Microsoft made the newest upgrade for its Web browser, Internet Explorer 7 for Windows XP, available for download Oct. 18.
The browser, which can be downloaded at no cost from here, is currently available only in English and runs on Windows XP Service Pack 2, Windows XP 64-bit Edition and Windows Server 2003 Service Pack 1.
Internet Explorer 7 for XP will be made available in 23 Windows-supported languages over the coming weeks, Gary Schare, director of Windows product management, told eWEEK.
Microsoft is also offering unlimited free phone support for download and installation issues until November 1, 2007 to consumers in North America who decide to run IE 7. This support will be extended as additional languages are released, he said.
While Microsoft is expecting good consumer uptake of IE 7 for XP, the broad distribution will come through Automatic Updates, starting in early November, which will be paced over 90 days so as to ensure a good support experience for customers, Schare said.
This delivery mechanism has been thoroughly tested, as it is the same one used to deliver Windows XP SP2, Schare said, noting that most enterprises will push IE 7 out to their desktops only after they have tested it.
Microsoft released a blocker tool kit earlier this year that will not expire the way the one for XP SP2 did “as IE 7 does not replace IE 6 in the support life cycle,” he said. “Enterprises can decide not to upgrade. We recommend that they do, but this will be their choice on their timeline.”
Microsoft is recommending that enterprises either be compatible with or block IE 7 by Nov. 1, Schare said, adding that every customer who receives the product via Automatic Updates will be shown a screen and have to give explicit consent to install it.
The two development mantras behind IE 7 are safety and ease of use, he said, although he admitted that the same interfaces that have allowed IT professionals and Web developers to build applications that run on top of IE have also been used by “the bad guys to do some bad things,” particularly over the past five years.
“Windows XP Service Pack 2 was one of the big ways in which we responded to that, and it was a very large release for the IE team,” Schare said. “IE 7 is the next phase of that and is a major milestone in safety and ease of use.”
While Schare acknowledged that security is ever-changing and can never be completely addressed, he claimed that IE 7 is safer than previous versions.
“Safer in the XP SP2 timeframe meant primarily safer from malware attacks as that was the in thing then,” he said. “That was followed by social attacks, phishing, and so we have done a lot of work on the malware and social front in IE 7. But we dont know what the next avenue of attack will be, and so we are always trying to think ahead.”
Microsoft has a number of other resources on the security front, including Windows Defender, “which is like the undo button for a bad trust decision,” Schare said. “When you combine all the security work in IE 7 plus things like Windows Defender and the Microsoft Security Response Center, you see that we have a robust end-to-end security capability.”
Asked about the competitive threat posed by Firefox, Schare said it does not come up much when talking to enterprise customers as there is a distinction between what they might use personally and what is their corporate standard.
“The typical Firefox user tends to be a technology enthusiast, but, with most every company that we work with, Internet Explorer remains the standard because of the features that got it there in the first place,” he said. “They have developed their line-of-business applications on top of it, and they have trained their users on how to use it.”
IE 7 is also the browser built into Windows Vista, which appeals to enterprises because it will allow them to have a common browser environment across their XP and Vista desktops, he said.
Some customers like VeriSign are upbeat about the new browser and the security advances it brings. “We believe that Microsofts new Internet Explorer 7 browser will help increase user confidence and make consumers more secure when using the Internet. … We encourage users to move to the new browser,” said Tim Callan, VeriSigns product marketing director.
Asked what would make the browser experience better in Vista, Schare said that, for the consumer market, parental controls, which is also a platform feature so any piece of software that talks over a network will get the added safety of those parental controls.
For enterprises, the most important difference is the protected-mode feature, which is built on the new user account mechanism in Windows Vista. That effectively lets Internet Explorer run with an even lower permission than a standard user.
“Its effectively like a sandbox around the browser and is a nice security feature that is protecting against future unknown vulnerabilities. Having IE 7 available for XP helps prepare users for Vista and all the great new features it brings,” he said.
Microsoft has released six betas, or public builds, of IE 7 for XP, five of which were this year, allowing IT professionals, developers and others to test with it, which has helped improve the compatibility story, Schare said.
Financial services companies such as PayPal and Visa are also interested in protecting their customers from phishing and so will be urging their customers to upgrade.
“Security is a top priority for PayPal, and we encourage our customers using Windows to download and use Internet Explorer 7, which has significant security enhancements, including features that help customers protect their personal information when browsing, communicating and transacting online,” Michael Barrett, PayPals chief information security officer, said.
Companies like Yahoo have also built customized versions of IE 7 optimized for their use. “Yahoo has been doing this since Beta 3, and it will look like IE 7 to the user. This, too, is a strong endorsement of the platform,” Schare said.
The most significant new features in IE 7 include the many security improvements, tab browsing, and the inclusion of RSS discovery and subscription, as well as a platform to make that data available to any application that wants to use it.
“The sky is the limit as to what developers can dream up to take advantage of that RSS platform,” he said.
There are also a number of features in IE 7 that make it easier for enterprises to deploy the browser, including enhanced group policy support, as well as the updated Internet Explorer administration kit that allows enterprises to build a customized version of the browser for their desktops, Schare said.