Microsoft's Internet Explorer 9 is now available as a release candidate, the last step before the new browser software is made generally available later this year.
For Microsoft, which has been steadily losing browser market share to Google Chrome and other competitors, IE9 is shaping up to be a critical product toward helping the software vendor maintain its currently dominant position.
Software release candidates lock down a new Microsoft product's functionality with only serious bugs corrected before it's released to manufacturing and made generally available.
Release candidates also provide developers with a final version of a new product to test their applications and Web sites against. Microsoft said Thursday that Internet Explorer 9 release candidate is available through the BeautyoftheWeb.com Web site.
Microsoft said 25 million copies of a beta version of the IE9 browser were downloaded since it became available last September and the company has incorporated performance enhancements, reliability improvements and other changes based on feedback from testers.
Microsoft has been talking up IE9's simpler and sleeker user interface, its tighter integration with Windows 7 and other new Microsoft products, its improved performance, and new features such as the browser's ability for users to customize menus.
Microsoft has not provided a specific date for when it expects to make IE9 generally available, although speculation has been the announcement could be made at Microsoft's Mix 2011 Web developer conference in Las Vegas in April.
All versions of Internet Explorer accounted for 56 percent of the market in January, according to Net Applications, down from 57.08 percent in December. Microsoft has attributed the decline to decreased use of the older IE6 and IE7 browsers with the current release, IE8, holding its own. Firefox had a 22.75 percent share while Chrome continued its steady increase to 10.70 percent.