New IE9 Offers Geolocation, Privacy Controls and More Speed

Microsoft has released the first release candidate for its coming Internet Explorer 9 web browser. IE9 is a major overhaul, bringing much needed speed improvements, better support for web standards, privacy controls and tighter integration with Windows 7.
Overall IE9 RC1 is a huge leap forward for Microsoft, embracing web standards and speeding up the browser. […]

Microsoft has released the first release candidate for its coming Internet Explorer 9 web browser. IE9 is a major overhaul, bringing much needed speed improvements, better support for web standards, privacy controls and tighter integration with Windows 7.

Overall IE9 RC1 is a huge leap forward for Microsoft, embracing web standards and speeding up the browser. When IE9 is released web developers will finally be able to stop using CSS hacks and start using HTML5 with more confidence. Of course IE8 and IE7 will still be with us for some time to come, but things are looking up.

Curious developers running Windows can download the release candidate from Microsoft. This version of IE9 expands support for semantic HTML5 elements (like <nav>, <section> and <article>), adds more CSS 3 properties and introduces support for the geolocation API.

The additional geolocation support rounds out Internet Explorer’s new HTML5 features. While IE9’s competitors have implemented some of the more experimental APIs (like Web Workers and offline cacheing), IE9 does close the feature gap considerably and is leaps and bounds beyond where IE8 left off.

When it comes to CSS 3 the new IE offers nearly full support, though it still doesn’t understand text-shadow (which is actually been around since CSS 2.1) or the new CSS 3 multi-column text layout tools. On the bright side, IE9 does render border-radius, 2D transforms and new CSS 3 selectors like :first-of-type. For a full rundown of IE9’s HTML5 and CSS 3 features, see our earlier coverage. Also, be sure to head over to the IE9 Test Drive website for some demos that show off IE9’s new standards support.

IE9’s CSS 3 support handles border-radius rules

The new IE9 release candidate adds some privacy controls similar to those Mozilla and Google have been adding to their browsers. IE9 will support the Do Not Track HTTP header [Update: Microsoft says that IE9 does not support an HTTP header at the moment, but does offer Tracking Protection Lists which can block cookies, beacons, pixels and more]. IE9 also supports cookie-based blacklists to stop advertisers from tracking your movements around the web.

If you’ve been using the beta releases of IE9, you’ll notice several changes to the look of IE9, including the ability to put tabs back in their own row, rather than next to the address bar, which is the default setting. To give your tabs a bit more breathing room, just right click on the tab bar and select the “Show tabs on a separate row” option.

Top: the default tab arrangement; Bottom: tabs in their own row

This release also adds a new security feature which allows you to turn off ActiveX for all sites and then re-enable it on a site by site basis. ActiveX, a Windows-only “enhancement” that allows webpages to install code on your PC, has long been an excellent way to load up your Windows machine with viruses and other malware. The new controls mean you can turn off ActiveX entirely and avoid malicious code being installed.

Microsoft is also touting IE9’s hardware acceleration improvements in this release. According the IEblog, the release candidate is 35 percent faster than the previous IE9 beta. Indeed, in our informal testing IE held its own with Firefox 4 and Chrome 11. Pitted against stable releases like Firefox 3.6 or Chrome 9, IE9 fares even better.

Microsoft has not yet set an official release date for IE9, though the company’s web-centric MIX conference, which starts April 12, has historically been host to major IE announcements.

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New Flash Player 10.2 is Faster, Lighter on the CPU

Adobe has released Flash Player 10.2, an update that focuses primarily on speed and performance improvements. New in Flash 10.2 is something Adobe calls “Stage Video hardware acceleration,” which the company claims will “decrease processor usage and enable higher frame rates, reduced memory usage, and greater pixel fidelity and quality.”
The Stage Video hardware acceleration […]

Adobe has released Flash Player 10.2, an update that focuses primarily on speed and performance improvements. New in Flash 10.2 is something Adobe calls “Stage Video hardware acceleration,” which the company claims will “decrease processor usage and enable higher frame rates, reduced memory usage, and greater pixel fidelity and quality.”

The Stage Video hardware acceleration means that Flash Player 10.2 can leverage your graphics card for not just H.264 hardware decoding (which works in Flash Player 10.1) but also color conversion, scaling, and blitting.

To try out the new Flash Player 10.2 beta, head over to the Adobe download page. If you’re using Google Chrome, which bundles Flash Player with the browser, look for an update to arrive in the near future.

The Flash Player 10.2 beta gave us mixed results when it came to speed and the final release is no different. Windows users will see the biggest speed bump, particularly with 1080p video that has been optimized with the Stage Video hardware acceleration. Mac users will need to be on OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard in order for Stage Video to take advantage of hardware acceleration.

For the beta I ran some test on the Mac platform (using Firefox and Chromium) using several 1080p videos on YouTube. The beta put CPU usage down to the 18-22 percent range, but the final release tops that, rarely climbing over 12 percent CPU use. On Windows (again in Firefox and Chromium) the story is even better, with the numbers hovering in the low single digits.

That’s good news for watching Hd video online, but it also means less drain on your laptop’s batteries, one of the main complaints leveled at Flash Player. Keep in mind though that in order to take advantage of the new Stage Video tools, sites like YouTube and Vimeo will need to alter their video players. So, it may be some time before the full benefit of Stage Video’s improvements makes it to your day-to-day web browsing.

Other new features in Flash Player 10.2 include support for fullscreen mode with dual monitors — meaning that you can have a movie on one screen and keep working on another — and some sub-pixel text rendering improvements which should make Flash text more readable.

As for Flash Mobile, where the benefits of lower CPU usage and less battery drain are even more welcome, Adobe says to “hang tight.” Adobe plans to talk about new versions of Flash Player for Mobile at the Mobile World Congress next week.

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Gawker Learns the Hard Way Why ‘Hash-Bang’ URLs are Evil

URLs are an often overlooked part of web design, yet in many ways they may be the most important aspect of your website as Gawker’s family of sites recently discovered.
Gawker recently launched a multi-site redesign that, no sooner than being unleashed on the web, failed spectacularly, leading visitors to blank pages. The culprit was a […]

URLs are an often overlooked part of web design, yet in many ways they may be the most important aspect of your website as Gawker’s family of sites recently discovered.

Gawker recently launched a multi-site redesign that, no sooner than being unleashed on the web, failed spectacularly, leading visitors to blank pages. The culprit was a misbehaving piece of JavaScript, but when a single line of JavaScript causes your entire suite of sites to fail you no longer have websites, you have, well, nothing.

The problem with Gawker’s redesign is that it uses JavaScript to load everything. That means that, not only is there no chance for the site to degrade gracefully in browsers that don’t have JavaScript enabled, the smallest JavaScript typo can crash the entire website.

Developer Mike Davies has a nice breakdown of why Gawker’s JavaScript-based hash-bang URLs are a bad idea. Originally designed to allow Google’s spider to crawl Ajax content, hash-bang URLs have been popping up all over the web — Twitter and Facebook use them as well — but that doesn’t make them a good idea.

As Davies writes:

the #! URL syntax was especially geared for sites that got the fundamental web development best practices horribly wrong, and gave them a lifeline to getting their content seen by Googlebot.

And today, this emergency rescue package seems to be regarded as the One True Way of web development by engineers from Facebook, Twitter, and now Lifehacker.

The problem in Gawker’s case is that the URLs no longer point to actual content, everything depends on JavaScript parsing the hash-bang to retrieve the content. As Davies writes, “if content cannot be retrieved from a server given its URL, then that site is broken.” Think of hash-bang URLs as a worst practice of URL design.

If you’d prefer not to hang your site’s fate on the most brittle part of the open web stack — JavaScript — make sure you have a publishing system that allows you to design your own URLs and then follow the established best practices for creating good URLs.

If you’ve got Ajax content that would otherwise be missed by Google, then by all means use the hash-bang syntax, just keep in mind that the hash-bang is basically a hack, not the cornerstone of a well designed URL.

Eat at URLs photo by Scott Schiller/Flickr/CC.

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Test Your Websites With ‘OperaWatir’

You can never run too many tests, especially when it comes to making sure your website is working properly in every web browser. But with a variety of browsers to test in, making sure everything is running smoothly takes time. That’s where Watir (pronounced “water”) comes in.
Watir is a set of open source Ruby libraries […]

You can never run too many tests, especially when it comes to making sure your website is working properly in every web browser. But with a variety of browsers to test in, making sure everything is running smoothly takes time. That’s where Watir (pronounced “water”) comes in.

Watir is a set of open source Ruby libraries for automating web browsers to crawl and test your site. Watir essentially “drives” a web browser the same way your visitors would — clicking links, filling in forms, pressing buttons and so on. Because everything is automated you can test your site thoroughly and quickly.

Opera’s effort, dubbed OperaWatir, is the latest addition to the Watir test suite and joins the tools already available for Internet Explorer, Firefox and WebKit-based browsers. If you’re already using Watir for writing test suites (and you should be if you’re not) OperaWatir means that you can now test across all major browsers.

If you’ve never used Watir before, the Opera Dev Center has a nice tutorial on writing Watir tests tailored to your site. Opera’s tutorial walks you through the Ruby code necessary to automate common actions like clicking buttons, issuing keyboard commands and how to use the sleep command to handle Ajax refreshes.

The second part of Opera’s announcement is OperaDriver, the backend of OperaWatir that communicates with the Opera browser. While OperaWatir is written in Ruby, OperaDriver is written in Java, and it allows developers to create automated tests using the Java-based JUnit testing framework. If you’re not a fan of Ruby, OperaDriver can do the same things using Java.

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Meet HTML, The Spec Formerly Known as HTML5

It won’t be an unpronounceable symbol, but HTML5 is getting a Prince-style name change. From here on out HTML5 will simply be HTML — according to the WHATWG anyway.
Just a day after the W3C unveiled its new HTML5 logo, the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group (WHATWG) has announced that it will drop the term […]

It won’t be an unpronounceable symbol, but HTML5 is getting a Prince-style name change. From here on out HTML5 will simply be HTML — according to the WHATWG anyway.

Just a day after the W3C unveiled its new HTML5 logo, the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group (WHATWG) has announced that it will drop the term “HTML5,” stop the versioning of HTML altogether and instead treat the evolving specification as a “living standard.”

While eliminating the version number from HTML has been part of the WHATWG’s plan from the beginning, the timing of the change is clearly related to the W3C’s attempt to embrace the term “HTML5.” The W3C recently showed off a new HTML5 logo, but the accompanying FAQ used the term HTML5 to cover everything from the actual spec to only tangentially related tools like CSS 3, WOFF and SVG. Many developers saw the W3C’s nebulous use of the term HTML5 as a sign that the term had become, like “AJAX,” just another marketing buzzword.

The W3C has since rewritten its FAQ to clarify and more sharply define just what HTML5 is and is not, but before that happened Ian Hickson, the WHATWG’s editor, announced that the WHATWG was renaming its spec to just HTML. Hickson says the WHATWG was “going to change the name last year but ended up deciding to wait a bit since people still used the term ‘HTML5′ a lot.”

Hickson then makes a not-so-subtle jab at the W3C, saying HTML5 “is now basically being used to mean anything Web-standards-related, so it’s time to move on!”

The W3C has long had a tenuous relationship with the WHATWG. Technically the W3C is the standards body charged with publishing the HTML spec. The WHATWG — a consortium of browser makers — grew out of the W3C’s neglect of HTML and its misguided decision to pursue XHTML 2. Now that both groups are working on the same spec, in theory, their goals are the same. In practice, however, the two groups often butt heads. In other words, just because the WHATWG has decided to abandon the term HTML5, don’t expect it to disappear overnight.

The W3C will continue to work toward “snapshots” that reflect stable milestones of the ever-changing WHATWG version of the spec. For now at least, that means the term HTML5 will be alive and well at the W3C, as the group works through its standard practice of issuing working drafts, holding last calls on changes and finally publishing the spec as a “recommendation.”

Since browser makers have long been well ahead of the W3C when it comes to implementing the latest and greatest parts of the HTML5 spec, they will likely focus on the WHATWG’s HTML spec, which will, like Google’s Chrome browser, follow a “rolling release” schedule.

No doubt the media and marketers will continue to use HTML5 as a buzzword that means far more than just the spec, but even that’s not always a bad thing. There’s no doubt that Apple, Google, the New York Times and everyone else who’s used HTML5 as an analog for the New Shiny has helped HTML5 — and all the other tools it’s come to stand for — gain momentum. As web developer Jeff Croft puts it, “sometimes we just need a word to rally behind.”

While not everyone understands the nuances of what’s HTML5, what’s CSS 3 and what’s just JavaScript, that doesn’t change the fact that everyone is excited about building a better web and that is exactly what HTML(5) is designed to do.

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