The little browser that could: A first look at IE7

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The little browser that could: A first look at IE7

Very few individual applications have managed to cause quite such a stir over the course of their lifetime as Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. Love it or loath it, Microsoft’s little browser that could has played its part in pioneering modern internet history; becoming an integral part of the Windows operating system as well as the undisputed champion of the viscous browser wars.

Ever since beating down Netscape & Co however IE has been quite stagnant in terms of innovation, and has been one of the biggest security holes in an increasingly wild internet full of malicious code. A lack of competition imbued Microsoft with a sense of security in their dominant market position and so nobody saw any sense in spending money improving something with no realistic competition.

Internet Explorer 7 interface

That has been changing of late with the introduction of fresh-faced upstarts in the form of Mozilla Firefox and Opera among others. The introduction of new features such as tabbed browsing, the integration of the likes of RSS; and, arguably most importantly overall, the plugging of security holes has seen these browsers steal a fair enough chunk of IE’s market share to make the industry sit up and take notice.

In response to this Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates announced that along with Windows Vista the world is to see a new version of Internet Explorer. This new and improved IE appeared then and seems now, as we have the second beta in our hands, to mainly be concerned with playing catch-up on the young pretenders.

New features

Introducing native support for tabbed browsing and RSS feeds are just two of the modernising steps Microsoft is taking with Internet Explorer (IE7). Ironing out bugs and plugging security holes, such as the always-open ActiveX controls which have caused so much headache in previous versions of the browser, are two of the other main concerns.

When you first fire up the beta it may take you somewhat aback to see the navigation bar ripped to shreds and the classic File, Edit, View toolbar missing from sight. Microsoft has taken the top of the browser window and treated it to a complete makeover. The navigation bar has the Back and Forewords buttons on the left hand side, and the Refresh, Stop and search bar to the right.

In default mode you have another bar beneath this. The first new icon is the star which, when clicked, opens a sidebar containing the favourites menu, RSS feeds and history. Integrated RSS is the feature everyone is hopping around with IE7. The prediction is that RSS will become substantially more mainstream as millions of Joe Windows Users discover its delights through IE7.

Moving right from the star one comes to the add/subscribe plus sign, which allows you to add individual pages or groups of tabs to your favourites, as well as allowing you to import/export favourites. Moving right again with multiple tabs open there is the Quick Tabs button, which allows you to quickly switch between images of all your open tabs. This can be handiest when you have a lot of tabs open in the one window and need to be able to distinguish them by more than simply name.

Preview of open tabs

Sadly the tabs themselves can’t be reorganised any which way you like, as can be done in Firefox for example; but this being a beta we can hope that Microsoft’s lot will do yet more catch up on the open source pretender before we see the final product.

Moving past the tabs to the far right one first comes to the Home button, which not only allows you to visit the home page, but also manage it. You can have multiple tabs open as your home page which is grand if you want to pop open a few news sources alongside a search engine in the morning, though it can be a bit tiresome if you want to open a new browser window and find three or four tabs opening alongside.

The RSS button allows you to subscribe to feeds where available, and next to it is the Print button. Microsoft has thankfully fixed printing with IE7, and pages can now be shrunk to fit pages. Next is the Page button which has all the usual options like Save and View Source available (remember that the classic toolbar is missing by default.)

Finally there is the Tools button which allows you to do things like go to full screen, manage toolbars and manage internet options. Anyone who is particular about their browsing experience might want to angle their mouse in this direction first thing.

Under the hood Microsoft is promising to make vast leaps towards full CSS compatibility, and while it has not all been implemented yet the promise is that come Vista, IE7 will be a much more standards compliant browser than its predecessors.

Saying that, as our own webmaster Fredi Gross pointed out “We all agree Internet Explorer is bad for not supporting standards. Well Firefox can be quite stubborn in that respect as well. What I mostly care if I write some HTML lines is that it looks the same in all browsers. All three major browsers for us (IE, Firefox and Opera) have a different opinion about rendering the page.”

It’s The Security, Stupid

The sheer amount of security holes and obvious flaws in previous versions of Internet Explorer are a major part of the reason why so many people in the know have migrated to other browsers of late. Apart from the fact that their lack of popularity (on the whole) makes other browsers less likely to suffer malicious attacks specifically aimed at them; the fact that browsers like Opera and Firefox don’t have the likes of ActiveX enabled as standard makes them inherently difficult to exploit in the old obvious ways.

Microsoft has figured this out and IE7 has ActiveX controls disabled in most scenarios. You can be prompted to activate them when they’re available, which is a much better option than clicking a link and finding your machine on a swift road to rebuild as IE allowed ActiveX controls to kick in by default.

A number of the new security features, such as Protected Mode which runs the browser in a special privileged access mode regardless of the privileges available on a machine to prevent malware from gaining admin privileges, will only be available with Windows Vista. Such functions should be a major bonus to the security of IE7 if Microsoft delivers as promised. More tangible at this stage is the Anti-Phishing filter.

Phishing has become an unfortunately common word these days. Users are doped into giving out their banking and credit card details, among other vital data we should all keep to ourselves, and the practice has been costing quite a bit of late. The filter in IE7, which users are prompted to turn on during the install, uses algorithms to determine if a site is genuine. For example if your banks website has been attacked and spoofed by an identical looking phishing site, set out to trap your details, then IE7 promises figure this out and warn you.

One browser to rule them all

At this stage IE7 is shaping up to be a much better browser all-round than its predecessors. The integration of tabbed browsing and RSS feeds will probably see these features propelled to new heights as IE’s giant market share are introduced to their delights. Of course this means that we geeks will have to find something else to prove that we’re on the cutting edge, but the likes of Firefox will probably be very capable with extensions.

Early adopters and geeks probably won’t be going to IE7 when it’s released. This is partly because it just wouldn’t be fashionable and it is partly because these two browsers, and the multitude of smaller browsers quietly being developed, will remain at the cutting edge.

Opera’s Thomas Ford summed it up when he told me “IE7 is Microsoft’s attempt to catch up with the market. They’re adding features found in other browsers, such as tabbed browsing and anti-phishing technology.” He is right to say that IE7 is catch-up work, but I don’t agree with his assertion that “Users who want to stay in step with the evolution of the Web consistently choose Opera.” Sure, many users are willing to stay with niche browsers and all their cool new innovations. But the reason that Microsoft has remained at over the 80% market share is because Joe User is not prepared to go that far out on a limb to change browser.

It may be true that Microsoft is simply playing catch-up, but even with the likes of Firefox and Opera, with their excellent RSS support, tabbed browsing a security features, have been gaining momentum and heaped upon with praise the market share they have gained has mainly been in the early adopter crowd.

All Microsoft has to do is play catch-up in order to satisfy the more casual users who will be happy to have all of this stuff late and integrated into their operating system. The likes of Firefox and Opera have prompted IE to evolve, but browsers in general will only ever properly evolve when the market leader comes onboard.

In all IE7 is shaping up nicely, to the extent that if we had got this a year or so ago the upstarts would probably have been stifled. Though I suppose it is a question of which came first, the chicken or the egg – the new browsers have essentially prompted what we now have in IE7.

Microsoft is promising a consumer beta fairly soon, as this current beta is not for the faint of technical heart. Should you so desire it you can download the beta here.