Microsoft on Tuesday released the first generally-available beta for Internet Explorer 7, as well as Windows RSS Platform, a for-developers set of APIs for creating RSS-enabled applications.
IE 7 has been in beta testing since July 2005, but except for a leak two weeks ago, the numbers of testers have been limited. "The Beta 2 Preview is feature complete," said Gary Schare, director of IE product management. "It's targeted at developers and tech enthusiasts who want to see how their applications and Web sites work with it." Microsoft, however, recommended that consumers wait until Beta 2 appears "in the next couple of months" before switching to the new edition.
The major additions and enhancements to IE 7 have been widely discussed by Microsoft's development team on its blog, so there were no real surprises. Like rival Firefox, IE 7 offers tabbed browsing, includes a search box in the toolbar, saves and opens multiple tabs, and displays RSS (Real Simple Syndication) feeds within the browser.
It also sports a redesigned and streamlined interface, shrink-to-fit printing, and a feature dubbed "Quick Tabs," a thumbnail-based navigation aid.
But it is security that IE 7 stresses, said Schare, acknowledging the criticism leveled at the browser, which saw a near-monthly run of patches during 2005. According to Danish vulnerability tracker Secunia, IE 6.0 had 17 vulnerabilities last year.
"Our key focus was coming up with technology to help protect users from technology attacks, attacks on the software itself," said Schare. That includes new cross-scripting, international domain spoofing, and ActiveX defenses that Microsoft says will better protect users against some of the most common exploits. And in an attempt to stem future attacks, some of the browser's code has been redone.
"We've rewritten entire sections of code," said Schare. "In those places where we've had to patch before, we've gone into the code again."
Schare's betting that the improved IE 7 security will meet the bar set in 2004 by Windows XP SP2, which was given credit by most analysts for stymieing some kinds of attacks.
"I'll never come out and say we'll never have another vulnerability, but IE 7 is more secure. We've changed the underlying code and we've put in defense in depth features."
Internet Explorer, which once was used by 95 percent of surfers, has been under a small but steady siege by rivals such as Firefox since that open-source browser's debut in 2004. In the 14 months since Firefox 1.0 appeared, IE's share has dropped to between 85 and 87 percent.
Schare said that Microsoft wants some of those people back.
"Our satisfied customers, the people who are running IE 6, those people are going to be thrilled with IE 7," he said. People who switched because they wanted a non-Microsoft browser may not return, but "the people who decided to change [to Firefox] for some of its features, not because they were dissatisfied with IE, those people will find a better Internet Explorer in 7."
Microsoft also released its Windows RSS Platform Tuesday, taking the technology formerly available only in Windows Vista to XP so that developers can deliver news feeds to customized Windows applications running in the older operating system.
The Windows XP edition of IE 7 Beta 2 Preview can be downloaded from the Microsoft Web site.
For more information, including a closer look at the browser's features, see Microsoft Issues Public Beta Of IE7 For Windows XP.