NEW YORK (AP) -- Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Explorer browser has been showing signs of aging. Over the past few years, the company has made security improvements and added a pop-up blocker but not much else.
That's about to change as Microsoft prepares IE 7, a major update that, in its early incarnation, plays catch-up with newer browsers for the Windows operating system, including Opera Software ASA's Opera and the Mozilla Foundation's Firefox.
The early version of IE 7, called Beta 1, was released largely for software developers to test for compatibility, so it lacks many planned features. More will come in Beta 2, expected later this year.
What Beta 1 does sport is tabbed browsing, a long-overdue feature that lets you open several Web pages without cluttering the computer desktop with separate windows. All the major browsers have this feature now.
Beta 1 also brings to IE another feature long available elsewhere: The search box.
No longer do you need to download a separate toolbar, from a third party such as Google Inc., to perform searches without visiting the search engine's home page. The new box next to the address bar initially supports searches through Google, Yahoo, America Online, Ask Jeeves and Microsoft's MSN, and later versions will let you add others.
IE 7 also has a shrink-to-fit print feature. Think of all the paper wasted on printouts of Web sites where margins get cut off. IE 7 simply makes the entire page smaller so the site fits across the width of the paper. The browser also invokes the feature when a printout would otherwise use only one or two lines of a second page.
And IE 7 supports Really Simple Syndication, or RSS, a technology for notifying users of new entries on their favorite news sites and Web journals. RSS feeds are relatively new, but the other major browsers already support them.
Most of IE's biggest improvements, though, are in security.
IE remains the dominant Web browser, but its market share has dropped to about 90 percent as rivals, namely Firefox, tout their greater security (even though Firefox has since had its share of discovered security holes).
Microsoft addressed IE security last summer with the release of the Service Pack 2 upgrade to Windows XP. Besides adding a pop-up blocker, it created additional prompts when Web sites try to remotely install programs and change browser settings.
Nonetheless, IE remains a frequent target for hackers given its widespread use, and Microsoft regularly issues new warnings and fixes for various vulnerabilities that might otherwise open the door to malicious programs like spyware.
So for IE 7, Microsoft made some under-the-hood changes to the underlying programming code.
The most significant alterations deal with the way IE handles Web site requests.
In previous versions, there are several sections of the code that handle a Web request, whether it comes from typing the address, clicking on a link or using the "File-Open" menu function. That means several sections where problems can occur.
The code was rewritten in IE 7 to consolidate all that into one entry point, a move that also lays the foundation for future recognition of non-English domain names.
For now, users are more likely to notice other changes that serve to warn them about suspect sites.
A real-time anti-phishing tool was built to address scammers who try to trick people into revealing passwords by posing as legitimate banking or e-commerce site.
When IE 7 encounters an unfamiliar site, it gives users the option of passing that address to Microsoft to check against a database of known phishing sites. When there's a match, IE 7 takes you to a "red" warning page.
Even when there isn't a match, IE 7 will display a pop-up "yellow" warning when it sees telltale signs of phishing.
In addition, all browser windows now contain the site's address. In the past, Web designers could hide that information by creating a pop-up window that lacks an address bar. When they try that on IE 7, the browser still displays the domain name.
IE 7 also displays a padlock up top -- before, it was less visible at the bottom -- when you visit secure, encrypted sites. You can click on the padlock for a pop-up window with details about who's behind the site.
The browser adds a feature for instantly deleting private data -- "cookie" files, browsing history, passwords and the like -- though the tool doesn't offer as much flexibility as Opera's in choosing which data to toss. Again, this all may be better by the final release.
IE 7 requires Windows XP with Service Pack 2 and should be available in final form by early next year. It will also come packaged with the forthcoming Windows Vista operating system, due late next year.
The early incarnation of IE 7 doesn't offer much beyond what you could get from others, but it provides enough of a foundation on which to build innovations that could one day make IE the browser of choice -- not just one of convenience because it happens to come free with Windows. Source