Microsoft hopes 7 is lucky number for IE

The software maker launches its first major update to the browser in years, offering tabbed browsing and security additions.

The browser is back.

Some 18 months after Bill Gates pledged to revamp Internet Explorer, Microsoft is ready with the final production version of IE 7. The new Web browser, which has been in testing for months, is now available for download from Microsoft's Web site.

On the feature side, Microsoft is playing catch-up in many areas. It has added support for Web standards, RSS Web feeds and tabbed browsing. The new browser also offers protection against phishing sites--malicious Web sites designed to trick users into handing over their personal information.

After months of ceding market share to Firefox, Microsoft has gained back a bit, according to the most recent statistics from OneStat. IE now has 85.9 percent of the market, an increase of 2.8 percentage points since July. Firefox has 11.5 percent of the market, down 1.4 percentage points compared with July. The Mozilla Foundation is getting closer to the launch of its own revamp, Firefox 2, which has hit the "release candidate" stage.

Chris Beard, vice president of products for Mozilla, said that Mozilla expects to release the final version 2 of Firefox late this month or early next month. As for IE 7, he said that his organization sees a lot in IE 7 that other modern browsers have had for a while. "We're continuing on our path of how can we continue to improve upon the experience," Beard said.

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Video: Internet Explorer 7 for Windows XP SP2
Microsoft updates Web browser

Microsoft is encouraging even Firefox users to install the IE update, promising them that it won't make IE the default browser--or even ask them if they want to switch. "There are advantages to having it there, even if you are not a daily user," said Gary Schare, Microsoft's director of IE product management.

Earlier, on Wednesday, Yahoo made available its own custom version of IE 7, which sports Yahoo as the default search engine, Yahoo home pages and a Yahoo toolbar.

Arrival schedule
Those who have been beta testing IE7 will begin receiving the final version via automatic updates this week. Microsoft plans to push down IE7 via automatic update to IE6 users starting next month, though they will get to decide whether they want to install it.

Microsoft has also offered a tool for businesses that lets them indefinitely block users from getting automatically updated to IE7. Schare declined to say how many businesses have downloaded the tool.

Although Microsoft will begin making the browser available through Automatic Update next month, it could take many more weeks to get the application to all PCs in the United States. The software maker is staggering the release, in part to make sure it can handle the support calls. It will make free phone support available, as it has done since the Beta 2 version of IE 7 was introduced in April.

The software maker has primarily been touting the security enhancements that come as part of the new browser. However, Schare said anecdotally, the most popular feature among beta testers has been improved printing of Web pages.

Schare said Microsoft started focusing on trying to make the browser more secure when it updated IE as part of Windows XP Service Pack 2.

"That certainly helped a lot--clearly not enough," Schare said. "We're not done. We've already started thinking about the next one."

Schare said the company is in the planning stages for another update, which is likely some 18 months out. Among the features Microsoft will consider adding are things that it wanted to include this time around, but opted against. Among the features in that camp are a download manager and improved searching within the current Web page.

It will also likely need more security improvements, though it is hard to say at this point what those changes will need to be. With SP2, the focus was on malicious software, while IE 7 is largely focused on social threats.

"We don't yet know what the next one is," Schare said.

It remains to be seen whether that update will come as part of an update to Windows Vista or on its own. "It may line up," Schare said. "It may not. We're willing to have it not line up."

Rivals are not standing still either. The new version of Mozilla adds, among other things, its own anti-phishing abilities, which were co-developed with Google. Beard said Firefox is looking to improve further its lead on patching holes. Already, he said, Mozilla's patches are released in "days, not weeks or months," Beard said. "With (version) two, we're looking to make that hours or minutes."

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