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As expected, Microsoft released the first beta of Internet Explorer 7 for Windows XP SP2 on Wednesday, but only to limited group of beta testers, developers, and corporate workers.
The long-anticipated IE revamp won't be put into wider distribution, Microsoft said Wednesday. Instead, it will head only to the 10,000 or so testers already lined up for Windows Vista Beta 1, and the 500,000 members of Microsoft's TechNet and MSDN programs, geared for corporate workers and developers, respectively.
Only when Beta 2 comes available -- and all Microsoft has said on that subject is "later this year" -- will IE 7 ship to the general public.
"Our goal is to get feedback, do a bunch more work around quality (performance, security, reliability, etc.) and some features (e.g. additional standards support beyond what’s in Beta 1, additional functionality around tabs and RSS, etc.), and release Beta 2 much more broadly," wrote Dean Hachamovitch, the head of the IE development team, in a blog entry Wednesday.
Although the testing queue might be limited, Microsoft has gone public with a list of the features in the revamped browser. On Wednesday, Microsoft posted what it called a "Technical Overview" of Beta 1 that outlines in detail the new and enhanced IE.
Some IE 7 features, such as tabs, have been known for months, but others revealed in the overview had been only vaguely mentioned previously by Microsoft executives. For instance, IE 7 sports a new anti-phishing defense that warns when a user lands on a potentially bogus site by flashing a red-colored alert and automatically steering the user from the site.
The Phishing Filter will first check against a "white list" stored locally of trusted sites; that list, which can be updated as many as several times each day from Microsoft, also includes what the Redmond, Wash.-based developer called "the latest industry information about the ever-growing number of fraudulent Web sites."
The first time a user attempts to surf to a site not on the legitimate list, they are asked whether they want the filter to automatically check all Web sites. Agreeing sends the addresses of sites not on the while list to Microsoft, which checks them against known URLs that have been reported as suspicious or hosting phishing scams.
That may have some privacy advocates in arms, since Microsoft collects a wide range of information -- not just the site visited -- including the user's IP address, and the type of browser being run.
"The information is used for statistical analysis and to improve the performance of the Phishing Filter service," said Microsoft in a privacy statement detailing IE's data collection capabilities also posted online Wednesday. Automatic checking of sites with the Phishing Filter, however, is turned off by default, a clue that Microsoft expects some flak for the new tool.
Other anti-phishing solutions use a similar approach, gathering information from users to build lists of trusted and untrusted sites. Netcraft's Anti-Phishing toolbar for IE (and Mozilla's Firefox) also collects suspect sites encountered by users.
Microsoft outlined other features in IE 7, including support for Real Simple Syndication (RSS) news feeds, shrink-to-fit printing of Web pages, and a toolbar search box that lets users search with AOL, Ask Jeeves, Google, MSN, and Yahoo engines.
A new security bar also gives users more information about a site's trustworthiness, including a special color-coded icon in the browser when IE 7 detects an irregularity with the site's digital certificate.
Several of IE's notorious areas of vulnerabilities, including cross-domain scripting and mishandling of URLs, have also been beefed up, said Microsoft. It's made behind-the-scenes code changes to improve protection against the former and requires that all windows, even pop-ups, carry an address bar, a strategy that may defeat some hackers using the latter.
One of the most interesting tools in IE 7 for Vista, however, will not translate to XP: a protected mode that gives users enough rights in IE to browse, but not enough to modify user settings or data.
On another IE note, Microsoft posted several screenshots of Windows Vista Beta 1 early Wednesday, including one of IE 7 for that OS. No screenshots of IE 7 for Windows XP was made available, but the interface will be similar.