Really more of an alpha than a beta, the version of Microsoft Corp.s Internet Explorer 7 released at the same time as Windows Vista Beta 1 provides a look at new features that, for the most part, are an attempt to play catch-up with competing Web browsers.
Among the new features in the IE 7 beta—which is available with the Vista beta or with Windows XP Service Pack 2—are tabbed browsing, integrated RSS feed browsing and anti-phishing capabilities that will help users identify suspect Web sites. One factor common to these features is that they were first introduced—and, for the most part, have been long available—in competing browsers such as Opera Software ASAs Opera and the Mozilla Foundations Firefox.
Microsoft takes steps in this release to improve IEs support for core Web standards, such as CSS2 (Cascading Style Sheets 2). But theyre not even baby steps—at least in this beta—as the Microsoft browser still falls well short of what wed consider good standards compliance.
Users launching IE 7 for the first time will notice a few, small cosmetic interface changes, with the biggest being the tabbed capability. Tabbed browsing worked well for the most part during tests, letting us choose to launch links in a tab or to open empty tabs.
The tabbed browsing features in IE 7, however, are still primitive and feel unfinished, especially when compared with Mozillas, Firefoxs and Operas capabilities. In the Vista beta, the button to launch an empty tab is simply a blank gray box instead of the “new tab” box we would expect. Also, IE 7 lacks the ability to save a group of tabs as a Favorite.
Other small interface changes include a change in the Stop/Refresh buttons position—its now at the right of the address bar.
IEs new Web Feeds feature displayed RSS feeds on Web pages and let us view the feed within the browser and add feeds to our Favorites list.
We found Web Feeds acceptable for viewing RSS headlines, but its functionality is very basic when compared with stand-alone RSS reader applications, mail-based feed-reading applications and the Firefox RSS implementation, which displays feed headlines within Bookmarks.
A new SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) security report feature, similar to one recently added to Opera, flags ostensibly secure Web sites that have suspect security levels, either through non-certified certificates or low encryption levels. When a user visits one of these sites, the browser address bar turns red, and clicking on a security link near the bar brings up additional information.
Related to this security feature are IE 7s new anti-phishing capabilities, which, in this beta, are available only on Windows XP SP2. When the Phishing Filter is enabled, the browser checks against a locally stored list and a Microsoft server whenever accessing a suspect Web site to see if the site is on a known-phisher list. The Phishing Filter also looks for characteristics typical of phishing sites.
If the site is on a list, a warning pops up on the browser bar alerting the user not to provide information to the site . If the site is not on a list but is deemed suspect, the pop-up warning tells the user that the site demonstrates phishing characteristics.
The phishing filter can run automatically or can be configured to test sites manually.
In this beta, the main changes in standards support amount to fixing a few bugs in how IE handles sites using CSS. Also, some scripting actions that were typically abused by hackers and phishers have been removed or limited.
Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at [email protected].