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.
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.
|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
| 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.
|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.
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.
|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