Although users familiar with the most recent beta of IE 7 won't see many visible changes to the browser, under-the-hood performance gains should be immediately noticeable, said Margaret Cobb, group product manager for IE.
"Users should definitely see a difference in performance," said Cobb. "We've done a lot of work on performance, fit and finish, and site rendering [since Beta 3]."
Other changes to the browser include the completion of changes to IE CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) support, additional language selections, and an auto-uninstall feature in RC1's setup that automatically removes earlier betas (betas formerly required users to manually uninstall older versions of IE 7 before installing the newest).
On Tuesday, Markus Mielke, one of the IE 7 program managers, admitted in a blog that the browser was "a stepping stone in our effort to improve our standards compliance, especially around CSS." In the past, Microsoft has taken heat from Web site designers for bugs in Internet Explorer's support for CSS, and for the Redmond, Wash. developer's hesitancy in supporting the newest version of the standard.
Cobb defended her group's work on CSS support when asked why Microsoft didn't devote more resources to fully implementing CSS support. "We're trying to strike a balance between compliance and compatibility," she said. "We don't want to lave our app[lication] and site developers behind."
Although she said that Microsoft expects RC1 to be the last publicly-released preview of the browser before the code gets the final stamp of approval (or in the company's parlance, "release to manufacturing," or RTC), she wouldn't rule out another update. "That depends on what the feedback is. If the developer or IT communities create a reason for us to come up with another release, we would."
Cobb would not commit to a specific date or even month for a final release of IE 7, saying only that the browser was on track for a fourth quarter roll-out. When it does go final, IE 7 will be delivered to Windows XP and Server 2003 users via Automatic Updates as a "high priority" update that users can accept or decline. Last month, Microsoft also issued a blocking tool that enterprises can use to stop Automatic Updates from offering IE 7 when it releases.
Microsoft, which has touted IE 7's increased security, revamped user interface, and enhanced tools, has been fighting a losing battle with rival Mozilla Corp. for almost two years. Mozilla's Firefox, which officially debuted in November 2004, has seized more than 15 percent of the global market share in that time, while Microsoft has watched IE's share fall from the high 90s to under 80 percent.
The next version of Firefox 2.0, dubbed Beta 2, was to post for download Wednesday, Aug. 23, but as it's been forced to do several times already this summer, Mozilla again revised its schedule. According to the Firefox 2.0 release calendar, Beta 2 is now set to show Wednesday, Aug. 30, with several release candidates slated for September.
And while Mozilla had pegged Firefox 2.0's final release to Oct. 24 as recently as last week, now the final ship date's missing from the calendar.
In the meantime, Microsoft's IE 7 can be downloaded from this Web site.