On April 25, at 12:01 a.m. EST, Microsoft opened the Internet Explorer (IE) 7 Beta 2 floodgates — and the phone support lines.

Microsoft posted for download from the Microsoft Internet Explorer Web site Beta 2 of IE 7 for Windows XP Service Pack (SP) 2 customers.

It also simultaneously posted new IE 7 Beta 2 builds for Windows XP 64-bit editions and Windows Server 2003 with Service Pack 1.

Until now, the only standalone test versions of IE 7 that Microsoft had delivered was the XP SP2 version.

IE 7, which Microsoft will release both as a standalone browser and as an integrated component of Windows Vista, includes a number of new features and functionality, including tabbed browsing, advanced printing, integrated RSS feed support, anti-phishing and other security-focused enhancements and more standards-adherent CSS support.

IE 7 Beta 2 follows on the heels of two different browser versions labeled as "IE 7 Beta 2 Preview."

Microsoft distributed these builds, which ran on XP SP2 only, in February 2006 and March 2006.

Testers who worked with either of these builds will not see any noticeable changes in IE 7, according to Gary Schare, director of IE product management. But those who have yet to test the code, or who have tested only Beta 1, which went out in July 2005, will see a number of improvements, he said.

"There will be no major difference in functionality from the last two preview releases," Schare told Microsoft Watch, as most of the code changes since then were "under the covers" bug fixes and security enhancements.

Testers running any of the previous IE 7 test/beta builds will need to uninstall them before attempting to install the IE 7 Beta 2 build, Schare said.

To encourage more testers to kick the tires of new IE 7 Beta 2 build, Microsoft is making free phone support available to a large subset of testers.

Microsoft is staging the rollout, making the English version available immediately; the Arabic, Finnish and German versions on May 3; and the Japanese version on May 8.

Microsoft will make free support available to North American, German and Japanese testers.

And, unlike the case with the interim test builds, Microsoft is committing to providing any and all IE security updates to IE 7 Beta 2 users, Schare said.

Microsoft is continuing to refresh the IE 7 code that is bundled into Windows Vista in lock-step with the standalone IE 7 builds, Share said.

There is a new version of IE 7, IE 7 build 5365, that is part of the Windows Vista Build 5365 that Microsoft distributed to a select group of testers on April 22.

That build does not include every feature and fix that is part of IE 7 Beta 2, Schare explained, as the two sets of IE 7 code are "a couple of days apart," in terms of build numbers.

There will be a new build of IE 7 that will be part of Vista Beta 2, which testers are expecting to arrive in May, that will leapfrog the IE 7 Beta 2 code. And there will be an IE 7 Beta 3 that will leapfrog the Vista Beta 2 IE build, Schare said.

Microsoft is still sticking to its planned "latter half of 2006" ship-date target for the standalone versions of the browser, according to Schare. The company is planning to make the next version of IE, whatever it ultimately is called, available within 18 months of the time that the final IE 7 product ships, he reconfirmed.

Matt Rosoff, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, said he has not heard about any major flaws or warning signs from IE 7 testers.

"I think IE 7 brings the browser to parity with Firefox in terms of features, and the security's a big improvement over IE 6. I think it will be good enough to stop some of IE's market share loss to Firefox, and perhaps bring some switchers back to IE," Rosoff said.

But "the one area that seems to be causing some confusion is the way IE 7 will handle Active X controls," Rosoff added. "There are two issues in play: the security improvements and the Eolas settlement. Both affect Active X controls in slightly different ways, but the end result's about the same: more intervention required on the part of users to run Active X controls."

In conjunction with the IE7 Beta 2 launch, Microsoft is launching a new Web site, IEAddOns.com, which is going to be a one-stop shop for Microsoft- and third-party IE add-ons, plug-ins and extensions, Schare said.

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