On Tuesday, Microsoft issued a public preview version of Internet Explorer (IE) 7 Beta 2, offering Web developers, tech enthusiasts, and early adopters a chance to test the product's compatibility with their Web sites. Microsoft will release a more polished and consumer-centric IE 7 Beta 2 in the weeks ahead, but in my tests of the product over the past several days, I've found it to be stable, secure, and feature-packed. And while I'm not personally ready to switch from Mozilla Firefox, I think many people will be surprised by Microsoft's progress with IE 7.

"IE 7 Beta 2 Preview is feature complete," Gary Schare, Microsoft director of IE product management told me last week in a briefing. "It's a developer and technology enthusiast preview release. Up until now, we've been documenting the rendering and technical changes to IE 7, but people haven't had a way to test it against their sites unless they were in the beta program. IE 7 Beta 2 Preview is a safe release for early adopters, or anyone who has a business need to understand where we're going with IE."

As I noted in my lengthy review of IE 7 Beta 2 Preview (see URL below), Microsoft has made dramatic and impressive improvements in this IE version. In addition to adopting features that other browsers have had for years, such as tabbed browsing and integrated search engine support, Microsoft has actually innovated new ways to use these features, and has added unique new functionality of its own. For example, a new Tab Groups feature lets you visually tile each of the browser's open tabs, so you can more easily choose which document to view.

IE 7 Beta 2 Preview also includes the many security features Microsoft has been implementing in this product, including its antiphishing technology, malicious ActiveX protection, International Domain Name (IDN) spoofing protection, and support for High Assurance Certificates, an upcoming standard for proving the trustworthiness of Web sites. There is also a separate IE 7 runtime called Internet Explorer (No Add-ons) that lets user run IE 7 without any ActiveX controls or Browser Helper Objects loaded; this feature will be valuable if a PC or the browser is compromised and the user wishes to browse the Web looking for help or download a fix.

Notably, Microsoft also revealed this week that it was adding its RSS platform, originally due only in Windows Vista, to the standalone versions of IE 7 that will ship on other Windows versions. This platform is available in the IE 7 Beta 2 Preview release that the company shipped this week, and it will allow third parties to develop applications and services that interact with the RSS feed subscriptions users configure and use in IE 7. Schare told me that he expects the inclusion of the RSS platform on XP to greatly increase developer interest in the technology.

IE 7 Beta 2 Preview works only with Windows XP with Service Pack 2 (SP2), but the final release will also be made available for Windows Server 2003 and XP x64 Edition. For more information, and the free download, please visit the Microsoft Web site.

Also, be sure to check out my exhaustive review of IE 7 Beta 2 Preview on the SuperSite for Windows.