NEW YORK -- Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Explorer browser has been showing signs of aging. Over the past few years, the company has made security improvements and added a pop-up blocker but not much else.
That's about to change as Microsoft prepares IE 7, a major update that, in its early incarnation, plays catch-up with newer browsers for the Windows operating system, including Opera Software ASA's Opera and the Mozilla Foundation's Firefox.
The early version of IE 7, called Beta 1, was released largely for software developers to test for compatibility, so it lacks many planned features. More will come in Beta 2, expected later this year.
What Beta 1 does sport is tabbed browsing, a long-overdue feature that lets you open several Web pages without cluttering the computer desktop with separate windows. All the major browsers have this feature now.
Beta 1 also brings to IE another feature long available elsewhere: The search box.
No longer do you need to download a separate toolbar, from a third party such as Google Inc., to perform searches without visiting the search engine's home page. The new box next to the address bar initially supports searches through Google, Yahoo, America Online, Ask Jeeves and Microsoft's MSN, and later versions will let you add others.
IE 7 also has a shrink-to-fit print feature. Think of all the paper wasted on printouts of Web sites where margins get cut off. IE 7 simply makes the entire page smaller so the site fits across the width of the paper. The browser also invokes the feature when a printout would otherwise use only one or two lines of a second page.
And IE 7 supports Really Simple Syndication, or RSS, a technology for notifying users of new entries on their favorite news sites and Web journals. RSS feeds are relatively new, but the other major browsers already support them.
Most of IE's biggest improvements, though, are in security.
IE remains the dominant Web browser, but its market share has dropped to about 90 percent as rivals, namely Firefox, tout their greater security (even though Firefox has since had its share of discovered security holes).
Microsoft addressed IE security last summer with the release of the Service Pack 2 upgrade to Windows XP. Besides adding a pop-up blocker, it created additional prompts when Web sites try to remotely install programs and change browser settings.
Nonetheless, IE remains a frequent target for hackers given its widespread use, and Microsoft regularly issues new warnings and fixes for various vulnerabilities that might otherwise open the door to malicious programs like spyware.
So for IE 7, Microsoft made some under-the-hood changes to the underlying programming code.
The most significant alterations deal with the way IE handles Web site requests.
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