Years ago, when Microsoft started adding Internet functionality to Windows, it all made sense. First came the TCP/IP network protocols that formed the underpinnings of the modern Internet. Then came Microsoft's own web browser, Internet Explorer (IE), inspired by the success of Netscape and using code from Netscape's own Mosaic-based foundation. Over time, other Internet-based features and technologies appeared at a rapid rate, including email and newsgroup solutions, instant messaging, and more. Other OS makers, including Apple and the Linux community, began adding Internet features to their own products, aping Microsoft's design.

And then it all came to a crashing halt. Well, at least for Microsoft it did. Alternatively graced and damned by Windows' dominant market share, Microsoft came under antitrust fire from a various governments, most famously in the US and Europe. Over time, the company removed a number of Internet-oriented features from Windows, and, with Windows 7, for the first time, it's even giving consumers the option of removing its flagship IE browser.

Windows 7 Internet Features
In Windows 7, you can now remove major features like Internet Explorer 8.

So the go-go days of the 90's are over, and we face a more connected but more dangerous world. The good news, I guess, is that Windows users have more choices today than ever before. And that's true whether they're looking to add functionality to Windows ... or take it away.


Internet Explorer

The one remaining major Internet feature in Windows 7 is Internet Explorer 8, Microsoft's latest web browser. As with Windows Vista, the version of IE found in 64-bit versions of the OS can be run in either 32-bit or 64-bit mode, but once again the 64-bit version lacks for add-on compatibility, making it notably less compelling. IE 8 shipped earlier this year as a standalone product you can install on Windows XP or Vista, and the version in Windows 7 is functionally identical. In fact, there are no major advantages to running IE 8 in Windows 7 beyond some minor functional changes around Windows 7-specific features like Jump Lists and support for the new Aero desktop effects.

Windows 7 Internet Features
Internet Explorer 8.

Microsoft bills IE 8 as a faster web browser, noting that it starts and creates new tabs faster, and loads web pages more quickly, thanks to an improved JavaScript engine and other low-level tweaks. These performance improvements are apparently in relation to IE 7, but I don't find IE 8 to be particularly fast compared to competitors Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome. That said, I don't usually find it to be the performance disaster that others have claimed, though IE does sometimes have a weird habit of continuing to load pages long after you've tired of hitting ESC repeatedly in a vain bid to get it to stop. Overall, I'd say that IE 8 performance is acceptable but not noteworthy.

The functional improvements in the browser are far more interesting and also far more likely to impact users. Microsoft includes a couple of high-value "reach beyond the page" features, Web Slices and Accelerators, which dramatically extend the capabilities of the browser in unexpected ways. Whether they'll ever take off with users--and thus garner high quality third party support--is still unclear at this time.

Windows 7 Internet Features
Internet Explorer 8 Accelerators provide quick-access to often-needed functionality.

IE 8 was improved in other ways, of course, with improvements to the Address bar, instant search box, and tabs, as well as an interesting new UI feature, the Favorites Bar. Most of these changes are in keeping with the sorts of improvements one might expect with any version upgrade.

From a compatibility standpoint, IE 8's score is mixed. As originally envisioned, the browser offered horrible compatibility with the wide number of sites that had been engineered for previous versions of the browser. However, thanks to improvements to IE 8's Compatibility View updates feature, and some vigilance on the part of web developers, IE 8 now offers decent compatibility on the public Internet. (Some corporate intranets may continue to have issues, however, though IE 8 can be made to run with the rendering engines that emulate IE 7 and earlier IE versions.)

[ Learn more about Internet Explorer 8 in my review. ]

Windows Live

Most of the other Internet features associated with previous Windows versions have been purged from the core OS in Windows 7. But these features are still available either as an optional download or, as should increasingly be the case, bundled with new Windows 7-based PCs. The optional download, of course, is called Windows Live Essentials, and as its name suggests, it provides a set of often essential additional applications and services that should prove valuable to almost any Windows user. In fact, Windows Live Essentials is among the very first things I install after performing a clean install of the operating system.

So, if you're looking for Internet functionality that used to be included in Windows, consider the following: Windows Live Mail--arguably the core Windows Live Essentials application--now provides the email, USENET newsgroup, contacts management, and calendar management functionality that used to be provided by bundled Windows applications like Windows Mail, Windows Contacts, and Windows Calendar. And Windows Live Messenger is a much, much newer version of the Windows Messenger application that Microsoft still, inexplicably, bundled with Windows XP.

Windows 7 Internet Features
Windows Live Mail is an overachiever, providing email, USENET, contacts, and calendar management.

Windows Live Essentials offers a lot more than these two applications, of course. Windows Live Writer is a tremendous blogging tool, if you're into that kind of thing. And Windows Live Movie Maker integrates with popular web-based video services like You Tube so that you can share videos in ways that actually make sense on the modern Internet. Windows Live Photo Gallery provides a similar feature-set for photos, while Windows Live Toolbar provides a more Windows Live-centric front-end to your IE-based web adventures.

Windows 7 Internet Features
Windows Live Movie Maker integrates with popular online video sites like You Tube.

There's a lot more to Windows Live Essentials, of course, and to the wider Windows Live services available online. But the point here is that Microsoft has found an interesting way to bypass the antitrust demands of overzealous governments while providing users with a set of applications and services that can (and are) updated far more frequently than they ever would be if they were bundled with the OS.

The question, unfortunately, is whether consumers will ever easily discover features that are not just included with Windows. Judicious product mentions in Windows 7, online advertising, and the aforementioned PC bundles should fix this for the most part. I hope so, anyway, as Microsoft's Windows Live applications and services are, for the most part, quite excellent.

[ Learn more about Windows Live Essentials in my review. ]

Continue to Part 8: Digital Media Features...