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What's Next For Internet Explorer 7.0?

Bill Gates says Microsoft will ship a beta version of its new browser this summer, but the 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?

When Bill Gates disclosed IE 7 on Tuesday at the RSA conference in San Francisco, 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. "Browsing definitely is a point of vulnerability," Gates said.

In an online discussion published on Microsoft's Web site, security VP Mike Nash said IE 7 will also include enhanced "privacy protections." And Neil Charney, director of Windows client, says the upgraded browser will fight off spyware better, too.

Internet Explorer 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," Hachamovitch wrote in a Weblog on Microsoft's MSDN.com.

That's significant because one of the limiting factors of Microsoft's current browser strategy is that the company's 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.

Since fewer than half of the Windows PCs in the world run Windows XP SP2, that means a majority of Windows PCs run a subpar version of Microsoft's browser, including many PCs running in business environments. 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 with 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 this week, Microsoft said IE 7 would be tied to the release of its next-generation Windows operating system, code-named Longhorn, which is due sometime next year. But unending security threats, and growing user interest in the Mozilla Organization's alternative 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 (RSS) news reader, and tabbed browsing. "As a developer, some improvement in both the standards adhered to and the usability would be nice, but most important is improving security," wrote one observer.

Microsoft officials haven't indicated when IE 7 will be generally available, but Firefox's continuing encroachment presumably will spur the company to move as quickly as possible. In mid-January, IE's market share on Windows PCs had slipped to 92.7% from 96.7% in June, according to WebSideStory Inc., a Web analytics firm that tracks browser usage. WebSideStory is expected to release updated Web browser statistics within the next few days.

Jupiter Research senior analyst Joe Wilcox thinks Microsoft should add tabbed browsing to IE 7. 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, Wilcox says. 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."

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