Microsoft on Monday announced the global availability of Internet Explorer (IE) 9, its next-generation web browser for Windows 7 and Windows Vista. With more than 40 million downloads during its year-long pre-release phase, IE 9 was Microsoft's most downloaded browser beta of all time. Now, the software giant hopes the final release can reverse IE's years-long usage-share slide.

"The best experience of the web is on Windows with Internet Explorer 9," said Microsoft Corporate Vice President Dean Hachamovitch. "Today, the web can unlock the power and performance of the best PC hardware through Windows and Internet Explorer 9. Websites also can act more like applications within Windows 7, with features such as Pinned Sites."

As I note in my review of IE 9 on the SuperSite for Windows, Microsoft's latest browser offers an elegant new design, useful Windows 7 integration features, improved security (including a trendy Do Not Track feature), much better web standards compliance than previous IE versions, and dramatic performance improvements—thanks in part to Windows-backed hardware acceleration of almost all onscreen elements.

Although the makers of Firefox, in particular, claim that IE 9 offers no meaningful advantages over the competition, Microsoft claims that its deep integration with Windows—both with Windows 7 features and hardware acceleration—is a huge advantage. And in testing the most recent versions of Firefox (4.0 RC) and the final IE 9, it's clear that Microsoft has a case. IE 9 works like a seamless part of Windows 7, in particular, allowing users to integrate their favorite websites into the Windows taskbar while providing better performance with a new generation of standards-compliant web apps.

Where Microsoft will meet its fiercest competition, from a technical standpoint, is with Google's Chrome. Google has been advancing Chrome at a very rapid clip, and is already up to version 10. And the company is now pushing features like those in IE 9, including adding hardware acceleration.

Regardless of your browser preference, IE 9 is a huge improvement over IE 8, and a worthy upgrade. Users of Vista, Windows 7, and Server 2008/R2 can download IE 9 from the Microsoft website.