Next year at this time, if you find yourself using and liking Internet Explorer 7, thank the volunteers at the Mozilla project. The release of Mozilla Firefox 1.0 roughly 18 months ago marked the beginning of a steady downhill slide for Internet Explorer -- the open-source browser has been taking increasingly bigger bites out of IE's market share (and mindshare) ever since. After a series of solid and reliable updates, Firefox is, by most objective measures and in nearly every category, a better browser than Internet Explorer 6.
The rise of Firefox was a wake-up call for Microsoft. The result? IE7.
Click image to enlarge and to launch image gallery.
The rise of Firefox was a wake-up call for Microsoft's developers. Having Firefox as a target inspired sweeping changes for Internet Explorer, whose basic interface and core features were overdue for an overhaul. IE7 is a serious attempt to close the gap with Firefox in one long stride. With the official release of IE7 Beta 2 (for Windows XP Service Pack 2, Windows XP Professional 64-bit Edition, and Windows Server 2003), Microsoft has unveiled a browser that looks a lot more polished than the "beta" label might suggest.
The final release of IE7 won't be ready until later this year, but there's little mystery about it. The question isn't whether you'll upgrade. If you use Windows XP, how can you resist a free update to a core program, especially when that update fixes some long-standing annoyances, substantially improves your online security, and is generally easier to use than IE6?
No, the real question is, "Will you use it?" Can IE7 lure you back if you've switched to Firefox as your default browser? Will you trust its tighter security settings enough to recommend it to friends and family? In an environment where anyone, anytime can switch browser allegiances with a five-minute download and a few quick clicks, is there really such a thing as loyalty to a browser?
If you've tried one of the Beta 2 Preview editions, which were aimed exclusively at Web developers, you've already got a pretty good idea of what this release is all about. The first preview release was back in early February, and a second preview was delivered in late March at the Mix06 conference.
You have to look pretty closely to see the cosmetic differences: Icons for the Favorites Center have changed a bit since February, and the choices on the Tools menu have been rearranged slightly, but otherwise, virtually all the changes are under the hood. The official Beta 2 release incorporates bug fixes and changes to the underlying rendering engine that developers should appreciate, and the whole thing should now be stable enough for anyone to use or test.
How does the latest release of IE measure up to the latest from Firefox? For the answers, I compared IE7 Beta 2 on Windows XP against the most recent general release of Firefox, version 126.96.36.199.
Which browser handles the basics better?
The clean and spare IE7 interface is essentially unchanged from the Beta 2 preview release I looked at in February. By efficiently mixing buttons and menus in a single command bar that shares a row with the tab bar, IE7's page layout provides a bit more room than IE6 or Firefox for viewing the contents of the current page. The traditional top-level menu is hidden in a default installation (it reappears temporarily with a tap of the Alt key). The standard toolbar vanishes too, shrinking to a much smaller and more compact set of buttons.
The new Favorites Center. Click image to enlarge and to launch image gallery.
Despite the significant interface changes, this version of IE feels familiar, and it's easy to accomplish common tasks. All in all, it's a cleaner look than Firefox and easier to navigate for everyday tasks, but the difference is hardly enough to make it worth switching.
Advantage (a slim one): IE7
Is support for Web standards still an issue?
Advantage: Too close to call
Which browser makes it easier to use and manage tabs?
One advantage of coming in late to the tabbed browsing party, as Internet Explorer has, is that you get to improve on the ideas of those who've gone before you. IE7's controls for opening, closing, and managing tabbed windows are noticeably simpler than those in Firefox, with a button on the tab bar to open a new window and a red X to close the active Web page. Out of the box, closing a Firefox tab is a potentially awkward two-click operation -- one click to select the tab, and a second click on the red X at the far right of the tab bar. The process is annoying enough that most Firefox experts quickly install a tab-browsing extension.
You can click the Quick Tabs button to see thumbnails of all your open tabbed pages. Click image to enlarge and to launch image gallery.
You can manage two or three open pages easily enough, but after opening a dozen or more pages the tabbed interface becomes essentially unusable. At that point, Internet Explorer provides a much easier way to manage all those open pages. Click the Quick Tabs button at the left of the tab bar to see a thumbnail view of all open tabs. From this window, you can close any tab you no longer need to keep open and then switch to a new active tab with a single click. To get similar functionality in Firefox, you need to install an extension like Viamatic foXpose.
Can IE7 resist viruses, spyware, and online attacks?
Since its introduction, the most powerful argument in favor of switching to Firefox has been the promise that it's more secure and less vulnerable than IE to infestations of spyware, viruses, and other forms of malware. Technically, at least, IE7 should level the playing field a bit.
IE7's optional Phishing Filter automatically checks Web sites to see if they look suspicious or are on a list of known sites used by online thieves to steal identities, displaying a bright red bar for a known phishing site and a yellow bar for suspected but unconfirmed sites.
Access to known phishing sites is blocked with a bold red bar -- continue at your own risk. Click image to enlarge and to launch image gallery.
Is the Phishing Filter a security gimmick or a genuinely useful layer of protection? It's too early to say. In limited tests, I found the Phishing Filter reasonably accurate at identifying the current crop of phishing attempts. But will the criminal gangs that run phishing scams be able to fine-tune their mailings to work around this filter? In fact, that's the problem with most of the security changes in IE7. Although the new architecture looks good on paper, no one will be able to pronounce IE7 suitably secure until it has survived a year or more without an embarrassing security crisis.
Advantage: Firefox (for now)
Which browser will be more secure in Windows Vista?
For Windows XP and Windows 2003 Server, IE7 is a free upgrade. By contrast, the new browser code is built into Windows Vista, which is due to be delivered to corporate customers at the end of this year and to the retail channel in January 2007. The Vista version of IE7 incorporates the same security improvements as its XP counterpart, but adds Protected Mode browsing, in which even trusted add-ons are quarantined and given write access only to a set of virtualized folders. This feature, combined with Windows Vista's strict User Account Control, should make it much tougher for malware to sneak onto a system.
Advantage: Too early to tell
Can I use either browser to manage RSS feeds?
Firefox has offered the capability to turn RSS feeds into Live Bookmarks since version 1.0. Clicking a Live Bookmark icon from the Bookmarks menu displays a list of the headlines available from the selected feed. That's fine for a feed with punchy, descriptive headlines. It's a terribly inefficient way to read information-rich feeds, however, especially those that are packed with graphics and full text.
RSS feeds appear as formatted Web pages along with a link to subscribe to the feed.. Click image to enlarge and to launch image gallery.
Best of all, the RSS store is a system service that other applications can share. For instance, Outlook 2007, now in beta testing and scheduled for release with the rest of Office 2007 later this year, can share RSS subscriptions and downloaded items with IE7, so that you can subscribe to a feed in either program and view the same feed in a browser window or alongside e-mail messages. NewsGator, which sells RSS readers for virtually every operating system, has already announced its intention to support IE7's sync features.
Where does IE7 fall short?
Despite its excellent efforts, IE7 falls short of Firefox in two crucial areas.
The first is the ever-expanding library of Firefox extensions, small user-written programs that add features and fix annoyances in the officially released browser. By contrast, the number of add-ons for Internet Explorer is much smaller -- not surprisingly, the tightest levels of integration are between IE7 and Microsoft Office. If you're a fanatic about tweaking and tuning your browser, Firefox offers many more choices.
The other critical failing in IE7 is a weak set of password management tools. Just as in previous versions, IE7 can save a username and password combination for any Web page. But there's no way to edit saved passwords or copy them to a secure location. By contrast, Firefox allows you to view and manage saved passwords; it even imports saved passwords from IE7's protected store.
On a straight, feature-for-feature comparison, IE7 stacks up well against Firefox. If its improved security model lives up to its design specs, malware distributors will find it much more difficult to make a dishonest living, and the tabbed browsing features in the new release should make it much easier to deal with multiple pages.
The biggest hurdle that Internet Explorer has to overcome, however, is one that doesn't fit on any features chart. Its tattered reputation -- especially when it comes to security -- has created an indelible negative impression among the technically savvy users who've enthusiastically adopted Firefox so far. Even if the final release of IE7 improves mightily over the current beta, building that new and improved reputation will be an uphill climb.