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Ready or not, here it comes: Microsoft's venerable Internet Explorer Web browser has been completely refurbished, and the company recommends that all Windows XP users upgrade to the new browser as soon as possible, in order to enhance and ensure user security. In fact, Microsoft is so anxious for you to install IE 7, replacing version 6.x, that it is supplying the upgrade automatically over the next three months as part of Windows Security Updates.
The upgrade campaign began last week, and if it hasn't reached your PC yet, don't worry - it will. If you can't wait, surfing to http://www.microsoft.com will set you on the upgrade path you seek.
So what can you expect in IE7? Something completely different. The layout of the new browser has been almost completely revamped, with buttons and input boxes scattered far afield from where they were located in familiar old IE6. If you're the type that can browse the Web with your eyes closed because your hand knows where to move the mouse out of force of habit, plan on giving your eyes a workout as you get reoriented with the new program's real estate.
IE7's whole browsing philosophy has been revamped as well. Under obvious pressure from Firefox, which recently had an update all its own in FF 2.0, the new Internet Explorer utilizes Firefox style tabs, which will allow you to surf multiple Web sites from within the same IE window; you just click on the tab to switch between sites that you're surfing. Previous versions of IE required you to open a new browser Window for each site you visited, resulting in excessive use of computer memory and/or an unmanageable number of windows to navigate on the bottom of your screen, if enough IE windows were open.
Another Firefox innovation adopted by IE7 is the use of "add-ons," little programs that work in conjunction with the browser to increase functionality. There are several dozen add-ons already available at http://www.ieaddons.com/ - such as the Internet Radio toolbar, that lets you listen to on-line broadcasts while you work, or the Roboform Companion, which lets you easily fill out Web forms requiring name, address and other information.
Compared to the add-ons available for Firefox, the IE selections make for very slim pickings (and not all are free, as they are for FF), but if you can help Microsoft out by writing some add-ons, you could win yourself $2,500, a free trip to Las Vegas or other nifty prizes (http://msdn.microsoft.com/ie/addoncontest/).
One highly touted feature in IE7 is its "anti-phishing" filter. If you've ever gotten a phony e-mail from some bank you've never heard of demanding that you click on a link in order to submit information, lest an account you don't even have with them is closed, you know what a phishing scam is - a phony Web site designed to trick you into giving up valuable information, like your credit card number. As a security measure, IE7 will automatically identify such sites and prevent you from even loading them in your browser window. The list of suspicious sites is updated several times a day, since the scammers change URLs like they change their socks! Firefox 2.0, released like IE7 several weeks ago, also offers a phishing filter.
So what's not to like in IE7? Well, that depends on your surfing habits, your operating system, your sense of honesty and your ideas on community responsibility. IE7 is for Windows XP users only - if you're still using Windows 2000, 98, 95, etc., the most advanced Internet Explorer you can hope to have is the last version of IE6. So, if you want the experience of an up-to-date browser with tabbed windows, phishing protection and add-ons, you'll have to shell out for Windows XP (or use Firefox!). And as XP users know, any Microsoft download or update first checks whether you have a legal XP serial number - so if you've managed to use the serial number of your office computer's copy of XP until now, you'll also find yourself out of the IE7 loop.
Of course, there will be those idealistic XP users who will want to protest this "browser discrimination" - users who paid good money for previous versions of Windows should have the opportunity to surf with the browser of tomorrow.
And what about XP users who are used to things in IE6? Although Microsoft would very much like you to put your sense of social justice aside and be more flexible in your surfing habits, there is a solution for those who want to remain with IE6: A free tool, downloadable from http://tinyurl.com/l3zyk, will allow you to install XP security updates while skipping over IE7's automatic install. Upgrading - or not - to Internet Explorer 7 is turning out to be more than a simple browser update; it's a full-blown personality test. And, for your own good, make sure you know what makes you tick before you click on that update button!