Microsoft's co-founder Bill Gates made the announcement during his keynote speech at the RSA Security conference in San Francisco last month. He said, "browsing definitely is a point of vulnerability," and said, "What we have decided to do is a new version of Internet Explorer. IE7 adds a new level of security."
This changes Microsoft's stance that new versions of the browser would only appear with new operating systems. The fact that the reversal came as rival browser Firefox reached 25 million downloads was no doubt entirely coincidental.
Unfortunately, Gates did not say precisely how IE7 would differ from IE6, except in having protection against phishing. This is an area where risks can already be reduced by using an accessory toolbar to show the real site behind an obfuscated web address.
Otherwise, there has been a massive amount of speculation about IE7 on the net, but none of it has any basis in fact. One common idea is that Microsoft will add the tabbed browsing features pioneered in the Opera browser and picked up by Firefox. This is certainly possible because Microsoft already has the code.
A more urgent need is for Microsoft to update IE's rendering engine to match current standards supported in Opera and Firefox, particularly CSS, PNG and XML/XHTML. This is also possible, but there is still no evidence it will happen.
However, one of the things Gates said in his RSA speech was, "We will include these capabilities in the next release of Windows scheduled for 2006, which is our Longhorn release."
I suspect that IE7 was intended for Longhorn and that Microsoft only belatedly decided to release it for XP as well. This fits with the decision, announced last August, that Longhorn's Avalon and Indigo technologies would also be made available to Windows XP users. Installing IE7 could therefore involve installing some Longhorn code, on which it may be dependent.
IE7 is clearly dependent on the security features in code shipped with SP2. This will make it difficult to provide a version for Windows 2000 and Windows 95/98/Me users can forget about it.
The IE team's blog, states, "We are actively listening to our major Windows 2000 customers about what they want and comparing that to the engineering and logistical complexity of that work. That is all I can say on that topic."
However, Microsoft has already registered more than 170 million SP2 downloads, which does not count the users who have installed it from CDs. It will probably ship more than 150 million copies on new PCs this year, which will give SP2 a large majority of the installed base. The chances of a Windows 2000 version must be getting smaller by the day.
Jack Schofield is computer editor at the Guardian