Reversal: Next IE divorced from new Windows

update Version 7.0 of the browser will launch ahead of the next update to Windows, as Microsoft shifts plans. Is Microsoft reacting to Firefox's popularity?

updateSAN FRANCISCO--Reversing a longstanding Microsoft policy, Bill Gates said Tuesday that the company will ship an update to its browser separately from the next major version of Windows.

A beta, or test, version of Internet Explorer 7 will debut this summer, Microsoft's chairman and chief software architect said in a keynote address at the RSA Conference 2005 here. The company had said that it would not ship a new IE version before the next major update to Windows, code-named Longhorn, arrives next year.

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What's new:
In a reversal of policy, Microsoft will ship the next update of Internet Explorer separately from the next version of Windows.

Bottom line:
The move acknowledges that the browser has become the target of virus and spyware writers. As the security threats have increased, rival browser Firefox has gained fans.

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In announcing the plan, Gates acknowledged something that many outside the company had been arguing for some time--that the browser itself has become a security risk.

"Browsing is definitely a point of vulnerability," Gates said.

The new browser version will work on machines running on Windows XP Service Pack 2, a security-focused update to the operating system that the company launched last summer, Gates said.

Mike Nash, an executive in Microsoft's security business and technology unit, said in an interview that Microsoft has not determined how or when the final version of IE 7 will ship, but that it is planned ahead of Longhorn.

Nash said it has not been decided whether IE 7 will come with a different Windows update, such as a security revamp.

"We'll be updating Windows on a regular basis," he said. "How the browser gets packaged--whether it's with a service pack--has not been nailed down. There is going to be a Service Pack 3 (of Windows XP). That's not a surprise. How that relates to (IE 7's release), we haven't figured out yet."

As recently as August, Microsoft said that no new stand-alone version was planned before Longhorn, and the company reiterated back then that its plan was to make new IE features available with major Windows releases. "At this time, there are no plans to release a new stand-alone version of IE," a Microsoft representative said.

The buzz
The Firefox factor
Is Microsoft reacting to growing concerns about browser security, or does Firefox have it on the run?
In November, Microsoft opened the door slightly to improving IE before Longhorn, though it indicated that improvements might come through add-ons to the browser, rather than through an updated version of IE.

Analysts attributed Microsoft's change of heart to the progress of the Mozilla Foundation's Firefox browser, which has made incremental but steady market share gains against IE in recent months. In a survey conducted late last year, Firefox nudged IE below the 90 percent mark for the first time since the height of the browser wars in the 1990s.

"I think it's a response to both the delay of Longhorn and the challenge of Firefox," said NPD Group analyst Ross Rubin, who added that Firefox was probably the sharper spur. "Were there no Firefox, they'd have more leeway to sit on it until Longhorn."

Bart Decrem, a founding member of the Mozilla Foundation, former head of its marketing and business development and current volunteer, said that Microsoft clearly was responding to the group's work.

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"I can't think of a better validation of the success of Firefox," said Decrem. "The success of Firefox is forcing Microsoft to improve IE. The only surprise is that it took them this long to make that announcement."

Nash would not say whether Microsoft hopes to stem defections or gain back share lost to Firefox.

Bitten by bugs
Microsoft's decision to announce plans for IE 7 at a security conference was no coincidence. IE 6's security reputation has suffered over the years, dogged by a long string of security bugs, phishing schemes and patches.

The company sought to allay security concerns last year by issuing the SP2 update for Windows XP, which included a number of changes to browser security. But critics complained that the update would

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