Beta Man

Just Browsing, Thanks

Microsoft finally catches up with its competitors with features like tabbed browsing and integrated RSS feeds in Internet Explorer 7.

In the battle of the browsers, Microsoft has definitely been losing ground. Meanwhile, alternatives like Firefox and Opera (see “Test Drive a Better Browser") have been steadily gaining converts.

Microsoft abandoned its Unix version of Internet Explorer years ago, which is one reason cross-platform alternatives like Firefox are doing well. Redmond also seems to have given up entirely on Mac browsing and let Apple’s Safari dominate there.

Now, Microsoft is getting ready to fire a return volley with Internet Explorer 7 (IE 7). Originally conceived as part of Windows “Longhorn” -- now named Windows Vista -- the company has since announced that IE 7 will also be made available to Windows XP users. This will help to correct the many security issues that continue to plague IE 6.

Unfortunately, Windows 2000 users (and users of earlier versions) are up the proverbial creek. IE 7 won’t be available for those systems, as Microsoft is no doubt hoping that everyone who isn’t on XP already will move straight to Vista when that’s released.

Better Browsing
A big feature that has been notably absent is finally there in IE 7 -- tabbed browsing (see Figure 1). Every other major browser has had tabbed browsing for quite a while. If you read through the IE 7 team blog, you’ll get the impression that adding tabbed browsing was extraordinarily difficult. This is despite the fact that a number of third-party browsers that use the IE 6 engine already provide an excellent tabbed browsing experience.

Yes, the BCS is ruining college football...
Figure 1. In the new version, Internet Explorer finally provides tabbed browsing. (Click image to view larger version.)

The blog explains some of the challenges at length and makes for interesting reading, but it was a surprise to me that adding tabs was such a challenge. Everyone else seems to have figured it out.

Beta Man's
Routine Disclaimer:
The software described here is incomplete and still under development; expect it to change before its final release -- and hope it changes for the better.

Nevertheless, IE 7’s tabbed browsing works just fine. It provides essentially the same functionality as the tabs in a browser like Firefox. You can open hyperlinks in a new tab, bookmark groups of tabs and so on. If you’ve recently used any other browser, you won’t find any surprises in IE 7’s tabbed browsing (at least not in Beta 1 -- there are “advances” promised in future releases).

Continuing to catch up with every other browser in the universe, IE 7 also sports a built-in search box. This lets you search AOL, Google, MSN, Yahoo! and others without actually going to the engine’s Web page. It’s sad to see a company like Microsoft so late coming to the table with these enhancements to IE.

Microsoft’s one innovation in IE 7 is to combine the stop and refresh buttons. If a page is loading, you can stop it. If it’s already loaded, you can simply refresh it. The animated Windows flag has been removed from the toolbar area. Microsoft replaced it with one on the tab itself. The toolbars are also rearranged so there is more screen real estate available for the actual Web pages you’re viewing. I hope the final release of IE 7 offers a bit more innovation in the user interface.

Now Integrating RSS
Microsoft’s “discovery” of RSS has been all over the news, much like its “discovery” of the Internet in the 1990s. It’s sticking RSS into everything that isn’t bolted down. IE 7 now has integrated support for RSS feeds, so it can automatically detect feeds present in Web pages. Again, this works in much the same way as in browsers like Firefox.

How IE handles RSS
Figure 2. IE 7 has a new way of subscribing to and managing RSS feeds. (Click image to view larger version.)

You can view and subscribe to feeds by adding the feed’s URL to the Favorites list (see Figure 2). The final release of IE 7 will be able to scan subscriptions and notify you when they’ve been updated. This feed list will be common across Windows applications (in Beta 2), particularly in Windows Vista, which will supply a central store-and-sync engine for RSS feeds.

IE 7 supports the latest Cascading Style Sheet (CSS) standards, and supports transparency in PNG graphics (a feature that’s been available in that format since the beginning).

There are also several administrative improvements. You can fully manage IE 7 through Active Directory Group Policy objects (GPOs). This will give corporate network administrators greater centralized control over users’ browsers. There will also be a new IE Administration Kit for non-GPO control of deployed settings.

Go Phish
Phishing -- a form of identity theft in which users are sent to a Web site that looks like their bank, for example, but is actually a fraud used to gather personal information and credentials -- has become a major security problem. Phishing attacks commonly combine an e-mail telling you that you need to update your account or take some other activity and a fraudulent Web site designed to appear like the legitimate one.

Go phish
Figure 3. IE 7’s Phishing Filter warns you when you log onto a suspicious Web site.

Microsoft is attacking phishing on several fronts. Its SmartScreen technology helps filter out e-mails with phishing lures. IE 7 joins the battle with the Microsoft Phishing Filter (also available as an add-on for the MSN Search Toolbar), which runs in the background. The user has to opt in to use the online “reputation” service. When a user encounters a suspicious Web site any time after that, the Filter alerts them that the site may be a phishing scam. The multi-level warning starts with a “Suspicious Web site” warning. For sites that have been confirmed as frauds, it will automatically block the site (see Figure 3).

What about legitimate sites that mistakenly wind up in the “suspicious” category? The Filter has a reporting form the site owner can submit to Microsoft, which then manually examines the site and makes a final determination. An unfortunate byproduct of this process is that attackers will now start flooding the Microsoft Phishing service with reports of legitimate sites being frauds, potentially denying access by legitimate users, and potentially overwhelming Microsoft’s ability to “unblock” these sites fast enough.

In short, this new security feature can and probably will be exploited to block access to real Web sites. Because phishing scammers can set up new servers faster than the public can report them, phishing attacks are unlikely to be seriously affected by this new concept. This is clearly an example of a situation where software cannot compensate for a lack of user sophistication.

If you’re already a die-hard IE user, you’ll love IE 7. If you’ve moved on to something like Firefox, there may be little reason to look back. For most corporate users, it’s true that a complete move to a non-IE browser is impossible. Dependence on IE-specific Web applications like Outlook Express 2003 will ensure that IE always has a place in many corporations.

For those folks, IE 7 will offer welcome new browsing enhancements, finally putting it on the same level as the alternative browsers. While Beta 1 is too soon to tell for certain, IE 7 appears to be a significant improvement over its predecessor. Next month, I’ll delve more deeply into some of the much-needed enhancements Microsoft is making to IE 7’s security architecture and feature set.

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Reader Comments:

Thu, Dec 29, 2005 mikes krypton

aha, as i thought, no compelling reason to switch from Firefox on XP (which i've used solely since v. 0.81, now on a nightly post 1.5, can't remember the version #) to IE7 - come on Redmond, give me one reason, other than the OS hook exploits which run us into trouble anyways, to switch -- hello, Redmond ..... how come no one's answering????

Wed, Dec 28, 2005 richard mitnick new jersey

Two other features sets would really help I.E. 7.

In Netscape 8, one finds individual by site on-the-fly security settings for images, cookies, pop-ups, java and javascript and ActiveX.

In all Gecko based browser, one can save user id's and passwords and not need to keep typing in even the first letter. These are secured in Firefox, Mozilla and Seamonkey, all of which allow the viewing of passwords, by the use of a Password Manager. In Netscape, which has no Password Manager, passwords may not be viewed.

These two feature sets would, along with tabbed browsing, really make I.E. competitive in the browser arena.

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