Internet Explorer 7 (IE 7) for Windows XP, billed as the most secure version yet of the world's most popular web browser, is now available for download.
In the face of deteriorating confidence among online consumers and a steady string of browser vulnerabilities, Microsoft has implemented new security features in IE 7 to better protect personal information and limit the introduction of malware. This is the first browser update since 2001.
"We listened carefully to our customers and are delivering a safer browser that makes the tasks they do every day much easier," said Dean Hachamovitch, general manager of IE's development team.
According to an IE 7 fact sheet, the browser "incorporates dynamic security technologies, including a robust architecture and new security features to better protect end users against online threats."
At the forefront is a new phishing filter, which warns users about suspicious sites and blocks access to confirmed bogus sites. Confirmed malicious sites are placed on a blacklist that is updated several times each hour based on research from Microsoft and its partner experts.
The browser also seeks to lower the risk of identity theft by displaying an SSL padlock with a green highlight anytime a user visits a site that has been awarded an Extended Validation Certificate, a more rigorously vetted and authenticated certification.
To protect against malware, the new browser version contains an ActiveX opt-in component, which disables most pre-installed ActiveX controls to prevent vulnerable ones from being exploited. Another feature restricts web page scripts from interacting across domains.
The version also contains new highlights designed to make internet surfing more user friendly, namely the inclusion of tabbed browsing - a feature popularized by Mozilla Firefox, the closest competitor to IE.
"I think it's a solid upgrade, one that people have been waiting for for a long time," David Smith, vice president of research at Gartner, told SCMagazine.com today. "It's amazing what they can do when they have some competition."
The release of IE 7 appears to come at a pivotal time for Microsoft after a recent report showed IE's market share has slipped to its lowest level in two years.
According to website tools vendor Net Applications, as reported by technology site Ars Technica, as of September, IE has an 82.1 percent global market share, compared to the growing Firefox share of 12.46 percent. Apple's Safari netted a 3.53 percent share.
"Firefox lit a fire under Microsoft," Smith said.
Open-source Firefox is expected to release version 2.0 later this year, complete with better code design and anti-phishing features, company officials have said.