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IE 7.0: Missing the Search Boat?

Microsoft promised Internet Explorer 7.0 will plug cracks in security. But there's a bigger hole in its search strategy, some say.

On Tuesday, Bill Gates promised a full version update of the aging Internet Explorer browser. The announcement by Microsoft's chief software architect came at the RSA Security show in San Francisco, so it was appropriate that Gates focused on security issues that still plague IE users. IE 7.0 will boost defenses against phishing, viruses and spyware.

"This is a realization that they continue to need to address security issues related to browsing on the Internet," said Directions on Microsoft analyst Michael Cherry.

Microsoft must fight the perception that alternative browsers, such as Firefox, Opera or Mac OS X, are safer to use. "Microsoft does not want anyone to get the perception that it's unsafe to use Windows on the Internet," he said.

In his blog, Dean Hachamovitch, the general manager of Microsoft's IE core development team, reiterated the security focus. "This new release will build on the work we did in Windows XP SP2 and (among other things) go further to defend users from phishing as well as deceptive or malicious software," he wrote.

Cherry pointed out that Gates' announcement was characteristically vague. It doesn't mention whether the update also will include some of the innovative features available elsewhere, such as tabbed browsing, that would bring IE on a par with Firefox, the open-source Web browser that's eating into IE's market share.

Even if it did include new features, IE 7.0 may do little to fight the Firefox threat, because it will be available only for Windows XP Service Pack 2 users -- leaving the many Windows 98 and 2000 users up for grabs.

There's another good reason why Microsoft should do more than add security to IE 7.0, according to JupiterResearch analyst Joe Wilcox: Search rivals Yahoo and Google are both rumored to be working on their own branded browsers, while Netscape is testing a new prototype. Right now, about half of MSN's revenue comes from ads shown on search results, Wilcox pointed out. "Start getting a bunch of new browsers out there pointing to other search engines; that has an impact on MSN," he said.

A browser can be a powerful delivery mechanism for searchers, Wilcox said. "To change search services, you just type in a new URL. But when you get attached to one browser, you'll stick with it," he said.

While the free, downloadable toolbars available from Google, MSN and Yahoo help drive new kinds of relationships, a full-blown browser would be an even better money-maker, Wilcox said. For example, it could include quick links to weather or shopping services, with the browser provider getting paid every time a user clicks through.

Andy Beal, vice president of search marketing at WebSourced, a search engine optimization company, said Microsoft should integrate a search query box into IE. It's well enough to offer a downloadable browser toolbar, Beal said, but much more potent to build search into the browser itself.

"If they can integrate it with the browser," Beal said, "they have a much better chance of getting people to stick with MSN search."

According to Beal, a search query box in the browser "gets the user immersed into the Microsoft or Google experience from the moment they launch the browser. They might check e-mail and then do a search right in the browser box. There's a lot more opportunity to put those ads in front of a potential search user, without them having to go to a search engine."