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Microsoft Starts Planning Internet Explorer 9

Internet Explorer 8 (IE8) just shipped in late March, but Microsoft is already asking users for input on its replacement.

The company has said it is trying to release updates to its venerable browser much more quickly than in the past. Meanwhile, some long-time Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) watchers contributed their own feedback as to what users should ask for in IE9.

Microsoft has not referred to this "next" version as IE9, at least not yet, but it's the designation that Web denizens immediately slapped on the future release.

Microsoft earlier this week began asking a number of users to provide feedback on what they would like to see in the next version of the browser. The request came in notices to users who had both been participants in the IE8 beta test and were also members of the company's Connect program-testing Web site during the update's testing.

"We have added a new feedback form on Connect designed specifically to handle improvements for the next version of Internet Explorer," Microsoft wrote in the posting on Connect. "This includes not just feature requests, but all types of feedback including issues that currently exist in IE."

Technology enthusiast site Neowin.net published the note from the IE development team on Wednesday.

The request for feedback is actually a predictable move, given that Microsoft had promised users it would release much more frequent updates to IE than it has in the past.

One benefit of shortening the development time is to enable IE to compete more effectively with rival browsers that have severely eaten into its market share over the past few years. Nearly all of Microsoft's main competitors are much smaller and more nimble about getting new browser releases out.

Microsoft has dominated the browser arena since the mid-1990s, although lack of focus on keeping IE up-to-date eventually led to sluggish response to innovative and relentless competitors in the form of Firefox, Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) Safari, Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) Chrome, Opera Software, and others.

The company issued IE6 in 2001 and, other than minor updates and bug fixes, did not release a significant upgrade until 2006, when it shipped IE7 -- promising at that time not to take as long between releases. It followed that release with IE8, which launched in late March.

Now, it's trying to get caught up to those same competitors, and for good reason.

[cob:Special_Report]According to Web metrics tracking firm Net Applications, Microsoft's share of the global browser arena has now slipped to 66 percent, whereas only a few years ago, it was at more than 90 percent. Firefox is clearly the biggest beneficiary, with 22.5 percent. All the other browsers had single-digit shares.

Microsoft has not given any indication of when IE9 -- if that's what it's called -- will begin beta testing, much less any announcement on when it will launch.

In fact, with IE8 only a few weeks out of the chute, the company is reticent to talk about futures.

"Microsoft will continue to gather feedback from developers, IT professionals and customers as they use Internet Explorer 8. The timeline for the next version of Internet Explorer will be based on the feedback received during the process," a Microsoft spokesperson said in an e-mail. "We have nothing more to share at this time."

What's to come in IE9?

While Microsoft is just getting started gathering input, three veteran Microsoft analysts already have opinions on what they'd like to see in the next major IE update.

Matt Rosoff, a research vice president at Directions on Microsoft, would like to see tangible changes such as faster installation, a simple way to enable and disable browser plug-ins, an integrated Twitter client, smoother importing and organizing of favorites, and a link to Microsoft's cloud storage service, Live SkyDrive.

[cob:Pull_Quote]"What about a 'Save This Page to SkyDrive' menu item?" Rosoff said in an e-mail to InternetNews.com. "This could be useful for archiving permanent copies of pages that change or disappear frequently." SkyDrive holds up to 25GB worth of content.

Meanwhile, Roger Kay, president of Endpoint Technologies, has his own priorities.

"I personally would like to see better-engineered keyboard shortcuts that allow you to do common tasks with fewer keystrokes and not have to touch the mouse as often," Kay told InternetNews.com in an e-mail.

Overall, however, he has one big gripe.

"Browsers in general have become humongous pieces of software -- in fact, you could argue that browsers are over-featured," Kay said.

Competitive factors come into play as well, of course.

"Make it a better application front-end," Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, told InternetNews.com. "Chrome is designed to host applications, [and] IE should have an application mode that optimizes the browser for this function."

In addition, Microsoft has to bring its Windows Mobile browser up to "parity" with IE, observers said.

"Currently the [Microsoft] mobile browser is the worst in segment while Safari and Chrome are at near-parity on the desktop and phone," Enderle said. "The market growth is on things like smartphones, and Microsoft needs to be competitive here fast."