In February, Microsoft shocked onlookers by revealing that it would reverse course and ship a new version of Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE), dubbed IE 7.0, before the end of 2005. According to Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates's RSA Conference 2005 keynote address, IE 7.0 will focus on security, and for users of Windows XP with Service Pack 2 (SP2), will be the next logical step in browser security. (IE 7.0 will also work with Windows XP Professional x64 Edition and Windows Server 2003 with SP1.) What Gates didn't reveal is that IE 7.0 will also include a host of new functionality. Here's what you need to know about IE 7.0.

New Security Features
Like the version of IE that Microsoft shipped in XP SP2, IE 7.0's improvements will consist mostly of security-related features. One of these features will be an antiphishing technology. As Gates noted, "Some of the advances \[in IE 7.0\] 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."

IE 7.0 will also include an IP traffic encryption capability that will help prevent electronic eavesdroppers from modifying data before it reaches your machine or silently redirecting you 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 7.0 to be more secure and to prevent cross-zone spoofing.

Tabbed Browsing and More
Like Mozilla Firefox and other browsers, IE 7.0 will feature a vastly simplified UI and much-requested features such as tabbed browsing, inline search, RSS discovery and viewing, and shrink-to-fit printing. For Web developers, IE 7.0 will be more compliant with Web standards but will still not be as developer-friendly as Firefox. Specifically, IE 7.0 will finally support transparent Portable Networks Graphics (PNG) files, provide a more consistent Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) implementation, support CSS positioning, and support the Internationalized Domain Name (IDN) standard. However, Microsoft recognizes that much more work remains to be done and will continue to make improvements in the IE version that ships with Longhorn as well as in IE 8.0.

Timing and Availability
Microsoft will ship the first of two public IE 7.0 betas by mid-2005 and hopes to ship the product by late 2005. The company currently plans to support only XP Pro x64, Windows 2003 SP1, and XP SP2. However, corporate customers are already complaining that IE 7.0 should run on Windows 2000 as well, so Microsoft is investigating that possibility. The company won't ship a new version of Microsoft Outlook Express with IE 7.0; the next major revision to Outlook Express will appear in Longhorn.

Recommendations
Early information about IE 7.0 suggests that it will do much to dampen excitement about the open-source Mozilla Firefox alternative. And, of course, its inclusion in the next major Windows version will ensure that IE continues as the most widely used Web browser. Whether IE 7.0 will provide any technological improvements over Firefox, however, remains to be seen. Also unknown at this time is whether IE 7.0 will do enough to overcome IE's inherent insecurity. My advice is to wait and see on IE 7.0: At the very least, it should prove to be more secure than IE 6.0.