By Rick Klau
A test-drive of IE 7 shows the browser market still has room to grow. It also shows that Microsoft has done some thinking and is listening to user requests. Can it stand up to Firefox, though?
Nearly three years ago, I wrote that for the first time in years, I was switching my default browser. “In the past 48 hours, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how flexible, how fast and how generally right Firebird feels.” Firebird, of course, was the original name for the browser that is known today as Firefox. Soon after I wrote those words, news broke that Microsoft was not planning on releasing any future stand-alone versions of its Web browser, Internet Explorer. “As part of the OS (operating system),” said Internet Explorer’s program manager, “IE will continue to evolve, but there will be no future stand-alone installations. IE 6 SP1 is the final stand-alone installation.”
As it turns out, however, there are second (or, in this case, seventh) acts on the Internet. Almost a full year after Bill Gates first hinted that a new version of Internet Explorer would, in fact, see the light of day, Microsoft released a beta version of IE 7 for public review. After just two hours of use, I was strongly tempted to return IE to its status as my default browser, a temptation I had not felt since May 2003, when I wrote of my shift to what is now Firefox.
Why the shift in thinking? Understanding what IE has in store for users when it ships later this year shows a lot about how the Internet is evolving. And it shines some more light on what you should look for in a browser generally. Here’s the overview.
Microsoft spent quite a bit of time on the overall look and feel of its new browser. The result is a surprising departure from past Microsoft applications, and it may be a sign of things to come in the next operating system. Gone are the familiar menu trees (meaning that menus like File, Edit, View and Help show up only if you click the Alt key; otherwise they’re hidden). Also, the formerly bloated toolbars now take up just two rows. This frees up valuable screen real estate for actually browsing Web pages.
Although not obvious to casual browsers, IE 7 also brings with it considerable security enhancements that are winning raves from security pros. It includes a number of features geared toward “average” users to prevent phishing attacks (fake Web sites meant to look like your bank’s Web site) and other illicit exploits.
Another seemingly minor update that I found myself relying on: IE 7’s sophisticated printing, including the ability to shrink a Web page to fit a single printed page. As I increasingly rely on a number of Web sites for day-to-day functions, being able to print without spanning multiple pages became a welcome enhancement to me.
They don’t sound like much, but tabs represent a fundamental shift in how you can browse the Web. Although by no means the first browser to do so, Firefox was the first browser to gain widespread adoption that gave users the ability to have multiple Web pages open in tabs.
Tabs not only reduce the clutter in your browser, they can also improve organization among open windows. Having tabs doesn’t mean that you can’t have multiple browser windows—think of this as a way of logically grouping Web pages you are currently browsing. I typically keep open one browser window dedicated to my CRM application, with multiple tabs open for individual accounts that I’m reviewing or working on; one browser window for my blog, with one tab for my blog application (Movable Type), one tab for my aggregator, and multiple tabs for pages I’m considering writing about; and one window with tabs for each news site I read frequently throughout the day.
The lack of tabs in Internet Explorer has long been a sore spot for power users—but the inclusion of tabs in the new version finally brings IE up to par with its competitors on this front. One thing IE 7 does with tabs that immediately impressed me was its “thumbnail” view of tabs that lets you see miniature images of all tabs. The thumbnails are live views, so as the pages themselves update, you will see the updated text and images in the thumbnails. (I found this particularly handy when I was monitoring several basketball games at once; the scores updated at ESPN.com throughout the afternoon, and I left the browser in thumbnail view throughout to see all scores instead of watching just one.)
The one feature that has received the most attention in IE 7’s beta release is its RSS support. While RSS remains popular with news junkies and early adopters, it’s not yet a mainstream technology. When IE 7 ships (and when the next Microsoft operating system, Vista, ships later this year), the vast majority of computer users will have the ability to subscribe to feeds without having to install any additional software. The feed market will grow from tens of millions today to hundreds of millions almost overnight.
Microsoft got several things right with its inclusion of RSS. Whenever you visit a site with a feed, the orange feed icon in the address bar lights up. Clicking on it gives you a view of the feed, and it makes subscribing in IE a one-step process. Up to that point, it’s a seamless and well-presented integration that makes the value of RSS more apparent to non-tech-savvy users: Like this Web site? Subscribe to it so that the new content is delivered to you! Feeds are presented as a logical counterpart to bookmarks—feeds are sites that deliver content to you, bookmarks are sites you go to visit.
As an interesting lesson, I found myself using Microsoft’s feed support as a kind of poor-man’s “What’s New.” Whenever a site had a feed, the orange button would light up, and I would click on it to immediately see the last 10 or 15 items added to the site. For heavily designed sites where the content may not be well organized (or obvious), this is a boon to people who just want to see the content.
IE 7 proves that Microsoft has listened to user requests and watched its competitors closely. Nevertheless, users looking to exert maximal control over their browsing experience will still find themselves relying on Firefox. Through a combination of browser extensions and a power tool called Greasemonkey, power users can thoroughly manipulate how Firefox operates. For instance, many of the IE 7 enhancements that I’m writing of are supported by leveraging existing Firefox add-ons.
Firefox extensions add tremendous flexibility to the browser. These extensions can be as simple as linking to a frequently visited Web site, or as sophisticated as adding entire applications into the browser window. A full list of Firefox extensions can be found at https://addons.mozilla.org/ extensions. As of this writing, there are more than 1,100 extensions available. (Note: If you like IE 7’s tab thumbnails, check out foXspose, at http://viamatic.com/firefox, a Firefox extension that does the same thing.)
Greasemonkey is a Firefox extension that has its own add-ons (called “scripts”). Its purpose is to let you control how your browser displays pages when you visit them. Developers have used Greasemonkey for several purposes:
To streamline or add functionality to Web sites that they feel require too many clicks (adding a “Delete” button to Gmail was a popular early Greasemonkey script)
It is an extension with impressive capabilities, just like the Firefox browser itself.
Will I switch full-time to IE 7 when it ships later this year? The beta version that’s currently out is a strong contender. For casual users who want a modern browser that provides ample functionality, IE 7 could be a perfect fit. Advanced users will find a lot to like as well, although any who rely on Firefox’s almost infinite opportunities for tweaks may find that they would give up too much going to a more standard, and less extensible, browser.The bottom line? After so many years of inattention by Microsoft, it’s great to see such a strong offering—in beta, even!—and it’s clear that this will bring even more innovation to the browser market. Either way you look at it, users win.