The first beta of Microsofts new standalone Web browser, Internet Explorer 7, is now in developers hands.
Microsoft wasnt going to release a new IE browser, apart from the embedded version in Windows Vista, but then increased security worries and the rise in popularity of Mozillas Firefox browser may have changed the Redmond giants plans.
This new version of IE only runs on XP SP2. Eventually, there will be a version for Server 2003, but Windows 2000 and 98SE users are out of luck.
There will be no IE 7 for these systems.
Gytis Barzdukas, director of product management in Microsofts security business technology, hasnt completely ruled out porting IE 7 to other Windows platforms.
In an eWEEK.com interview, Barzdukas said, “When we do all this engineering work, the architecture is changed significantly. In some cases, its more expedient for customers to just move to a new operating system where the enhancements are easier to deploy.”
The new IE boasts several improvements for browser security. The first of these are a variety of defenses against malware (malicious software).
For example, IE 7 now has a single data handler for Web addresses. By “drastically reducing the internal attack surface,” Microsoft hopes to make it much harder for crackers to use malformed HTML links to trick browsers into running malware.
In addition, the new IE includes a feature that appends the originating domain name to any script you might run. The browser will also restrict a scripts ability to only interact with its own domains Windows and content.
This features intent is to prevent cross-domain scripting.
These are commonly used in phishing attacks—attempts to swipe your user login and password information.
In informal testing, this first beta of IE 7 did do a better job than earlier versions of IE in preventing both malformed HTML and cross-domain scripting.
Some of the new anti-phishing tools may not be to everyones taste.
The Microsoft Phishing Filter, which users may opt out of, checks all sites you visit against a Microsoft-hosted list of phishing sites.
Also, support for administrators setting group phishing restrictions is not present in this beta.
IE also sports a new look, some of which closely resembles Firefox.
For example, youll find a search box to the right of the URL address bar. As with Firefox, users can search through one of several popular Web search sites by entering text into this box.
Additionally, IE now supports tabbed browsing—a feature that has been previously available in Mozilla, Opera and Netscape.
This feature worked well during first hours with the browser.
The new IE is also following in the footsteps of the other browsers by including RSS support. The program currently supports the RSS 1.0, 2.0 and Atom 0.3 formats.
When Atom 1.0 is released, Microsoft will also support that format. This feature, however, is still a work in progress. On several occasions, the program crashed while accessing RSS feeds.
While this beta is not feature-complete—really making it more of an alpha release—it did not have any other critical failures on a Gateway 503GR PC with a 3GHz Pentium IV and a gigabyte of RAM running XP Professional SP2.
In many ways, this seems more of a catch-up release to Firefox than an attempt to advance the art of the browser.
It was also somewhat puzzling to see a beta, with final release scheduled for this year, which didnt include both minor and major features.
For example, in this beta the default way to find out if a site has an RSS feed is to press the RSS icon and see if it displays a feed.
In the next beta, the icon is to change its appearance on sites with feeds.
In addition, the Mozilla Foundation will also be releasing its next beta release for Firefox 1.5, code name Deer Park, in August, with the final release scheduled for September.
This new Firefox will incorporate many minor improvements, better performance and more significant advances.
The bigger and better improvements will include an automated update system, support for SVG (scalable vector graphics), better cross-domain script protection, and drag and drop tabbed browser placement.
If Microsoft is to gain back the imitative in the new browser wars, IE 7, as its laid out now, may not be enough.
eWEEK.com Senior Editor Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been using and writing about operating systems since the late 80s and thinks he may just have learned something about them along the way. He can be reached at email@example.com.