On Monday, Microsoft shipped the beta 2 version of its upcoming Web browser, Internet Explorer (IE) 7. IE 7 Beta 2 features minor functional improvements compared with the previous beta 2 public preview releases and adds support for Windows Server 2003, Windows XP Professional x64 Edition, and XP Service Pack 2 (SP2).

Gary Schare, Microsoft's director of Windows product management, told me in a recent briefing that IE 7 Beta 2 was fit for public consumption. "The target audience is technology enthusiasts," he said. "But it can be broadly used. We feel very good about it." Microsoft is feeling so good, in fact, that it's offering IE 7 Beta 2 users free phone support and a seamless upgrade path from beta 2 to the final release, now expected in the second half of 2006.

IE 7 updates IE 6 by offering several improvements to security and functionality, including support for tabbed browsing; a completely revamped UI; a fully configurable, toolbar-based search box; enhanced printing; and RSS support. Microsoft expects to ship a few more interim builds of IE 7 before the final release. "We should be out 60 days ahead of Windows Vista at least," Schare said, placing the release in late 2006.

To download the IE 7.0 Beta 2 release, please visit the Microsoft Web site. For more information, please refer to my review of IE 7.0 Beta 2 on the SuperSite for Windows.