On February 15, 2005, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates publicly revealed during his RSA Conference 2005 keynote address that his company would denounce its previous plans and ship a separate major update to Internet Explorer (IE) before Windows Vista (codenamed Longhorn). Until that speech, Microsoft representatives were adamant that the security enhancements they had added to the version of IE in Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2, see my review) would be it until Windows Vista shipped in late 2006.

Before the Gates speech, there were indications, however, that Microsoft was reevaluating its stance on IE. First, the open source Mozilla Firefox Web browser, released in November 2004, was proving to be enormously popular with tech-savvy Web users, and its garnered over 25 million downloads in 100 days, grabbing about 5 percent of the Web browser market. (Today: Those numbers are much, much higher.) Second, Microsoft began discussing the possibility that it would at least provide minor updates to IE before Windows Vista (codenamed Longhorn). In a discussion with Gary Schare, the Director of Windows Product Management at Microsoft at the time, I was told that the company was examining whether it could add features to IE 6 in XP SP2 via its component add-on capabilities. Previously, MSN had used this functionality to good effect with its MSN Toolbar Suite (see my review).

Then came the Gates keynote. Here's what Gates said about this major IE update, which will be called Internet Explorer 7. "What we've decided to do is a new version of Internet Explorer, this is IE 7, and it adds a new level of security," he said. "We will be able to put this into beta by early in the summer [of 2005]." Gates then noted that IE 7 would only be made available to users of XP SP2, and not to those still using earlier Windows versions like Windows 2000 or 9x. "Of course, as well, we'll include these capabilities in the next release of Windows scheduled for 2006, which is our Longhorn release."

Since then, Microsoft has made a number of other announcements related to IE 7. First, the company revealed that IE 7 will include integrated RSS functionality (see my showcase about this development). Then, the company released IE 7 Beta 1 to a small group of beta testers and included a different version of IE 7 Beta 1 in Windows Vista Beta 1 (see my review).

So what's the deal?

There are there are a lot of questions about IE 7, mostly because Gates' initial comments were so vague, and Microsoft representatives have been unusually tight-lipped about IE 7's feature-set, preferring to divulge details over a long period of time. That's where I step in. Here's what we know about IE 7 right now:

IE 7 was originally scheduled only for inclusion in Windows Vista (codenamed Longhorn). The new features we're going to see in IE 7 were originally going to be available only as part of Windows Vista (codenamed Longhorn). As it is, some IE 7 features will only be included in the Windows Vista version of IE 7. The most obvious of these is the security infrastructure which requires Windows Vista.

IE 7 will be focused on security. Like the version of IE that Microsoft shipped in XP SP2, IE 7.0 will consist, mostly, of security-oriented features. One of these features will be anti-phishing technology. As Gates noted, "Some of the advances [in IE 7] include things focused on phishing, where people use URLs that appear to come from another location, things related to malware. So, [that] will be another important advance [in IE 7]." IE 7 will also include an IP traffic encryption capability that will help prevent electronic eavesdroppers from modifying data before it reaches your machine or redirecting you silently to malicious servers. "It makes sure that the traffic is encrypted, so there is no eavesdropping or modification that can take place, but it also makes absolutely sure through the use of certificates that the machine that you're connected to is the machine that you want to be able to connect to," Gates noted. Microsoft is also overhauling the IE security zones in IE 7.

IE 7 will include tabbed browsing. Microsoft will include tabbed browsing, along with other new end user features, in IE 7.

IE 7 will not include a new Outlook Express version. A few people have asked me whether IE 7 will include a new Outlook Express (OE) version (e.g. OE 7). No, it will not: The OE team is focusing instead on improving OE in Windows Vista (codenamed Longhorn).

IE 7 will be free. Like previous versions of IE, IE 7 will be free.

IE 7 will ship for XP SP2, XP x64, and Windows Server 2003 SP1 customers only. Though the company could theoretically back-port IE 7 to Windows 2000, Microsoft has decided not to do it. Instead, IE 7 will only be made available to customers running Windows XP with Service Pack 2 (SP2), Windows XP Professional x64 Edition, and Windows Server 2003 with Service Pack 1 (SP1). Obviously, a future version (possibly called IE 7.5) will be included in Windows Vista as well.

IE 7 will likely ship this calendar year. The IE 7 beta started in July 2005 and the final product will likely ship by the end of 2005. There will be at least two beta releases, according to the IE Team blog.

The version of IE in Windows Vista (codenamed Longhorn) will be quite different from standalone IE. Don't be fooled into believing that XP SP2 users are going to get Windows Vista's version of IE this year. The version of IE in Windows Vista will include advanced graphical capabilities, unique new features, and will benefit from the underlying search functionality in Windows Vista (the omission of WinFS won't change that). Windows Vista's IE 7 will be much safer than XP SP2 + IE 7 because of low-level changes to the attack surface in that OS.

IE 7 will include major changes for Web developers. While this information is likely to cause a normal person's head to spin, IE 7 will include a number of features aimed at Web developers, including support for transparent PNG files, CSS consistency, CSS 2 fixed positioning, international domain name (IDN) support, and more. IE 7 will not, however, conform fully to the CSS 2 specificaion.

IE 7 will include some interesting end user features. IE 7 isn't just about Web developers. It will sport inline searching (yes, including Google), an improved Address Bar, and one-click history deletion. IE 7 will also include "Shrink to Fit" and other printing improvements, and integrated support for RSS feeds.

IE 7 will not include ad blocking. Contrary to some rumors, IE 7 will not include any ad blocking technology. However, most existing toolbars and ad blocking-type plug-ins should still work in IE 7.

What will it look like?

Here are three shots of pre-release versions of IE 7 (alpha, IE 7 Beta 1, IE 7 in Windows Vista Beta 1):

Conclusions

I would like to call out one more item. Microsoft is a big company that has, in my opinion, lost touch in many ways with its customers, and has a hard time presenting a friendly face to the public. By bowing to customer concerns and reversing course to ship a standalone version of IE 7, Microsoft has proven that it can listen to feedback and act accordingly. In other words, Microsoft is doing the right thing here, even though its Web standards compliance levels something to be desired. Sure, one might argue about the XP SP2/XP x64 requirement on the client, but the reality is that XP SP2 is much more secure than any other desktop Windows version. By demonstrably showing that it is serious about security, Microsoft is sending a message to the Windows community that transcends mere words. I applaud this change.

Will it matter? Electronic attacks will continue to get more sophisticated, matching the defenses Microsoft erects over time. Only with a more secure foundation--which we'll hopefully see in Windows Vista (codenamed Longhorn)--can Microsoft turn the tide of bad publicity over its security issues. But in the meantime, IE 7 will be an important stop-gap measure, as important in its own right as XP SP2. I'm intrigued that they're even making this effort. For more information, please see my review of IE 7 Beta 1.