Microsoft on Wednesday released version 7 of its Internet Explorer Web browser, the first major update to the software in five years. Users of Windows XP were able to download the new software immediately from Microsoft's Web site, and the company will distribute the browser for the first time through a feature of Windows that can automatically deliver updates to users' desktops.
In addition, Yahoo released a version of Internet Explorer 7 that directs users to its search engine and home page, which could increase the browser's penetration on PC desktops.
Microsoft could use the help as it tries to recapture market share from the open-source Firefox browser. Microsoft is promoting its browser as the gateway to a new generation of Internet software it's developing to compete with Web companies including Google and Yahoo.
But competition is fiercer than ever. Firefox now sits on 11% of PCs worldwide, up from virtually nothing two years ago. Microsoft's share of the browser market, meanwhile, has slipped to 84%, versus over 90% a couple of years ago. A new version of Firefox could arrive within days. Meanwhile, a version of IE7 for Microsoft's upcoming Windows Vista operating system is due next month.
After five years of neglect, which even chairman Bill Gates this spring admitted was "too long," Microsoft has packed IE7 with features including improved data security, compliance with modern versions of Web software development standards including cascading style sheets and the document object model, tabbed browsing, and better-looking printouts of Web pages. "The last five years have been pretty tough on IE users," says Gary Schare, director of Windows product management at Microsoft.
The new software has had its share of controversy. Microsoft made some last-minute changes to the browser's design, giving PC users greater flexibility to choose search engines other than Microsoft's as the default choice. Microsoft made the change after complaints from the European Union's antitrust arm. Search engine company Google this spring had discussed with the European Union its disagreement with Microsoft's original mechanism for assigning the search engine in IE. "It's clearly valuable real estate," says Schare.
It's also a sensitive area. Microsoft in 2002 settled a long-running antitrust dispute with the U.S. Department of Justice over its illegal use of its Windows monopoly, a case in which the company's bundling of Internet Explorer with Windows was a central issue. At the time, Microsoft had virtually eliminated a competitive threat from Netscape Communications' Web browser, which offered programmers an alternative to writing software limited to Windows computers.
Now, the software industry landscape has shifted to competition for users of software applications that can be delivered completely through a browser. According to Schare, IE7 will provide Web users a "snappier" experience with Microsoft's online apps, called "Live" software, than they would get with version 6.