My TIME.com Technologizer column for this week is a look at Microsoft’s new beta of Internet Explorer 9. It’s the best version of IE since 1999 or so, with a nicely streamlined interface, good integration with Windows 7, hardware-accelerated graphics, and a heaping helping of HTML5 support.
When it comes to browsers, I’m promiscuous–on any given day, I might be in Chrome, Firefox, Safari, Opera, and/or Flock. Internet Explorer, however, I’ve tended to avoid unless I had a specific reason to use it. IE9 is already the first Microsoft browser in ages that I’m using without a slight feeling of queasy embarrassment.
Which brings up an intriguing question: How hard is it going to be for Microsoft to win serious browser users back? If IE9 was a new browser from a company nobody had ever heard of and was called, say, Galactivator, I think that average browser junkies would respond to it quite favorably. “It’s kind of reminiscent of Chrome, but with really impressive hardware acceleration,” I can hear them saying.
But the truth is that the name “Internet Explorer” carries enormous baggage. Sixty percent of the people on the Web may still use IE, but (A) 100% of those people are Windows users, (B) some of them are using it in workplaces where IE is the only choice, and (C) a high percentage of them aren’t interested enough in browsers to choose one.
My friends who choose their own browser nearly always choose something other than IE. And when Microsoft’s browser comes up, they often get reflexively snarky, as if we’d just begun discussing Yugos or the DMV. The notion that IE might be a browser they’d want to use is going to cause some cognitive dissonance in the months to come.
If the gradual decline in Internet Explorer’s market share that’s been going on since Firefox showed up in 2004 ends, we’ll know that IE9 is a more competitive modern-era browser than IE6, IE7, or IE8. And if IE’s market share goes up, it may be a sign that the new browser is so good that it’s having a healing effect on the extremely bruised brand that is “Internet Explorer.”