The way we build browsers changed a few years back. Instead of a series of big bang releases, customers and users were presented with everything from bleeding edge code to consumer betas. With Firefox's open source development model, you had access to nightly builds that let web designers and developers try out the latest features. The same was true for Google's Chrome, with Canary, Developer, and Beta builds pushed out in parallel.
But one browser kept its developments behind closed doors: Internet Explorer.
That wasn't entirely true of course, as through the IE 9 and IE 10 development processes Microsoft used a series of UI-less platform previews to showcase the changes it was making to its browser. But those were very much developer focused, and were missing key navigation elements that made it near impossible to use an IE platform preview as a tool for testing out web applications; something that both Firefox and Chrome make easy.
A couple of months ago at its BUILD developer conference, Microsoft unveiled a plan to make IE development more transparent. Launching its status.modern.ie service, Microsoft aimed to show developers what new web standards and features it was planning to add to future releases. It turned out to be a much needed tool, as Microsoft's new cadence of OS releases has sped up IE's release cycle dramatically: From every three years to every six months or year.
Suddenly designers and developers were able to see what Microsoft was planning on using in future IE releases. Even so, it wasn't enough: There was no visibility onto just how those features were being implemented, and how they'd affect web application development.
So today's announcement of devchannel.modern.ie, with a developer version of IE ready for download and able to run alongside IE 11 on developer desktops, came as a pleasant surprise.
Taking a leaf from Google's playbook, the IE Developer Channel is focused on showcasing key new features as Microsoft gets them ready for public release. Most definitely a developer tool, the new Developer Channel release is built using Microsoft's App-V application virtualization, running in a sandbox to prevent interactions with desktop applications. That does mean it's not suitable for day-to-day use, as there are problems with extensions and file downloads. It's only for desktop use, too, so you can't run it in the Windows 8 full screen immersive experience.
So what does this first developer release contain? To be honest there's not a lot of new code in the IE Developer Channel release (after all, it's only two months since a major update), and much of what's in this new release is focused on developer tooling -- both inside and outside the browser.
Perhaps the most significant for web developers is a first cut of a new set of in-browser debugging tools. There's a lot in here, and a quick glimpse at the changes show that Microsoft has been thinking about speeding up the web debugging process. You can see the number of errors on a page on the console icon, while also showing if you're currently running any tests. Other improvements include showing images in the UI responsiveness tool (so you can quickly narrow down any images that are causing problems), as well as new ways of visualising page operations and performance.
Big changes in the F12 developer tools are a good sign. The more functionality a browser needs to support, the better debugging tools it will need. By helping pinpoint errors more quickly, developers will be more efficient, and able to deliver more complex web apps.
Another key new feature, WebDriver, ilets developers automate user interactions in a browser, using developer tools to control browsers and get back performance and debugging information. There aren't many tools that support it yet, but getting WebDriver support in a developer release gives tool vendors something to develop against -- making it more likely that you'll soon be able to use WebDriver from your favourite development tooling.
The Developer Channel release improves IE's WebGL renderer, with better performance and some new features. These focus on making it easier to deliver 3D models to browsers, with triangle fans that build complex geometries with less data. There's also support for instancing, allowing you to upload just one tree model (for example) and then cloning it thousands of times for a forest -- with different colors, shapes and sizes.
That plug-in free web also means that IE will need to support additional devices. Without Flash for games, it's going to need to handle controllers, using the W3C's new Gamepad API. You can use the IE developer preview to try this out -- with Microsoft providing a gamepad-enabled version of its Escape from XP browser game.
While most of us aren't going to be building massive 3D worlds in our browsers, or writing games around them, it's still good to see Microsoft stepping up its IE release cadence. HTML5 is moving fast, and IE needs to move faster to catch up with its competitors. Displaying the support status of various web standards was a start, but actually putting some of the under-development features in the hands of developers and designers is much better.
The fact that Microsoft is going to be releasing Developer Channel builds of IE is more significant than the features in this first release. It's another sign of changes in Microsoft, with a lifting of more of the Windows veil of secrecy.
There's still some silence: Microsoft hasn't indicated how often it will update its Developer Channel, or how code will be delivered in the mainstream Internet Explorer. It has, however, said that this is the first of many releases. We'll look forward to seeing what the next set of experiments will include.