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Microsoft moves closer to new browser release

Company hits "release candidate" stage for Internet Explorer 7, first major update offered in recent years.

Microsoft on Thursday issued what it hopes will be the last test version of Internet Explorer 7 before the new browser is released later this year.

As the company has with recent beta versions, the near-final Release Candidate 1 version is being made available for free download, though users are required to confirm they are running a legitimately purchased version of Windows.

"The purpose of RC1 is to get the latest release out to the developer community so they can continue to test their we get closer and closer to final release," said Margaret Cobb, group product manager for IE.

Cobb said that Microsoft hopes RC1 will be its last test version, but she said that a second release candidate could be added, depending on the feedback the company receives.

"That would be our hope, that this is the last one before we release," Cobb said. Microsoft released the third beta version of the software in June.

The final version of IE7 for Windows XP is due to be released in the fourth quarter, with the new browser also being built into Windows Vista, which is slated to be made broadly available in January. Among the key enhancements are tabbed browsing, security enhancements and better compatibility with Web standards. It is the company's first major new browser release in years.

In part because of the security changes, Microsoft plans to push out IE7 as a "high-priority" update to Windows XP. The company is also releasing a tool that will allow businesses to block the upgrade if they wish.

On the surface, the new release candidate doesn't look that much different from the Beta 3 version, though Microsoft said it adds new bug fixes and performance improvements. Microsoft is also adding French- and Spanish-language versions of the browser.

One added touch is that installing the browser now removes earlier test versions. In the past, users had to manually uninstall prior IE7 installations before they could upgrade to a new version.