Will IE7 lure users away from Firefox?

No reason to use IE7 instead of Firefox, but when Vista comes out, that will change

After winning the browser war, Microsoft sat on its laurels long enough for upstarts like Mozilla Firefox to gain considerable mind share, if not actual market penetration.

However, never let it be said that Microsoft gives up easily — the software giant is about to launch the seventh version of its venerable Internet Explorer. Microsoft’s IE group programme manager, Tony Chor readily admits that it was the security problems that led the software giant to fundamentally re-architect version 7 of the world’s most popular browser.

Bringing out a secure Internet Explorer has turned into a long march for Microsoft, however. Internet Explorer is deeply rooted into the operating system and the company has to make it work on both its current Windows XP/Server platform as well as the upcoming Vista/Longhorn one. Those hoping for a version of IE7 for Windows 2000 are waiting in vain however: Chor says that while security patches and code clean- ups will come out for Windows 2000 while it’s a supported platform, it won’t get IE7.

At the moment, Internet Explorer 7 is in its second beta incarnation after the first public test version was launched in July. This, Chor says, is too slow a pace. A twelve-month cycle for future versions of IE is the target, says Chor, who also states that version 7 isn’t an end-of-life release of the browser.

Beta 2 of IE7 has a feature-complete rendering engine, meaning developers can now start to work in earnest with the browser without worrying about future changes leading to application rewrites for them.

Any changes from now on, says Chor, are likely to be around the user interface rather than core components. The core itself has undergone a major code clean-up, which isn’t readily apparent to end-users. Chor says improved software tools for automatically vetting the code means Microsoft developers have been able to find and fix security problems, but he says the software house has to prove that IE7 provides a safe browsing experience, after customers lost faith with previous versions.

Apart from re-written internals, Microsoft has focused on helping browser users make informed decisions about security. Here, Microsoft faces a difficult task: being too cautious and “fascist” about security means people will be tempted to turn off safety measures and warnings as these get in the way of browsing.

Chor points to the “phishing” filter that was introduced from the beginning in IE7 as an example: the checks on and warnings about spoofed sites are done asynchronously, without dialogs popping up that have to be clicked away before the page loads. Presenting more information relevant to the page you’re at in the browser window is how Firefox does it, and IE7 copies the concept nicely, with non-blocking multi-coloured alert strips that draw attention but don’t annoy.

This “dynamic security protection” is being handled right from the installation of IE7. The browser installer runs an antispyware scan and downloads updates over the internet automatically, a welcome feature that doesn’t require any user intervention.

Another feature that Firefox users have enjoyed for a long time now is tabbed browsing; that is, being able to have multiple pages open in the same browser instance, and switch to these with the help of tabs.

IE7 does tabs rather nicely. They are enabled by default and IE7 has many nice tab management features such as being able to group and bookmark tabs for easy loading, thumbnail views of all open ones, plus synchronisation with its new live.com web services portal page.

Overall, the user interface has been cleaned up compared to IE6. More functions have been moved up to the top level of the browser window, where people expect them, but some design choices still baffle like having a large distance between the left and right-hand side control items — people with widescreen monitors won’t appreciate the extra mousing distance.

Rendering of web pages is speedy, as with previous versions of IE, and even with many tabs open, memory consumption is moderate. The page zoom feature in IE7 is also something Microsoft can be proud of, as it can enlarge elements like picture with minimal pixelation.

Printing, long a bugbear for browser users, has also been enhanced, providing much more control over how the final output will look. You can resize, annotate and print out selections of pages if you like.

An increasing amount of information is pushed out through XML-based feeds in Really Simple Syndication (RSS) or ATOM formats, and Microsoft is going big on this. IE7’s handling of RSS feeds pretty good, being easy to use and feature-rich to boot.

I particularly liked that IE7 doesn’t just display the raw HTML, but the actual rendered feed — this is something people new to RSS will appreciate. The feeds themselves are searchable and can be filtered according to the category tags in them.

As we’re officially now in the “Always On” broadband age, you can set the feeds to update automatically as well. IE7 uses Microsoft’s Background Information Transfer System (BITS) for this, which is the same one that Windows utilises for downloading system updates. It will update the feeds without hogging all available bandwidth, working only when the network connection is idle.

While Microsoft is locked into a mortal battle with Google at the moment, it didn’t shut out the rival from IE7. The default search engine is the MSN one, but it’s easy to switch that with a pull-down menu.

Furthermore, IE7 supports Amazon’s OpenSearch standard, and developers can add XML code to their pages which will be auto-detected by the browser.

This feature could do with some visibility enhancement though: the RSS feed icon lights up clearly when a feed is discovered on a page but it’s hard to notice the little down arrow button in the drop-down menu changing colour when an “XML blob” describing a search feature is found.

Developers may be in for some pain with IE7 as Microsoft has decided to follow standards more carefully. This is a highly contentious area with many holy wars being fought over who follows the standards and who is just being a mindless pedant for the sake of it.

In use, IE7 displays most sites fine but some like AOL and Blogger.com are partly “broken”. Chor says Microsoft is working with developers to get feedback on issues like these and provides tools to help them prevent issues like this.

Another issue noted is that some online advertisers don’t yet recognise IE7 specifically. For instance, Google AdSense displays public service ads when viewing sites with IE7.

Despite all the effort Microsoft is putting into IE7, it’s doubtful it’ll be a contender at this stage. The improved security and browsing features make the browsing experience much nicer than with IE6 but there is no compelling reason to use IE7 instead of Firefox, Opera or even Maxthon if you’re not a developer.

When Vista comes out, the situation will change, however, and it’s worth noting that in order to take full advantage of IE7’s security features, XP is not enough. Microsoft simply couldn’t back-port the kernel-level security enhancements Vista has to XP, so IE7 will be somewhat hobbled on the older platform.

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