Internet Explorer 7 Beta 2 Previewed

These frequent Mozilla security-related updates to the ever-popular Firefox browser beget questions. Whether Firefox has become this decade’s Internet Explorer? Is this browser intrinsically unsafe. Was it rushed to release without adequate testing to become an IE alternate ‘mom could use’? Very possibly. But when comparing Firefox to Internet Explorer never forget that the former with bad code just crashes leaving Windows unscathed.

And we need to commend the Mozilla team for acknowledging vulnerabilities and issuing updates no matter how minor the issue. Over the past 45 days there have been three incremental Firefox upgrades. The current Firefox 1.5.3 was released to address what vulnerability assessor Secunia’s Advisory 19802 (April 2006 calls “an error in the handling of unexpected “contentWindow.focus()” JavaScript calls. A malicious Web site could be used to “corrupt the memory and cause a crash by calling the “contentWindow.focus()” method on a container with specially crafted content.

However Firefox 2 (Bon Echo) alpha hasn’t been patched. I recommend disabling JavaScript completely until you know the web site is safe. Use with care the Firefox Remote Code Execution and Denial of Service proof-of-concept. If JavaScript is enabled the browser will crash. And there’s more bad news. The mid-May 2006 release of Firefox 2.0 will be missing the revamped Places feature. According to Michael Schroepfer, Mozilla’s Director of Engineering, “it has become increasingly clear that we do not have time to complete an implementation of Places that lives up to our standards of user experience and quality. Places is a complex and exciting feature which changes the way people use bookmarks, history, and navigate through their private space of the web. Rather than rush it to market – we’d prefer to spend the time it takes to get it right.” You can read the complete post here.

Internet Explorer 7 Beta 2 auto-updateBut the most interesting product this week is the newly released Internet Explorer 7 Beta 2. Available in separate versions for Windows XP SP2, Windows XP x64, Windows Server 2003 SP1, Windows Server 2003 x64 and Windows Server 2003 ia64 (Itanium-based). But before you rush to install, remember you need a genuine copy of Windows. And while I admit I’ve been dismissive about this browser in the recent past. The new Beta 2 is really great. With many of the rougher edges smoothed over. Although a few patches of bad still exist. But the installers ability to check its parent web site for updated setup files is impressive.

Like every previous Internet Explorer upgrade this one appears (to me) to enhance the Windows Desktop appearance. It’s also much faster. And ‘under da hood’ Internet Explorer 7 Beta 2 beta brings new native support for XMLHTTP so that Ajax-based Webapps (web applications) are no longer dependent on ActiveX.

In a way am I glad Microsoft’s taking back control of technology it developed when interfacing Outlook with Exchange server over 6 years ago.

However this browser beta is still missing SVG support. But addresses a long-outstanding issue to support transparent PNGs. It also is more CSS standards compliant. As an aside, CSS hacks commonly used to make IE behave with web sites will no longer work with the final Internet Explorer 7 Beta 2 rendering engine. The Internet Explorer team has publicly expressed disapproval of hacks and favor conditional comments, an IE-proprietary method.

IE 7 Beta 2 Page Zoom optionsMicrosoft has also been listening to user feedback. And RSS support has been integrated into the browser so that feeds are available to Windows applications that use the IE7 engine. Internet Explorer 7 Beta 2 default search is Yahoo. But you can add more providers. These are grouped into search (Google, MSN, Lycos, AOL) and topic (Wikipedia, Weather.com, Downloads.com, About.com, Wal-Mart, and Monster). The search dialog has been streamlined and offers more detail only if you ask for it. And the new Favorites Center groups favorites with tab groups, history and RSS feeds into a single panel. And mirroring Firefox/Opera, page zoom is now available in fixed percentages. And can be accessed via a control button on the browser bottom right. And while printing web pages you can either shrink them to fit the page. Or just print a selection.

Among the biggest improvements is the Internet Explorer 7 Beta 2 interface. This now supports tabs. In Beta 2 clicking the tab bar opens new tab windows. There are also a list of open tabs. As well as QuickLinks, an ingenious single pane displaying thumbnails of all open tabs. Opera offers a similar feature, activated by holding the mouse pointer over the tab. And I was subsequently able to spawn new tabs from in-page links by clicking the mouse wheel Firefox/Opera style. The browser help also includes details of shortcuts to open new tabes. But I wasn’t able to drag (link) to new tab feature like with Maxthon!

IE7 introduces Favorite Center to manage book marks, RSS and historyOn one hand I sort of like the new Microsoft user interface. Used in Internet Explorer 7 Beta 2 and Office 2007 Beta. It’s softer with complimentary features grouped together. However I foresee the learning curve to be pretty steep for most users. Many who have just managed to learn navigating an interface that’s remained unchanged since Windows 3.1! Now they are presented with pastel-shaded, liquid layouts.

Browser security has considerably improved. With ActiveX disabled by default. Internet Explorer 7 Beta 2 also includes an improved version of the pop-up blocker introduced in IE6 for XP SP2. And there’s new anti-phishing support available on a per-tab basis. The Beta also blocks cross-site scripting along with international domain names.

Direct access to subscribed RSS feed from IE 7 Favorite CenterAnd with all Betas the biggest issue is about upgrades. Future Internet Explorer 7 Beta 2 upgrades, including the Final version (now) due end-2006, will install directly over the installed Beta. And Ie7 Beta 2, for now, install separate to IE6 that’s actually a part of Windows. So its possible to uninstall Ie7 Beta 2. There are other advantages to upgrading. The biggest is the ability to uninstall the Beta without compromising the operating system. And after you download and install Internet Explorer 7 Beta 2 and still feel something’s missing. Don’t fret. Microsoft has anticipated such angst and setup the dedicated IE Addons web site.

Update, May 2, 2006: The IE 7 properties dialog is much improved. And now (in shades of Windows Defender) lists all BHO (browser helpler objects) and ActiveX controls installed, as well as running with and without permission.

As for those unable to upgrade, console yourselves with Maxthon. So what if Internet Explorer 7 Beta 2 disables ActiveX by default. Maxthon introduced an ActiveX blocker over 12 months ago! Sure Internet Explorer 7 Beta 2 suffers fewer security flaws than IE6. But with Maxthon, you can block not just pop-up ads. But also the very ads themselves. Kill web dialogs. And block float ads (a feature no other browser offers). You can also create easy-to-manage web site black (block) and white (allow) lists. Actually all you will be missing are any rendering engine improvements. To access web sites that use PNG or SVG images use Opera 9.

That’s it for this week. More later. Until then Stay Safe!

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