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What's Next For Explorer 7.0?

Gates says Microsoft will ship a test version of the browser this summer, but details remain sketchy
Now that Microsoft has disclosed plans to release a test version of Internet Explorer 7.0 this summer, only the details remain. What new features will be included? When will a final release be available? Will IE 7 run on older versions of Windows?

Microsoft chairman Gates provided only a general idea of what to expect in the upcoming IE 7.

Microsoft chairman Gates provided only a general idea of what to expect in the upcoming IE 7.

Photo by Reuters
When Bill Gates disclosed IE 7 earlier this month, he left those questions for others to answer. Microsoft's chairman provided only a general idea of what to expect, saying a beta version would be available early this summer for Windows XP Service Pack 2 and that it would focus on defenses against phishing attacks and malicious software.

In an online discussion published on Microsoft's Web site, security VP Mike Nash said IE 7 also will include enhanced "privacy protections." Neil Charney, director of Windows client, said the upgraded browser will fight off spyware better, too. And IE product manager Dean Hachamovitch indicated Microsoft is considering making IE 7 available beyond Windows XP SP2. "We're actively listening to our major Windows 2000 customers about what they want and comparing that to the engineering and logistical complexity of that work," he wrote in a Weblog on Microsoft's MSDN.com.

That's significant because one of the limiting factors of Microsoft's browser strategy is that its most up-to-date and secure browser, IE 6 SP2, is only available for PCs running Windows XP SP2. Earlier versions of Windows are limited to running a version of the browser called IE 6 Service Pack 1 that lacks some of IE 6 SP2's capabilities. If Microsoft were to tune IE 7 to run on Windows 2000, it would let those users enjoy improved browser security without having to upgrade the operating system.

"There would be an advantage in that," says Rich Powers, director of advanced technology and infrastructure at FMC Corp., which has yet to upgrade to Windows XP SP2 on its desktop computers. "Ideally, you'd like to be able to [upgrade the browser] without having to do the whole operating system."

Until recently, Microsoft said IE 7 would be tied to the release of its next-generation Windows operating system, code-named Longhorn, due sometime next year. But unending security threats and growing user interest in the Mozilla Organization's Firefox browser forced Microsoft to hasten development of IE 7.

News of Microsoft's plans for IE 7 generated hundreds of comments on the IE development team's Weblog. Among the upgrades developers would like to see: improved support in IE's rendering engine for industry standards such as CSS2 and XHTML, an integrated Really Simple Syndication news reader, and tabbed browsing.

Microsoft should add tabbed browsing to IE 7, Jupiter Research senior analyst Joe Wilcox says. A feature already available in Firefox 1.0, tabbed browsing lets PC users view multiple Web pages in a single browser window. But Wilcox says it's not as clear that IE 7 needs to have a built-in RSS reader, which is becoming a popular way for users to access news sites and Weblogs. It's possible an RSS reader could be integrated with Longhorn or Outlook, Wilcox says, in which case it may not be necessary in IE 7, too.

Either way, it's understandable that Microsoft is being tight-lipped about what's going into IE 7. The company spoke too soon on what would be included in Longhorn, and then pulled back on some of its promises in order to keep the product on a 2006 delivery schedule.

"This is a work in progress," Wilcox says. "The best thing for Microsoft to do is simply not talk about what it's going to do with the browser."