Before we dive into this, a little context…
I support small businesses—not what Dell or Microsoft means by "small," but rather real-world "small." In-house IT support is the person who knows how to change the backup tapes, assuming they actually have a tape drive. Systems and networks must be very straightforward and extremely reliable. To the greatest extent possible, everything should “just work.” Usability rules; all else is dross.
Herewith, following the obligatory screen shot, are my first impressions of Microsoft Internet Explorer (MSIE) 7 Beta 2 Preview for Windows XP from the perspective of a small business consultant. It’s based on a series of rough notes (which I made the mistake of sharing with a certain TechTrax editor). It is not an exhaustive analysis by any means, but it should give you a feel for the essentials of this long overdue update.
So, there you have it.
It looks a lot like Firefox. I'm shocked, just shocked. In fact, it works a lot like Firefox, right down to the tab-related hot-key assignments, options, and context menus, and some of the new feature icons. Arguably, Microsoft could have saved a lot of development money by simply distributing Firefox with the Viamatic foXpose and Sage extensions, and a “glass” theme. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the Firefox developers should be doing an “Aw, shucks” routine right now.
Anyways, if you’re used to Internet Explorer 6, the first thing that jumps out at you is that we finally got built-in support for tabbed browsing. This is a very useful alternative to having multiple browser windows scattered around your desktop.
Microsoft IE7 has a small area just to the side of the right-most page tab that you click to open a new, empty tab. Very handy. (The Firefox folks should steal ...er, uh... adopt this feature. They have the equivalent, but it’s not as slick.) If you prefer hotkeys, Ctrl + T will do the trick.
To open a link in a new tab, use Ctrl + Click or click on it with the middle mouse button (the wheel button). Or you can right-click and choose Open in New Tab from the context menu.
Spend a few minutes investigating the tab-related options. My favorite trick: Tell IE7 to open pop-ups in a new tab. You can also specify multiple URLs as your home page. IE7 will open them in tabs when you start the web browser. Unfortunately, Microsoft did not see fit to include an option that forces new-window links to open in tabs.
Oh, well, the IE7 crew did pick up on tab thumbnailing, though. The Quick Tabs toolbar button (it’s the one that looks like four little window panes) displays an array of miniature images of all your current tabs in a single window. Click on the desired image, and it brings that tab to the front.
Overall, the IE7 tab facilities are a good first step, but not as good as the competition’s. Besides the lack of a force to tab option that I mentioned above, I particularly miss the Open in tabs option for grouped bookmarks/favorites when viewed from the menu. Curiously, you can open multiple favorites when they are displayed in the sidebar but, be warned, IE7 Beta 2 does not handle this gracefully if asked to open too many tabs at once.
Like other web browsers, IE7 now has a permanent search entry area just to the right of the address bar. MSN search is the only choice initially. Adding more search engine options to the search bar is a minor pain—you are directed to a web page for this.
IE7 adds an anti-phishing block list, updated regularly from Microsoft’s servers. Equally important, you can report phishing sites from within the browser. This is nice. Phishing sites tend to be pretty ephemeral, but anything that gives those dirtbags a hard time is a Good Thing.
Cookie handling still sucks. As long as Microsoft is (ahem) modeling many of their new browser features on those found in certain third-party browsers, it would be nice if they would pick up the option to treat all cookies as session cookies. Close the browser, the cookies are dumped—simple, elegant, addictive.
IE7 has some nice printing and page display options. I particularly like the ability to scale web pages to fit within the printer margins—others have it, but IE7 does it better. You can also scale the on-screen page view using a little drop-down in the lower right corner, another very nice touch.
IE7 is supposed to have better web standards support. I hope this means it finally handles relative positioning properly. So far, the changes in this area look encouraging.
Hang on, it’s time for another colorful screen shot. This one illustrates IE7’s much-heralded RSS newsfeed support…
I like the Firefox Live Bookmark system for handling RSS feeds, but that's a personal quirk. IE7's Sage-like sidebar setup works OK and may well be the more popular approach. As you can see in the above screen shot, you get at the list of RSS feeds by clicking on the Favorites Center toolbar button (the star inside the gold circle). This opens a pane down the left of the browser window incorporating tabs for history, RSS feeds and favorites.
Adding a feed to the Favorites Center is slightly awkward. The cleanest approach employs the Feeds toolbar button. If a web page offers a properly-formed link to a newsfeed, the Feeds button will light up. Clicking on it displays a list of available newsfeeds. Pick one, and its content will be displayed in the browser, with a Subscribe to this feed link near the top. Click on this link to add the feed to the Favorites Center list.
Incidentally, this IE7 release comes preloaded with a newsfeed for the Internet Explorer Team Blog. Keep an eye on it. It has a lot of useful information.
What about bugs? Well, I’ve found a few and I’m sure more will crop up with time.
Although this “beta preview” (whatever that means) is reasonably stable, it is most definitely not production quality. Before you dive in, read the release notes and back everything up.
There were a couple of installation glitches. The IE7 installation wiped out my IE6 favorites, although it is capable of importing my Firefox bookmarks. Go figure. It also re-enabled both of the Install on demand... advanced settings, which I promptly re-disabled (sic).
Otherwise, I've encountered some minor page rendering bugs and at least one non-functional option setting. Expect issues, some of them severe, with any application that uses the rendering engine API intensively. And, as I mentioned above, IE7 gets thoroughly flabbergasted when asked to open too many tabs at once.
Teething problems aside, what we have here is Microsoft's take on Firefox. It’s a creditable job, but lacks Firefox's more detailed control over privacy, security and appearance, and its easy extensibility. Nevertheless, I am very pleased to see Microsoft get serious about web browser development again. Make no mistake, Internet Explorer 7 is not just IE6 with a little eye-candy, there are some significant improvements here.
As soon as IE7 goes gold, I’ll be kicking IE6 to the curb.
Here are links to some additional resources concerning Internet Explorer 7.
Developer and Web Developer Checklist
IT Pro Checklist
What's New in IE7
MS has an online IE7 Tutorial
Moderately clever ad for IE7
Last 30 days of posts to the IE Blog
And, finally, if your eyes haven't glazed over yet, here's an index of all
the publicly available information about IE7: