Browsers like Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome and Apple's Safari may get all the hype. But Microsoft Explorer remains the lingua-franca of the small-business realm.

Explorer claims more than half of the overall browser market, says Aliso Viejo, Calif-based Netmarketshare.com. And it reaches even deeper into the small-business universe. Sure, others browsers are faster and pack more features. But most small firms tend to stick with Internet Explorer because it's included with their Windows-based small-business computers.

So when Microsoft makes a big upgrade in Internet Explorer that offers major improvements for small firms -- which is just what it is doing -- it is big news indeed.

Earlier this month Microsoft deployed a close-to-market-ready beta version of IE9, which I have been testing in my six-person digital content company. We’ve used it as a basic Web business search tool; an in-house platform for Web-based work tools like LiquidPlanner, Google Apps, and Microsoft Office Live; and even sampled it as a development tool for firms with company websites and e-commerce platforms.

Things to Love

Blazing speed: Side-by side-testing with the latest versions of Chrome, Safari, and Firefox showed me that the frustrating speed lag for Internet Explorer is no more.

Expect a solid bump in performance for everything from basic Web browsing to Web-based office collaborative tools. For example, updating a Google Doc shared by several writers was clearly quicker in my testing with Explorer 9. And third-party web browser plug-ins like the Norton Security Tool bar and Yahoo search bars should run much faster -- and crash less often.

I found this performance gain across all types of equipment, from an ancient Pentium 4 Dell Dimension office desktop to a state-of-the-art Toshiba Portégé R700 notebook running an Intel Core i7.

As a means of doing your Web-based work, IE9 is first rate.

New possibilities for small-business Web strategies: Microsoft is joining the rest of the browser community in supporting exotic new web technologies. These tools have geeky names like HTML5, but they are important to small firms because they will change how the Web looks and feels -- and thus how businesses work on it.

For example, once-static content -- like an average company home page -- will become more dynamic. It will integrate high-quality video, interactive features and even immersive 3D environments, similar to the way powerful video games render on a sophisticated game platform like Xbox 360. Already-dynamic content, like a company blog or social networking site, will look slicker and closer to print or movie versions of information -- like, say, how magazine apps now render on a tablet computer like an iPad.

Things to hate

Lots and lots of bugs: All this innovation comes at a cost: Explorer 9 will cause a wave of coding issues. Some websites will not fully support the new browser, so older versions of Explorer must be kept handy. And Web-based office tools, particularly custom apps like in-house sales or payroll systems, will almost certainly need to be upgraded to work on IE9.

Businesses must brace themselves to manage the headache -- and cost -- of working with a powerful new browser that demands much from those who use it.

My verdict: Download IE9 now
Upgrading to Explorer 9 is worth the time for the speed gain alone. Your firm should expect everything from Web browsing to document handing to be faster and more robust. You might want to wait until the final version hits the market, but touching the beta now -- and understanding its powerful new features -- will give your business an edge in developing fresh strategies for this next generation of Web development.

IE9 is big step for the internet. You should give yourself and your business every chance to step along with it.