The browser is the most important piece of software on most people's computers, so it's odd that Microsoft (MSFT) let Internet Explorer go five years without a redesign. Internet Explorer 7 is finally here, and it's a welcome addition. But IE is no longer the unchallenged king of Web browsing, and the new version must contend with a spiffed-up Mozilla Firefox.
The biggest change in IE is the elimination of gaping security vulnerabilities that have dogged this software for a long time. This change is invisible to users. But IE also gets a brand new look and feel, one that provides an important preview of what is coming in January with Windows Vista and, especially, Microsoft Office 2007.
Microsoft is downloading the new IE automatically through Windows Update, though corporations that choose to can block the change on their systems. When you take a close look at the browser, you'll notice that the row of menu choices at the top of the window, a feature of nearly every Windows program for more than 15 years, is gone; no more File, Edit, or other familiar items.
On the whole, this is an improvement. Nearly all the menu choices have been duplicated by icons, and Microsoft decided it was time to clean up the screen. But the more experienced a user you are, the more disorienting you may find the new arrangement. For example, the Save As command, always a part of the File menu, now appears when you click on a New Page icon. You can turn the menus back on, but I recommend learning to navigate without them because in Office 2007, they're gone for good. Once you learn your way around, this is a cleaner, simpler design.
As Seen in Firefox
I'm less wowed by some of the new features in IE 7, including fraud alerts, automatic Web site updates (RSS feeds), and tabbed browsing, which keeps a collection of Web pages within a single window and allows you to flip among them just by clicking a tab. These are all nice additions, but they're pathetically overdue, having long been available on other browsers such as Firefox or Opera.
Using Microsoft's version of tabbed browsing, it's simple to select a collection of pages and have them open automatically when you start the browser. A "quick tabs" button shows thumbnails of all your active tabs in a single window.
Whenever you visit a site that offers automatic updates, an orange icon in the toolbar lights up, and you can subscribe to the feed by clicking it. You view the contents by selecting the feed from your Favorites list.
The changes in Firefox 2.0 are much less dramatic, mostly because little was required. Like the new IE, it has added an anti-fraud feature that gives you a color-coded warning when you visit a page suspected of stealing data or downloading spyware. Its best new feature is a Word-like spell checker that works whenever you are typing in any Web page. If you misspell a word, a red squiggle appears under it, and right-clicking on the word gives you suggested corrections and other options. With the growing use of blogs and other content-creation software in browsers, this is a major blessing to the typing-challenged.
At one point, the security risks of Internet Explorer were so bad that I urged readers not to use it. Microsoft has done a lot of repair work, and it will do even more in the version of IE 7 that is part of Windows Vista. So at this point, security isn't much of a factor in your choice. But I have come to prefer Firefox for its speed and simplicity. And on the Mac, where the standard Safari browser is hopelessly inadequate for Web sites where users create content, Firefox is by far the best choice.
Thanks to the pressure Firefox has put on Microsoft, browser competition is back. As a result, two products that are very good right now are destined to get even better.