Microsoft has released for free public download beta 2 of Internet Explorer 7 for Windows XP. This latest version of Microsoft's next browser has few visible changes from the beta 2 preview edition posted on March 20.
In fact, what's most different in this release isn't at all evident in the program. Microsoft is changing IE7's support options and will offer free telephone tech support for it beginning with beta 2. The toll-free support number is (866) 876-4926.
"The goal is to get people running this version because it adds so many important security features," Gary Schare, Microsoft's director of strategic product management for Internet Explorer, said via e-mail. "We're hoping that free support convinces a few more people to give it a try. If something doesn't work right, we'd like to be able to help them work through the issue."
Support for Internet Explorer 6 is only available to Microsoft customers who have signed up for a Software Assurance (volume) license. It costs US$35 per incident during business hours, whether you use e-mail, online chat, or telephone. The per-incident charge for what Microsoft terms "business-critical after-hours support" is $490. So Microsoft's plan to offer toll-free support for IE7 is a departure.
Free browser add-ons
Microsoft is also taking a page out of Mozilla's book by creating an Add-Ons for Internet Explorer site. Although this site wasn't yet live when I tested an advance copy of IE7 beta 2, a Microsoft spokesperson said there would be "hundreds of free add-ons," apparently similar to extensions for the Firefox and Mozilla browsers.
The IE add-ons site appears to be a reworking of the Windows Marketplace site, which has long been linked to from the Tools menu. The programs available on the new site don't appear to be any different from the ones on the old site, and many of Microsoft's add-ons -- which are all supplied by third-party software companies -- aren't free. Many are also more sophisticated or have more ambitious goals than Mozilla's browser extensions.
Some of the security enhancements implemented in IE7 include ActiveX opt-in, a phishing filter, a fix-my-security-settings alert system, cross-domain script barriers and a delete browsing history tool (see "IE 7 beta has security improvements under the hood"). Other new features include tabbed browsing, a revised favorites center, page zoom, support for RSS feeds, shrink-to-fit printing and an Internet search field built into the main tool bar area.
Beginning with beta 2, Internet Explorer supports Windows XP 64-bit Edition, Windows Server 2003 Service Pack 1 and Windows Server 2003 for Itanium systems. IE7 beta 2 requires Service Pack 2 on Windows XP PCs. Microsoft expects the final release of the new browser to be available during the second half of 2006. The Windows Vista version of IE7 will be similar, but it adds protected-mode browsing (in which the browser is isolated from the user account) and handful of additional features.
IE7 beta 2 is an 11.9MB download, which a user can initiate from the Internet Explorer 7 downloads page. Early tests of beta 2 in a production environment showed no glitches of any kind. The browser is fast and stable, and it offers better usability than IE6 did.
Microsoft's Schare notes that anyone who installed a previous version of IE7 should uninstall it prior to installing beta 2 on the same machine. User data, such as settings like search providers, favorites, RSS feeds, and opt-in to the phishing filter will be carried over between the two versions. Microsoft has also posted preinstallation user checklists aimed at consumers, developers and IT pros. For more information about IE7 beta 2, see Microsoft's release notes for IE7 beta 2.