Microsoft appears to subscribe to the theory that “The
best defense is a good offense” – at least that appears to be the case in
the newly-reignited Web browser wars. That’s my take
on the motivation behind Microsoft’s release of Internet Explorer 7.0. I’m
going to look at why Firefox has lit a fire under
Microsoft to get serious about Web browser development again, and why, based on
my testing of the IE7 beta, I think that it’s quite possible IE7 will take the
starch out of the Web browser war.

Why now?

There is plenty of speculation about why Microsoft changed
their IE plans – they had originally slated the next version of IE to be
released with Windows Vista (formerly code named “Longhorn”). The
bottom line is that the long gap since Microsoft released IE 6 gave Mozilla the opportunity to step in with Firefox
and provide new features and better security.

In the beginning of 2004, Firefox
was a tiny whisper in the ear of the IT world. It was actually called
“Phoenix” in version 0.1 and was later renamed “Firebird”
in version 0.6, and then “Firefox” in
version 0.8, which was when it really started to draw some attention. It slowly
crept onto more computers and the word began to leak out about a legitimate
alternative to IE. More and more, I would work with clients and hear phrases
such as “tabbed browsing” and “more secure” used to
describe Firefox as the tiny whisper grew to a steady

Then, throughout the second half of 2004 and the first half
of 2005, Firefox started to really taking off,
decreasing Internet Explorer’s market share from over 95% to under 90% in a
period of months. Firefox has now had over 50 million
downloads and a market share of about 7% in the US (as of August 2005). Mozilla has set a goal of 10% US market share by the end of
2005. Meanwhile, Firefox has already gained even more
significant usage in Europe. It has a market share of over 30% in Finland, 24%
in Germany, and 22% in Hungary.

You can almost compare Firefox’s
current success to Apple’s iPod. iPods are everywhere. I was in Manhattan recently and
couldn’t walk more than a block without seeing the trademark iPod white earphones on at least one person passing by.

What is the appeal of Firefox?

First, tabbed browsing is the essential feature you never
knew you were missing. With tabs, you don’t have to open 15 different browser
windows. Instead, you can use Firefox and have the
ease and organization of one open session with 15 separate tabs. And, of course,
there’s the security issue. Because of the continual stream of serious security
flaws involving IE in the last several years, many IT consultants and IT
departments started pushing for an IE alternative to make the world more secure
for their users. Firefox stepped in and filled that
need by providing a browser that was developed from the ground up with privacy
and security in mind. Plus, it doesn’t pose as much of a security risk because
it’s not as closely integrated with the OS as IE.

These days when I go on site to work with clients, Firefox is running on more desktops than ever before. I
remember a time when I would only see Firefox on a handful
of business desktops. Now, the use of Firefox is
widespread and not only by the innovators and early adopters. I see it on the
desktops of average workers as well. That doesn’t mean they are running it all
the time – there are some sites and Web apps still require IE – but plenty of
workers are now using Firefox for much of their
standard Web browsing.

Of course, for any
IT department that decides to adopt Firefox, there
are important caveats to remember. You may run into issues with content that requires
ActiveX. Another issue to think about is that you can never really rid yourself
of Internet Explorer because it is an integrated browser and cannot be
completely removed from

Windows. Also remember that there will be
instances in which users will have to use IE when Firefox
fails to work for a particular site or Web app.

If you are just not convinced that the work involved with
deploying and supporting Firefox is worth it, but
you’d still like to taste the glory of tabbed browsing and a more secure Web
browser, then you can let sleeping dogs lie and stay with the big dog. Judging
by the IE 7.0 beta, your users’ Web browsing will likely be safer and happier
when IE7 comes out.

Enter Internet Explorer 7

The groundswell of interest in Firefox
pushed Microsoft to redesign its Web browser more quickly than originally
intended. It turned out to be a smart move and Microsoft has put together a
pretty effective counter attack.

I took the opportunity in August to download Internet
Explorer 7 Beta 1. I approached this beta cautiously because I figured I may be
disappointed if it didn’t have everything I expected. It has been close to four
years since Microsoft made any significant changes to Internet Explorer and I
have to admit I am impressed with what they have done in IE7.

Let’s begin by clearing up one thing. Internet Explorer 7 is
going to have two versions: one that will be shipped with Windows Vista and one
that will be released as a free download to all users running Windows XP SP2.

So, what new features are in IE 7 Beta 1? First, Microsoft
redesigned IE 7’s interface. It took me a little while to get used to, but it
is effective. I really enjoyed the tabbed browsing experience by simply clicking
on a tab to open a new IE window. It is long past time for Microsoft to catch
up with tabbed browsing, but they’ve implemented it well in IE7. Figure A provides a look it.

Figure A

Tabbed browsing in IE
7 Beta 1

A feature that I consider on of the biggest improvements
beta is the ability to print within IE and not have your pages truncated. When
you choose Print Preview, you can shrink your page to fit, as shown in Figure B.

Figure B

IE7 offers improved
printing options

Some other things I noticed in IE 7 were: RSS integration,
integrated Web searching, single-click browser history deletion, and an anti-phishing filter that is currently included only in the IE7 beta
for Windows XP (and not in the Windows Vista beta). The anti-phishing feature is nice security addition. On the security
front, Microsoft has also included all of the browser enhancements from Windows
XP SP2 into IE7, and the Windows Vista version will run in a “Protected
Mode” (also called “Low-rights IE”) to minimize damage that could
be done by any IE flaws discovered in the future.

Topics for The Hot Button

Is there a key topic in IT that you would like to see covered in The Hot Button? This column is meant to serve as a springboard to discuss the latest, the hottest, and most important topics in the field.

E-mail your suggestions

I played around with the Internet Explorer 7.0 beta enough
to come to the conclusion that Microsoft has gone in the right direction.
Obviously, from a feature standpoint, Microsoft is playing catch-up, but seems
to have done a decent job of it. The only thing missing that I would like to
see is some truly new innovative features in IE 7 as we draw closer to the full
release. After all, this is a completely new version of IE,
and so I think it’s reasonable to expect that it should do more than just keep
up with the features added by the competition.

Final analysis

With Internet Explorer 7.0, it looks like Microsoft has done
enough to keep the little foxes at bay. I believe that once IE7 is released,
the re-ignited “browser war” will be probably yesterday’s news. By
simply adding tabbed browsing and increasing security, Microsoft will likely
stem the tide of lost market share and quell the rumblings of the masses. I
think many users and IT departments that have flocked to Firefox
will find it tempting to go back to using just one program for all of their Web

How do you think IE7 will affect the new Web browser war? Join the discussion.