Okay, I’ll have to admit, I’ve not been looking forward to writing this particular review - I find that after the fresh air of innovation that has been going on in the browser field over the last year that going back to Internet Explorer, even for just a brief look, is something that I’m loathe to do. However, my field right now is web development, and like it or not, IE will have a place in that field.
I was prepared to be as unbiased as I could, but even before starting it up, I’ve already found more than enough to get my juices flowing. I almost stopped when the IE install required that I confirm that I was running a legitimate copy of Windows XP, then, because I was running Firefox it ended up launching an HTA in order to load the requisite ActiveX control that checked my system. HTAs are web pages that run within the local security context, meaning that they can essentially go into your system and do anything. HTAs make me very nervous, precisely because they DO represent such a large potential security hole.
This feeling of invasiveness was only highlighted when IE required that I reboot my system in order to launch properly. Why does this bother me? Simple. You can run Firefox without needing to change the state of the underlying OS. You can run Opera without needing to change the state of the underlying OS. You run IE, and all of a sudden you’re back into the bad old days when a browser, an application, still ended up rewriting critical portions of Windows in order to run properly. Does this mean that I’m reintroducing instability into an environment that I’ve finally managed to stabilize enough to be manageable? You betcha. Am I happy about it? Not even remotely. Get a clue, guys, people don’t WANT super browsers that stick their tentacles deep into the operating system. Wasn’t this what .NET was supposed to give us?
Okay, once the system reboots (wait 10 minutes) I finally get a chance to click the new and improved icon and IE7 launches. The application shell launches fast - one of the downsides of Firefox is that it does rather take a while to launch, though there’s a fairly long pause while it loads and paints the browser window. Screen render time also seems to be faster than the Fox, though this isn’t that surprising.
A few thoughts about the interface - someone finally managed to get through to the designers that cluttered interfaces are bad. There’s no menu interface immediately visible (though a bit of searching finally revealed one hiding in the Tool section), and I think this is actually one of the better things about the browser. Overall the design is spare, and looks, not surprisingly, a lot like a just-out-of-the-box Firefox. A minor quibble on the forward and back buttons - they need to be a tad larger, as they present an uncomfortably small target for hitting.
That IE7 has added tabs is no longer a surprise - this was one of the key pieces of technology that has become so “standard” within Firefox and other browsers that had they not added tab support Microsoft would likely have had a revolt right then and there. While there’s a couple of nice pieces of functionality - the ability to do a preview of web pages for instance is particularly attractive, you don’t have the ability to change tab order, or (admittedly a wish list feature) move a tab from one window to another.
Microsoft has been paying attention to the notion of newsfeeds - among other IE7 has a button that becomes active when a web page contains one or more feed addresses - clicking on it will bring up a list of all of the available feeds, and will display these within an HTML page (and once displayed, let you add them into your favorites folder). Again, this is nice functionality to be adding, though its playing catch-up with at least a dozen such pieces within Firefox that are available as simple extensions. That they do include support for Atom 1.0 within their engine is particularly welcome, however, as it is a tacit endorsement that this spec is here for the long haul.
Search capability is the other piece added to IE, providing an integrated window for performing searches that mirrors almost exactly the search capability of Firefox. They do utilize the OpenSearch API, developed by Amazon partner A9, and it should be interesting to see whether this will prove to be a significant entry point for IE into the search venue (I’m encouraged by the fact that they are at least not trying to reinvent search protocols here).
What I find disappointing is what’s not here. You have support for Add-Ons, most of which appear to be ActiveX components (shudder). No doubt there is an extensive API for writing such add-ons, but so far the list of such add-ons is both rather sparse and singularly corporate in appearance (including all sorts of add-ons for sale, which admittedly may be a step in the right direction but is still rather discouraging to see). Will there be rich extension space that’s a feature now of Firefox (and personally one of its most valuable capabilities)? That’s hard to say. No doubt there will be an effort to offer such, but whether they will be the rich toolsets that seem to be populating the Fox space or Yet Another Search Toolbar remains to be seen.
IE7 could have re-established itself as the dominant browser quite easily. Firefox is going through a rough patch right now, bumping up against some earlier architectural compromises, showing some embarassing security gaffes, watching as the early adopter wave is beginning to taper off. It’s vulnerable, albeit far less than IE6 is. IE7 could have been a contender. It’s not. It’s a nice little browser, continuing to promote the misguided Microsoft mantra that believes that once Avalon et alia REALLY get shown that people will abandon the web for Microsoft’s far prettier, more colorful version of the web. For Microsoft, IE7b2 is like being a batter in the bottom of the ninth inning, two guys out and one guy on. They needed a home run. Instead they got a bloop single. They could still score a home run, still take away the game by pushing beyond nice and into stellar (and secure and conformant) - but they’ve only got one more chance to get it right …
Kurt Cagle is Director for New Technologies and Training with Mercurial Communications in Victoria, British Columbia, and is the author of multiple books on Web technologies, XML, SVG and AJAX. He is also the Chairman of the SVG Open 2006 Conference.
What’s your take on IE7 - is it the browser for the future, or a desperate stop-gap?