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Internet Explorer 7: Is Your Site Ready?

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Author: Timothy Dungan

Potentially more exciting than the arrival of a new phonebook is the planned automatic update of Microsoft’s web browser, Internet Explorer. If you haven’t already heard about it – and I’m sure that most of you have – Microsoft is planning to release the first major upgrade to Internet Explorer since IE6 in 2001. With many new features, security upgrades, and changes to the core software itself, it’s a totally new browser that will suddenly be the primary browser of a good 70% or more of your audience.

Is your site ready for that? If you don’t know for sure, now’s the time to find out.

At some point during the next few months (the fourth quarter of this year,) Microsoft will be rolling out this upgrade as a high-priority, automatic update. That means that most Windows XP users will simply be online one day when they’ll receive a popup alert from the system tray saying that updates are ready for their computer. Virtually overnight, you’ll find most of your site visitors have made the switch.

This all seems straightforward enough until you consider someone like my father. My father is in his 70s. He browses the ‘Net daily. If presented with the option to install a security update, he has been trained to click accept (without trying to comprehend what specifically it is patching). If he accepts this and suddenly his browser experience changes (sites that used to render properly no longer work) he’ll be completely confused. He wouldn’t know how to uninstall. – Tom Raftery IE7 + Automatic Update = support nightmare

Frankly, this is true for the majority of your users. Like it or not, once the change is made, there’ll be no going back. Certain questions then arise:

• What will they see when they go to your site?
• Should you panic?
• Will you need to recode?
• Are you ready for the new toys? (Didn’t expect that last one, did you.)

Let’s have a look at what this change will mean for your site.

Things to Be Happy About

Those of us that routinely use other browsers or check our sites out in multiple browsers will find a lot of very familiar things integrated into IE7. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I’m happy for the changes and improvements they’ve made, but on the other, I find it annoying that a majority of non-technically-oriented web users will think of these as Microsoft innovations rather than Microsoft trying to catch up with everyone else’s innovations. Still, there is a lot to be happy about in this upgrade. Some of it–like improved web standards and CSS support–might require changes for some sites (That’s a good thing, really.) and some of it–like RSS integration–are an open opportunity to provide new services and gain a larger audience.

Tabbed Browsing

That’s right, tabbed browsing has finally made its way to Internet Explorer (boldly going where everyone else has been for quite some time.) If you’re like me and you regularly have to have a number of applications running simultaneously and then additionally have to open several different browsers to compare page layouts, then you’ll truly appreciate this addition. I can finally have ONE window of Internet Explorer open with a number of web pages displayed in different tabs (as I always could in other browsers.)

My only regret here is that there’s not yet a good, all-purpose, cross-browser compatible script to automatically open external links in new tabs rather than new windows. This would make a nice addition to Paul Boag’s External Links script that I (like many others) use so extensively. However, I’m sure that one will come along eventually.

RSS Integration

This is truly an awesome feature. I know that it’s already been a standard part of other browsers, but, because 70% to 90% of your users are surfing the web with nothing but Internet Explorer, the sudden ability to read and subscribe to RSS feeds right in their browser will be a totally new experience. If your site already has an RSS feed, then now’s the time to start planning how you might promote it to a more main-stream audience as well as how you might make it a more prominent part of your pages. If your site doesn’t, then now’s the time to start working on one.

The new feed button for IE7 remains grayed out and inactive while viewing pages without a recognizable feed (RSS1, RSS2, Atom, etc.) and then springs to vivid, orange life when viewing a page that has one. I don’t know about you, but I’d like it to be one of MY sites that a user first notices this strange new button on. You know it has to be tried at least once just to see what it does, and what it does is tell your users that there’s even more content available from your site then they may have ever been aware of otherwise.

The drop-down list of available feeds and feed types next to the button is a potential source of confusion for non-technical users, but most will simply click the main button and get the topmost, default feed. Upon clicking it, however, they get not only a new feed page, but some helpful information about feeds and how to use them. My favorite part, though, is the bolded statement in the yellow box that says, “You are viewing a feed that contains frequently updated content.” That’s practically an unsolicited advertisement for viewing your feed. I really have to thank Microsoft for including that.

Between all the browsers that I’ve tried (Firefox, Opera, and IE7) and all the feed readers I’ve tried out (including Outlook 2007 RSS) nothing beats the simplicity and ease of reading feeds of IE7. – Greg Kniffin RSS Feed Readin’ – IE7 is king

They’ve even gone a step further and added a sidebar allowing users to sort or filter your feed by date, title, author, and even category. Those categories, by the way, are the ones you’ve assigned to each piece of feed content. A little careful forethought in this department could net you some permanent, new site users viewing your content and, more especially, your advertising–especially if you pad every RSS “post” with some kind of incentive to click back through to your main pages.

Extensibility

One of the problems that Internet Explorer has always had was its inherent lack of extensibility. It was a proprietary, Microsoft application meant to do only what Microsoft had in mind when they shipped it–nothing more. This misguided approach froze it into being a passive browser. Firefox, with its numerous extensions, changed all that along with everyone’s concept of what a browser could be and what it can do.

With IE7, Microsoft has seen the light of following this approach, and they’re not stepping in with nothing either. They’re starting right out with some heavy-hitters, two of which immediately caught my eye, the Developer Toolbar–the Internet Explorer answer to Chris Pederick’s indispensable Web Developer add-in for Firefox–and Fiddler which is an HTTP Debugger that lets you fiddle around in that particular pot of code.

Of course, it remains to be seen if they can harness the kind of voluntary developer community that Firefox has, but they are off to a good start. At least this kind of “raising the bar” back and forth between the various browsers will continue to benefit all of us out here in the trenches.

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