Microsoft unveiled the "beta" test version of Internet Explorer 9 on Wednesday, the first of a new generation of Web browser programs that tap into the powerful processors on board newer computers to make websites load and run faster. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)
IE9, which is free, also arrives with a more minimalist look and a few new tricks that start to blur the distinction between a website and a traditional desktop application.
Following the lead of Google's stripped-down Chrome browser, Microsoft's IE9 comes with far fewer buttons, icons and toolbars cluttering up the top of the screen. Its frame is translucent, and as people browse the Web, IE9 can be subtly adorned with small icons and signature colors of the websites being viewed.
The new browser also takes cues from Windows 7, Microsoft's most recent operating system software for personal computers. In Windows 7, people can "pin" favorite programs to the task bar at the bottom of the screen, creating a one-click shortcut. They can also customize a menu of options for each program, such as opening a frequently used file in Microsoft Word.
IE9 lets people pin individual websites to the taskbar, and some sites have already customized their so-called "jumplist" menus. For example, when people pin USA Today's site, the icon in the taskbar can display a menu that mirrors the color-coded sections of the newspaper.
The aesthetic changes bring IE9 in line with Microsoft's newer software, but the changes under the hood push Microsoft's technology a step ahead of its competition. The browser can take advantage of multicore microprocessors to crunch website code faster. It also uses the PC's graphics processing unit — the same chips that make the images in elaborate video games run smoothly — to make images, animations, movie clips and other visuals appear or play faster.
And IE9 supports HTML5, a catch phrase for an updated set of rules and specifications that website programmers use. HTML5, which is currently under development, will include video playback and other graphics-intensive features that, in the past, could only be done by adding third-party software.
"What I saw impressed me," said Endpoint Technologies Associates analyst Roger Kay, who attended Microsoft's media event to promote the new browser in San Francisco Wednesday. "The bottom line is, this product is good. It's pretty and it's fast."
Microsoft won't stand alone at the front of the pack for long, however. Google and Mozilla, maker of the Firefox browser, are also working on similar technical upgrades to their software. All three players have different motivations for pouring resources into making their free programs stand out from the pack.
For Microsoft, selling Windows is a massive and profitable slice of its business. Dean Hachamovitch, corporate vice president of Microsoft's Internet Explorer group, said the software maker is driven by the desire to make Web browsing on a Windows PC "great." That, he said, will encourage people to keep buying Windows computers, rather than defect to Apple's Mac machines.
Google, which makes most of its money from online advertising, simply wants to encourage people to spend more time surfing the Web. The Web search leader says it introduced the speedy Chrome two years ago in part to prod the market's dominant players to accelerate Web surfing.
And Mozilla, a nonprofit, sees its own browser development as a way to make sure that users< privacy and the tenets of free, open-source software don't get left behind as Google, Microsoft and others try to shape technology in ways that boost profits.
With the new crop of browsers, the companies are doing more than competing against each other. IE9 has arrived at a time when the future of traditional Web surfing is itself in question. Today, people can skip visiting many websites in favor of "apps" available for download for devices such as Apple's iPhone and iPad, or Google's Android mobile phones. The apps deliver the same content but don't limit people to pointing and clicking links with a mouse.
The new browser works on PCs with Windows 7 or Vista, but not on PCs with the much more widely used Windows XP computers or on Macs. At the media event, Microsoft showed off several big-name websites that have been designed to take advantage of the new browser, including ones from Amazon.com, Facebook and Twitter. The sites are built with code that older browsers can understand, but some may be sluggish without IE9.
Microsoft did not say when IE9 will leave the test phase, but the final version isn't likely to change much. It is available for download from Microsoft.
AP writer Michael Liedtke in San Francisco contributed to this report.