Microsoft Tries for Safer Surfing

By Yuki Noguchi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Internet users were given a peek yesterday at a revamped version of Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Explorer, a response to criticism that the most popular tool for Web surfing and hacking made users vulnerable to the Internet's dangers and caused them to defect to alternative browsers.

Earlier versions of Internet Explorer, which comes standard on most Windows computers, are still how most users access and view Web pages. But being the leader in the browser game, with almost 85 percent market share, means that it's also the most vulnerable to malicious programs such as viruses, worms and phishing scams.

That, along with the limited features built into earlier versions of the Internet Explorer browser, or IE, has sent a growing number of users to alternative browsers.

The Redmond, Wash., company designed Internet Explorer 7, a test version available for download from its Web site, with tighter security protection and more advanced tools to give the user greater control in navigating the Web, said Dean Hachamovitch, general manager of Internet Explorer.

"Overall, for IE7, the principles we used were safer, easier and more powerful," Hachamovitch said.

But Microsoft's real motivation is to try to stem the defections to smaller providers, analysts said.

"The big point is that IE's been losing market share to Mozilla's Firefox," and now Microsoft is trying to catch up and regain user loyalty from people who have embraced Firefox's simple and more secure format, said Gene Munster, an analyst with Piper Jaffray.

"Perception of security is of the highest level" of concern for Microsoft, Munster said. With its new operating system, called Vista, slated for release early next year, Microsoft is trying to offer security reassurances to its customers.

A year ago, Internet Explorer commanded 88.6 percent of the market and Firefox had a mere 6.7 percent, according to Web statistician Net Applications. Last month, Microsoft's share was down to 84.7 percent and Firefox had jumped beyond 10 percent.

Firefox's increasing popularity was partially driven by Microsoft's worsening reputation for security, said Bruce Schneier, chief technical officer at Counterpane Internet Security Inc., a computer security firm.

"IE was the big target; if you're a virus writer, you chose the big target," he said.

The company has improved its ability to write secure code, he said, but it's unclear if the latest tools will address other dangers on the Internet, which require users to be more savvy.

For example, the new version of Internet Explorer will provide color-coded warnings when a user tries to access a Web site that is suspicious or known as fraudulent. But users already encounter -- and ignore -- many Internet warnings because they're hard for beginners to understand, Schneier said.

Internet Explorer's other new features include the abilities to automatically open several frequently used Web sites at once and print Web pages so the content doesn't get cut off on the right side. The new browser also allows users to tailor search functions, aggregating searches from various sources. It can also magnify pages so fonts are larger and easier to read.

A final version of the browser is expected to be released later this year.

Graphics editor Karen Yourish contributed to this report.

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