LAS VEGAS – Microsoft wants to make up for lost time, after waiting five years to update its Internet Explorer browser.
To wit, the company already has the next two versions of IE beyond 7.0 in the hopper. And while Microsoft execs won't specify exactly when they will ship or detail specific new features, they are offering some indications of the company's evolving browser thinking.
Microsoft released on Monday a new interim test version of IE 7.0, build number 5335, which includes a number of user-interface tweaks made by Microsoft since the company released the IE 7.0 Beta 2 Preview bits in January. Microsoft has labeled 5335 as the first "layout complete," or feature-complete, version of IE 7.0.
At Microsoft's Mix '06 developer/designer conference here, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates was quite adamant, in his Monday keynote, that ""IE 7 is not the end of the line."
"In a sense, what we're doing is saying, 'Hey, we waited too long for a browser release.' We will be able to [deliver] a browser much faster than the typical major Windows release cycle. We're already working on the next two releases. And so you can expect to see us moving very, very rapidly there because we see great opportunities."
Gates said Microsoft is considering releasing a new version of IE in as few as nine months – a goal that seemed to come as a surprise to both Microsoft developers attending Mix '06 and Microsoft's own IE team members.
"Nine months is very aggressive, but 18 months is too long," said Dean Hachamovitch, general manager of Microsoft's IE team.
Hachamovitch acknowledged Microsoft already is building the next two versions of IE. He declined to offer guidelines on delivery schedules or feature sets, other than to say one of the two versions will include "a complete reworking of the networking stack."
Hachamovitch also said Microsoft's plan is to continue to release a stand-alone version of IE simultaneously with any new IE builds integrated into future versions of Windows. The next version of Windows is expected in 2008, based on Microsoft's internal time tables. But Hachamovitch would not say if the version of IE that will be integrated into this Windows build is one of the next two upon which Microsoft is currently working.
Hachamovitch said future stand-alone versions will likely support only the most recently introduced version of Windows. In other words, Microsoft's next two IE releases will likely be supported on Windows Vista, not on Windows XP, Windows 2000 or older variants.
During Microsoft's Monday Mix '06 session on the future of IE, Microsoft solicited feedback from Web standards champions, designers and conference attendees on the kinds of features they'd like to see in IE.
Hachamovitch said Microsoft has three overall goals for its next IE releases: great standards support, safety/security, and a positive experience for end users.
But he noted that Microsoft's IE development team must balance trade-offs. How much should end users be in control versus developers when interacting with IE? How should standards compliance or improved security be balanced with the need to maintain backward compatibility? What about the simplicity versus control trade-off? And how frequently should Microsoft provide IE updates? Some of the company's constituencies would prefer daily builds, Hachamovitch said, while others would rather have something every 18 months or so.
Panel participants and audience members had numerous requests for the Microsoft IE team, ranging from the very specific – support for printing tables that are hundreds of columns wide – to the more general – allow users and developers to run different versions of IE simultaneously on a single machine.