IE 7 in Public Beta

For hundreds of millions of users worldwide, Microsoft’s little blue “e” is the Web. Today, after years of discussion and development, and in the face of its most notable challenge since its inception, a publicly available preview of Internet Explorer 7 for Windows XP is now available.

IE 7 Beta 2 Preview includes a long list of new and improved features that users and Web developers have seen in other browsers and have been asking for. They include tabbed browsing, integrated RSS, better standards compliance and advanced security.

The Beta 1 of IE 7, released last summer, was only available in a restricted private beta. But just days after being non-publicly released by Microsoft, the code was leaked on P2P networks.

“Beta 1 was really just plumbing,” Gary Schare, director of IE product management, told “There was a little bit of user interface shown there, but it was pretty light. This release is much richer from an end-user perspective, as well as even on the security front. There is a lot more there.”

On the security side, IE benefited from some improvements that were introduced in SP2 that limited the ability of ActiveX to run unhindered in a browser.

IE 7 takes that to the next level with an ActiveX opt-in feature that further helps to prevent attacks on potentially vulnerable controls.

The browser will also support a scriptable native version of the XMLHTTP specification, which will allow AJAX-type functionality in the browser without being directly connected to ActiveX as it is in IE 6.

Other new security features in IE 7 Beta 2 preview include: a phishing filter, cross-domain script barriers, International Domain Name Anti-Spoofing protection and a feature that simply deletes browsing history by removing user-identifiable information.

Tabbed browsing, which has long been the hallmark of Mozilla browsers, is integrated into IE proper.

Microsoft’s implementation of tabbed browsing in IE 7 includes something called Tab Groups which enables user to collect their tabs into a group and open a group with one click. A native toolbar search box is also part of the new browser.

Perhaps most notably though is IE 7’s new RSS features.

“RSS is probably the biggest area of innovation in IE 7,” Schare said. “We’ve done work both on the end user to expose the average user to RSS in a really great way and we’ve done a lot of work on the platform to enable RSS for any application to take advantage of.”

Schare explained that the RSS capabilities allow users to subscribe to feeds within the browser and once subscribed that data is available to any application, whether it’s an RSS reader or any other business or consumer application that might want to use the data.

It’s all part of how IE 7 and eventually Vista will fully integrate RSS into the system.

With all the changes wrought in IE 7, Microsoft has sought to find a balance between new standards features support and maintaining backward compatibility for Web developers and the countless billions of Web pages built to support IE 6.

Schare noted that Microsoft looks at compatibility as a virtual dial.

“If we dial up on more standards support, that naturally dials down on compatibility with the way that people have built their sites in the past to make sure that they work well with IE,” Schare said.

“Some Web developers want us to keep things the same so their sites don’t break and others want us to support new features and standards.”

“We think we’ve struck a pretty good balance but we’ll see what the feedback is for this Beta 2 Preview.”

Mozilla, the spawn of Microsoft’s vanquished foe Netscape from the browser wars of the late 1990s, has risen in popularity at the expense of IE over the last two years.

Tabbed browsing and RSS integration have been in Mozilla browsers for years. Yet despite the fact that Mozilla and Microsoft are competing for browser market share, IE 7 reflects at least two areas where the two stalwart opponents collaborated.

Schare confirmed that the RSS icon in IE 7 is actually the same as the one used by Mozilla. Microsoft also collaborated with Mozilla and others in the browser community for the implementation of higher assurance SSL certificates, which are implemented in IE 7.

Schare agreed that it would be a fair statement to say that IE 7 is the most significant new IE update in terms of features since the end of the browser wars.

“People will see a lot more that is new with this release,” Schare said. “So yes, it’s a major, major release. We had always intended to do a major IE update with Windows Vista.

“The additional work was in taking the features to Windows XP, because our customers want it and because the security of the Internet demanded it.”

IE 7 Beta 2 Preview will be available to anyone who wants to download it, but it’s really intended for early adopters and Web developers. A more consumer-friendly Beta 2 version is expected in the coming months.

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