons that gives browser enthusiasts something to be enthusiastic about.
Still, I don't see Internet Explorer ever again crushing the competition like it once did. Too many excellent options are just a free download away: Firefox, Chrome, Apple's Safari (available for Windows as well as Macs) and Norwegian underdog Opera. I also like Flock, which is based on the same underpinnings as Chrome, but with built-in features relating to Facebook, Twitter and other forms of online socializing.
All of Internet Explorer's rivals offer at least a significant feature or two that IE9 lacks. All except Opera feature extensions third-party add-ons that let you radically remodel the browser's interface and features. (IE9 supports existing Internet Explorer plug-ins, but Microsoft is downplaying them: in fact, one new feature offers to turn off ones that might be bogging down your browser.) And all the big alternative browsers are getting better at a rapid clip. Promising new versions of both Firefox and Chrome will likely be finalized well before IE9 is declared ready for preinstallation on new PCs.
Even if Microsoft's Internet Explorer group isn't running scared, it can't stop for a breather, let alone the deep sleep it slipped into a decade ago. Today's browser race is neither a sprint nor a marathon it's a never-ending battle, and all of us who use the Web are the winners.
McCracken blogs about personal technology at Technologizer, which he founded in 2008 after nearly two decades as a tech journalist; on Twitter, he's @harrymccracken. His column appears every Tuesday on TIME.com.