Internet Explorer has been a distant third-string player to Firefox and Chrome for so long, we thought it could never catch up.

But with a slick new interface and enhanced Windows 7 features, IE 9 now in public beta just might put Microsoft back at the top of the browser game.

For the past four years, I’ve sung the praises of Firefox, going so far as recommending it in all of my books. I’ve used Firefox and, more recently, Google’s Chrome almost exclusively. But last week, a friend of mine started shouting online, “Ya gotta see this! Microsoft’s come up with some great new stuff!” My reply? “Yeah, sure.”

A few months ago, I played with an early beta version of Internet Explorer 9. It left me cold more of the same old IE stuff, piled higher and deeper.

Microsoft released the public beta (info site) of IE 9 last week, complete with a heavily rejiggered user interface and a number of much-hyped enhancements. And after trying it for a few days, I have to admit that I was impressed so impressed that I’ve continued to use it, from time to time, even when I don’t have to.

I’m not going to bore you with a recitation of the IE 9’s list of new features. Microsoft’s patented marketing machine has churned out more info than you’ll ever want or need. Instead, let me point out what I think shines in IE 9 and what still leaves me cold.

Tab dancing with the new IE interface

Although Microsoft touts it as one of IE 9’s greatest inventions, I’m ambivalent about the browser’s new tab interface. I think it’s cool but in a limited way.

Let’s start with tear-away tabs. Firefox and Chrome have had them for ages. When you click on a tab and drag it, the tab blossoms into its own browser window. Drag the new standalone tab back to its original window, and the tabs go back to their previous location. In Version 9, Internet Explorer finally does this, too. But IE 9 has an additional trick up its sleeve.

If you drag the favicon the tiny icon to the left of the Web address onto the Windows desktop, Windows creates a shortcut to the Web site. You knew that already, yes? Double-click on the shortcut, and Windows fires up your browser and takes you to the site. Windows has done that forever, with all the major browsers.

New to IE 9 and currently unique to IE 9 is the ability to drag a tab to the Windows 7 taskbar. When you drop a tab onto the taskbar, you pin the site to the taskbar (as with the Dummies site shown in Figure 1), just as you would pin programs. (Currently, you can drag a Web site in the browser’s search/URL address bar but not a tab and pin it to your default browser’s taskbar icon.) This new feature makes launching sites you go to everyday, such as, just a little faster.

When you click on the newly created icon in the taskbar, IE 9 appears with the site’s icon on the left side (note “Mr. Dummy” to the left of the left-pointing arrow in Figure 1); the forward-and-back arrows take on the color of the icon. If you click on the site’s icon, you’re returned to the site, just as when clicking on the IE 9 Home icon.

I wouldn’t call that a breakthrough innovation, but it does show some ingenuity. Chrome 6 has, for a long time, had a similar feature called Application Shortcuts (click the Tools icon, choose Tools, Create Application Shortcuts), but it doesn’t work as well.

Pinning a site on the Win7 taskbar is neat, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the revolutionary new Tab Candy, er, Panorama feature that’s evolving in the Firefox 4 betas. Panorama lets you group tabs together, stick them out of the way, and bring them back as a group. It’s a slick way to combine related tabs in a set and switch sets as you change tasks or topics. There’s a good overview of Panorama on Aza Raskin’s blog. I’ll have a more thorough review in a forthcoming Top Story, after the final feature set has shaken out in Firefox 4.

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