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Thursday, October 19, 2006 - Page updated at 08:12 AM

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Microsoft, Mozilla release new Web browsers

Seattle Times technology reporter

With more people using the Internet for everything from social networking to online banking to business functions, the Web browser has emerged as the center of our computing lives.

Now, the two top browser makers are releasing new versions of their products.

Microsoft, which dominates with almost 86 percent of the market, released Internet Explorer 7 for download Wednesday.

It's the first new version of the Web browser since Internet Explorer 6 launched in 2001 with the Windows XP operating system.

Since then, Mozilla's Firefox browser has emerged and gained a chunk of the market — 11.5 percent at OneStat's last count in October.

Mozilla, an open-source software-development organization, puts its share at 12 to 15 percent, with 70 million active users.

Firefox 2 is due by the end of the month, company representatives said Wednesday.

The changes in IE7 are much more dramatic than those in Firefox, which released its most recent version about a year ago.

"People use the browser more now and they use it more intensely than they did in 2001," said Dean Hachamovitch, general manager of Internet Explorer. "We had a very straightforward goal: safer and easier."

IE7's appearance is cleaner than previous versions, with smaller buttons and no drop-down "File" and "Edit" menus across the top. More space is given over to the browsing window itself, as well as a built-in search box and side bars to display bookmarks and content feeds.

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Another big addition is tabbed browsing, which allows users to view several Web pages in the same browser.

"You have tabs because you're continually going between multiple sites," Hachamovitch said.

Earlier versions of Firefox, a free, open-source product that runs on any operating system, helped drive the popularity of this feature.

Firefox 2 has improved its tabbed browsing by, among other things, allowing users to re-open tabs they've closed accidentally.

IE7 lets users launch a group of related tabs with one click on a bookmark.

"One of the things that the whole industry owes thanks to Mozilla over is the fact that they've really helped to reinvigorate competition in the browser market," said Peter O'Kelly, research director with the Burton Group.

IE7 is free to people with legitimate copies of Windows XP and newer Microsoft operating systems. It is not available on non-Windows platforms.

O'Kelly said he expects to see the two browsers leap-frogging each other in subsequent releases. "There's ample room for innovation here," he said.

Both browsers offer new ways to keep users away from fraudulent "phishing" Web sites, which seek to trick people into disclosing sensitive information that can be used for identity theft.

That's a hugely important feature, O'Kelly said. "The bad guys are getting pretty sophisticated," he said.

Hachamovitch said not all anti-phishing technologies are created equal, pointing to a Microsoft-funded study that showed IE7 outperformed rival technologies in accurately identifying phishing sites.

Firefox 2 was not part of the study.

"I think that you're going to see and hear about more financial-service institutions endorsing IE7 in different ways because it's in their customers' interest and in their interest to help protect people from all these scams," Hachamovitch said.

Both browsers offer enhanced RSS feeds to pull frequently updated content from Web sites and display it in various forms.

"RSS is a very important linchpin for how services and software are going to communicate over time," Hachamovitch said.

IE7 includes several of the features that differentiated Firefox from earlier versions of Microsoft's product. But Mozilla isn't worried it will give up the slice of the browser market it has gained.

"One of our biggest challenges has been getting the word out on Firefox," said Mike Schroepfer, vice president of engineering at Mozilla, which has about 70 full-time employees and thousands of volunteer contributors.

He said the changes in IE7 will be obvious to longtime Internet Explorer users.

For people content to stay with Microsoft, "that's great because they get a better browser in IE7," Schroepfer said.

"For others, there's going to be a realization that maybe I should look around ... and decide what the best browser is for me on the desktop. Who knows what will happen in the market?"

Benjamin J. Romano: 206-464-2149 or bromano@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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