Internet Explorer 7 (Beta 1) review

Included as a standard component of Windows Vista Beta 1, the newest version of Internet Explorer is the only major application to be overhauled for the beta release. But the new version of the world’s most-used web browser won’t be restricted to Vista only: Microsoft has already released a developer-only beta for Windows XP.

Internet Explorer 7 (Beta 1) review

In true Microsoft magpie fashion, the major usability addition to IE 7 is a feature that’s been a great success on competitor browsers Opera and Firefox: tabbed browsing. This addresses the classic problem of ending up with a dozen or more separate browser windows when you’re going down a list of search hits and want to open prospective relevant pages without navigating away from the search results. The system works identically to Firefox; a click of the middle mouse wheel or a Ctrl-left-click automatically opens the link in a new tab. The only enhancement over its competition in this regard is a permanent blank tab to the right of all other tabs: clicking this opens a new blank tabbed window – Firefox requires you to hit (this same shortcut works in IE 7).

A second major feature lifted directly from the competition is the search box in the top right-hand corner of the screen. You can enter your search terms directly, and then choose which search engine to send them to via the drop-down list to the right. MSN Search is the default option of course, but Microsoft has magnanimously included AOL, Ask Jeeves, Google and Yahoo! Search too.

CSS support has also been improved, with the fixing of some major bugs and a commitment from the development team to making the new browser behave in a more standards-compliant fashion.

Microsoft also appears to be going all-out in embracing transparent PNG (portable network graphics). This open-source compression format is aimed at replacing JPEG, which is surrounded by intellectual property rights issues.

Not surprisingly, security is a prime concern. The design of IE 7, claims Microsoft, marks a change in attitude to security holes. The sheer amount of code in Internet Explorer has meant that, up until now, Microsoft’s approach has been to shy away from major rewrites, papering over vulnerabilities with patches as and when they were revealed. Microsoft claims to have changed tack, rewritten a significant proportion of the application and ‘drastically reduced the internal attack surface’. It’s a lovely phrase – but we’ll only be able to see if it’s worked once IE 7 becomes mainstream.

This isn’t the only security enhancement that’s in the works either. Starting with Beta 2, IE 7 will feature a Protected Mode. This is an advanced type of sandbox for the browser: in Protected Mode, IE is completely isolated from the rest of the PC and unable to access the local computer’s resources directly. All requests from Internet Explorer to the local system pass through a broker process. Crucially, this broker process can only be activated as a direct result of the user clicking on menus and screens, so, in theory, there should be no way for a malware app to escape the confines of the browser unless the user explicitly lets it with a mouse click.

On the note of users forming a line of defence, Microsoft is co-opting them to some extent by forcing all pop-up and browser windows to have an address bar; the idea is that people will be less easily duped into visiting a fake website – for instance, the front page of a bank – if they can see the exact URL they’re visiting.

With Protected Mode enabled in IE 7, the social-engineering and phishing approach to hacking – conning users to click on fake links and infect their own machines – will likely become the number one focus of data criminals. To bolster users’ efficiency in weeding out phishing sites, the finished build of IE 7 is slated to include a Phishing Filter that will constantly update itself with details and URLs of known phishing sites, although the feature hasn’t yet made an appearance.

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