IE is evolving, but is it enough?

Internet Explorer is getting its first update in two years. Many want more, but Microsoft still says no new browser until Longhorn.

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By John Borland

Microsoft's Internet Explorer Web browser is in the process of getting its first significant update in two years this week, as part of the company's overhaul of its operating system.

The updates--part of the much broader Windows XP Service Pack 2 release--are largely focused on fixing the succession of security flaws that have surfaced in recent months, along with adding a few new features.

But renewed competition in the browser market, along with recent calls by Microsoft for higher levels of customer feedback, have led to speculation online that a bigger browser update might be on the way. It has been three years since Microsoft released a new, full version of its browser, and a growing chorus inside the Web development community has said the slow pace of updates has held back online innovation.

"Internet Explorer hasn't been updated in three years, whereas every other browser has been updated in the last six months," said Robert Dumas, a freelance Web developer from Long Island, N.Y., and one of many who have . "A company like Microsoft shouldn't have the least-capable browser."

However, the company reiterated this week that it does not plan a new version of Internet Explorer until it releases the next version of Windows, .

"At this time, there are no plans to release a new, stand-alone version of IE," a Microsoft spokesman said. "The current plan is to make new IE features available with major Windows releases...Aligning IE updates more closely with Windows releases benefits customers by minimizing the number of updates to deploy and service."

Microsoft's Internet Explorer has dominated the digital world since shortly after America Online's purchase of Netscape in early 1999. Critics have said that the resulting lack of competition has resulted in for the PC, even while other platforms have expanded.

Microsoft has countered its critics by saying the browser is not a stand-alone piece of software any longer and that there are substantial innovations happening across the Windows operating system, including browser functionality that is not immediately obvious to the end user.

The last full release of Internet Explorer was in 2001, with the launch of the 6.0 version. It was updated slightly with the Windows XP Service Pack 1 release in 2002 and with the additional changes this week.

Where's 7.0?
That "only in Windows" message has been consistent for several years. But several recent factors have sparked speculation that Microsoft might be moving toward releasing a 7.0 version before Longhorn hits the market, after all.

The release schedule for the ambitious new version of Windows, which is expected to include powerful new search features, among other additions, has been pushed back several times. Its expected 2006 launch would put a full five years between new versions of Internet Explorer.

The accelerated pace of security flaws in the browser has led some developers--and even high-profile organizations such as the --to ask consumers to .

Those concerns have helped raise the profile of newer browsers, such as , and . Research firm said it for the first time in years this summer, albeit by an infinitesimal amount.

Meanwhile, Microsoft developers themselves have begun maintaining online Web logs talking about Internet Explorer issues and calling for feedback from users.

At least one of these high-profile bloggers, former Longhorn technical evangelist Dave Massey, who was recently moved to the Internet Explorer team, has tried to quash the notion that a stand-alone version is on the way. The beta of Longhorn is due next year, and there is not time to develop the browser separately from that, he said.

"There are currently no plans to release a new version of Internet Explorer prior to Longhorn, when it will be delivered as part of the new OS," Massey in late June. "As the team completes Windows XP SP2, we are starting to think about what we will deliver as a great browser in Longhorn, which is why the feedback now is so useful."

Analysts say Microsoft has little incentive to release a new version of a product it gives away for free, in any case.

"Internet Explorer is not a strategic technology for Microsoft," Directions on Microsoft analyst said. "They would much rather have corporations use something like Outlook or Office to access information."

What's new now
The new improvements to IE won't change much in terms of looks, but some of the changes will likely be immediately obvious to users. The biggest updates include:

• a new pop-up blocker that will stop most pop-up advertisements from appearing;

• an "information bar" similar to that in Outlook 2003 that will replace traditional pop-up dialog boxes to notify users of active downloads, blocked pop-ups, and other background activities;

• better management and notification of "browser helper objects," small pieces of add-on technology often used by spyware and adware developers; and

• a host of security fixes aimed at blocking identified flaws.

The release that includes the updated browser is in a version aimed at administrators updating several computers. Individual releases will be available through over the next few days and weeks.