Last week, Microsoft shipped Internet Explorer (IE) 7, its first new Web browser since 2001 and its first major new Web browser release, arguably, since 1998. To say that the world has changed a lot since then is an understatement. And now, finally, IE has changed a lot as well, and for the better. I can't believe I'm writing this, but you're going to want to seriously consider rolling out IE 7 as soon as possible.

Before I get to the why of that declaration, let's dispense with an important myth. You might have heard that Microsoft was going to release IE 7 as a high-priority update via Automatic Updates. Technically, that's true. But businesses of all sizes need to understand the important caveats that are attached to that release. First, the automatic download is for individuals and unmanaged environments only. If you're using a software update management solution such as Windows Server Update Services (WSUS) or Microsoft Systems Management Server (SMS), this won't be an issue. Second, even when IE 7 is automatically downloaded by Automatic Updates, it won't be installed by default, even if client systems are configured to do so with high-priority updates. Instead, the user will see an advertisement explaining the benefits of IE 7 and choose whether to install the update. There's no default choice, so IE 7 won't be surreptitiously installed without your express consent.

If you're running a smaller environment that doesn't use a software update management solution, Microsoft is supplying a free toolkit that will disable the IE 7 delivery. (See the URL below.) This toolkit is similar to one that Microsoft provided two years ago to temporarily block the distribution of Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2), but there's one important difference: The IE 7 toolkit doesn't expire. So if you'd prefer to never install IE 7 for some reason, you're free to do so. But I'd like to convince you otherwise. Here's why.

IE 7 is a major functional improvement over IE 6. IE 7 includes a first-class implementation of the tabbed browsing feature that Mozilla Firefox popularized. I find this feature, which lets you open additional Web pages in tabbed-based sub-pages in a single Explorer window, instead of in separate independent floating windows, to be a major productivity boost, especially for anyone who needs to regularly research information online. IE 7 also includes nice (if somewhat derivative) Real Simple Syndication (RSS) support, making it easier than ever to keep track of regularly updated online content. And its display and printing improvements are first rate.

IE 7 offers major security enhancements over IE 6. In fact, this alone makes IE 7 worth the upgrade. The browser now supports more stringent protections against malicious and suspicious ActiveX controls. It has a first-class antiphishing filter that was recently found to be dramatically more effective than competing solutions. It offers integration with Windows Defender to help protect against malware downloads. And all this functionality--and more--is controllable via Group Policy. If you'd prefer to roll out your own antiphishing solution, for example, you can configure every instance of IE 7 in your environment to disable Microsoft's version.

IE 7 is available for a surprising range of modern Windows versions, but not, alas, Windows 2000 or even early versions of XP. There are versions for XP with SP2 (32-bit, all versions), Windows XP Professional x64 Edition, Windows Server 2003 with SP1 (32-bit, all versions), Windows 2003 x64 (all versions), and Windows 2003 IA64 (all versions).

IE 7 features modest improvements to Web standards support, but the browser still retains much of the site compatibility you'd expect. That said, this is one area in which businesses will want to test IE 7 exhaustively. If you maintain any kind of intranet, you're going to want to ensure that IE 7 is compatible with your internal sites and Web applications. Microsoft has jiggered with IE 7 a lot to make it work with popular public Web sites, but the true test for this browser will be how well it works with the sites Microsoft can't see.

Assuming this kind of compatibility isn't an issue, upgrade to IE 7 sooner rather than later: The functional and security improvements are somewhat stunning. But even if you do experience compatibility problems, your best bet is to fix them as soon as possible and upgrade your clients to IE 7. The security features will give you peace of mind, and the new features will keep knowledge workers happy.

Toolkit to Disable Automatic Delivery of Internet Explorer 7 (Microsoft)
http://www.microsoft.com/downloads/details.aspx?FamilyId=4516A6F7-5D44-482B-9DBD-869B4A90159C&displaylang=en

Internet Explorer 7 Review (SuperSite for Windows)
http://www.winsupersite.com/article/reviews/internet-explorer-7-review.aspx