Microsoft Still Finding Its Way With Updated Internet Explorer

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, July 9, 2006

Microsoft's Web page for its new Internet Explorer 7 Web browser declares "we heard you." That headline is missing one word: "finally."

It's been nearly six years since Internet Explorer 6 shipped -- six years in which pop-up ads and browser hijackings made the Web a much more hostile place while the ever-expanding variety and number of sites also made the Web a far busier place. With version 7, Microsoft is making a serious, but seriously overdue, attempt to address those trends.

Microsoft's site implies that the Windows XP-required IE 7 is the finished successor to IE 6. Even the page for IE 6 tells you to download IE 7. But this is a beta download -- the most heavily promoted release in a series that began in January -- offered for curious users to try out and suggest improvements. (IE 7's "Give Beta Feedback" command, however, only led to a "page not found" error.)

And this beta is riskier than most, thanks to IE's deep, complex integration with Windows.

Downloading IE 7 requires undergoing a "validation" test at Microsoft's Web site ( ) to check that your copy of Windows was paid for. The IE 7 installer then runs a second validation test and scans your computer for spyware, removing any it finds.

IE 7 Beta 3 seemed to install properly on two computers but only ran reliably on one, a new HP desktop. On the other, an old IBM laptop, the program demonstrated its unfinished status by crashing a few seconds after each start-up, even after a full reset of its settings. Only booting the computer into Windows' "Safe Mode" let the browser work. (But after uninstalling IE 7, IE 6 ran fine.)

The reward for installing this preview software is a browser that gets Microsoft back in the game. Unlike its fossilized predecessor, IE 7 can be compared to such rivals as Firefox with a straight face.

Its most important feature is tabbed browsing: Instead of viewing only one Web page in a window, you can open a series of them in a window, quickly switching among them by clicking on tab-shaped headings.

You can open a link in the same tab or a new tab -- a ridiculously convenient option -- and can rearrange the order of tabs by dragging them back and forth. You can set a group of tabs as your home page, opening every time the browser starts; as in Opera, you can also have IE 7 remember the current set of tabs and re-open them the next time you run the browser.

Microsoft adds a smart innovation with "Quick Tabs"; clicking this button displays thumbnail views of every open page, a major help if you have more than five or six pages up.

IE 7 also helps busy readers by supporting the "RSS" ("Really Simple Syndication") feeds published by many Web sites to tell people about updates to their content. An icon in the toolbar lights up in orange if a site speaks RSS; click it to preview that feed and then subscribe to it. The next time that site is revised, a summary of the changes will show up on IE 7's "Feeds" listing.

It's easier to find a site in IE 7, thanks to a search form at its top-right corner. It comes set to send your query to Microsoft's Live search engine, but you can quickly add other engines (yes, including Google) and use one of them instead. Unlike Firefox, removing search engines is fast and easy.

Security has been Internet Explorer's biggest problem for years, even after 2004's Service Pack 2 update to Windows XP tackled some of the worst issues. IE 7 doesn't make it particularly harder for a deluded user to run a malicious ActiveX program -- the vector of most browser hijackings -- but it does limit some ways that sites lie to users.

Its "phishing filter" warns you if you're visiting a fraudulent site set up to collect victims' financial or personal data. A site on Microsoft's list of known offenders will be blocked (IE 7 uploads only anonymous data when making this check), while a site that just looks sketchy will get a warning. This filter, however, missed one obvious phishing scam that showed up last week.

IE 7 also prevents sites from hiding their own address or the addresses of links.

This browser's efficiency and security features shouldn't surprise people familiar with the competition. But its interface probably will. Instead of the usual lineup of toolbar buttons below drop-down menus, IE 7 combines both -- most of its toolbar icons reveal menus when clicked.

This redesign leaves more space for viewing Web pages but also invites confusion. By placing the reload, stop and home buttons at the right end of the address bar, IE ditches a decade or so of settled practice and requires more cursor movement. The lineup of toolbar menu buttons also squeezes out the Help menu; revealing it requires clicking a small, vague double-arrow icon.

Microsoft's interface rewrite didn't extend to the Internet Options window or the bookmarks-management feature, both of which needed an update much more badly.

Printing gets a big help in IE 7, which automatically shrinks a Web page to fit on one page -- matching a feature Microsoft added to the now-dead Mac version of IE in 1999.

For all of Microsoft's obvious -- but necessary -- borrowing from its competitors, it missed out on some small but important things. You can't right-click a selected word or phrase to run a Web search on it. When you search for text on a page, the browser doesn't jump to the first match as you type your query (a beautiful feature in Firefox) and instead waits for you to hit the Enter key. And while other browsers let you quickly edit part of a site's address by double-clicking on that segment in the address bar, this one makes you select the offending text with the cursor.

A user of IE 7 may also face a novel issue in daily use -- Web-site compatibility. This browser's much-improved support for Web standards (although still slightly inferior to that of Firefox, Opera and Safari) usually improves how sites look, but a page tailored to IE 6's page-rendering code may look off in IE 7. And sites that have been written to accept only IE 6 may reject this release as "unsupported."

As a beta release, IE 7 suggests that its final release -- projected by Microsoft for sometime between September and the end of the year -- will be an excellent addition to the browser marketplace. But it doesn't make a strong argument for its current incarnation.

If you want a better browser than IE 6, it's much simpler, easier and safer to install Firefox and leave the beta testing to the enthusiasts.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro

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