Security Bites Podcast: Firefox 2 beats IE 7

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that Mozilla unleashed Firefox 2 this week. Although the new browser is not a giant leap on from version 1.5, it does beat Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 7 in several aspects, including security, CNET News.com’s Joris Evers and CNET.com’s Robert Vamosi say on this week’s Security Bites podcast.

The release of the new Firefox was the starting gun for bug hunters to find security flaws in the applications. Microsoft said claims that the first IE 7 vulnerability had been found were incorrect–the flaw lies in Outlook Express instead. However, the software giant did confirm a spoofing flaw. Mozilla, meanwhile, is rebutting bug claims in Firefox 2.

The new browsers have raised some privacy questions among bloggers. Some suggest that the antiphishing filter in Firefox is a front for a data-gathering operation by Google. But no data is sent to Google, unless you opt in to do so. The phishing shield in IE 7, however, does send every Web address you enter into the browser to Microsoft.

Here’s the perfect stocking stuffer: tin foil wallets. Radio tags in passports and credit cards are causing privacy concerns. The solution: Wrap your passport and your credit cards in aluminum foil.

Microsoft Confirms IE7 Address Bar Flaw

Microsoft confirmed a vulnerability Thursday in the address bar of Internet Explorer 7. First reported by security firm Secunia on Wednesday, the issue occurs in popup windows. It is possible to display a somewhat spoofed address bar, the company said.

Due to this issue, a specially crafted URL with special characters may hide portions of the address. This could open the user up to attacks, including performing actions that it may not be aware of. Secunia has rated the issue as “less critical,” its second lowest rating.

No attacks using this flaw are currently known, Microsoft said. It also recommended users make use of the Microsoft Phishing Filter that is included within IE7.

“The Microsoft Phishing Filter online service is designed to allow us to update it fairly quickly with information as sites are reported and confirmed by us,” Christopher Budd of the Microsoft Security Response Center Blog said.

“We do have this issue under investigation and as always, once we complete our investigation we’ll take appropriate steps to protect our customers,” he continued.

However, Budd downplayed the flaw, saying Microsoft’s research showed the full URL can still be displayed by clicking in the browser windows or address bar, or scrolling within the address bar.

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America’s Next Top Web Browser

browsers

The last few weeks have been packed with browser action and the two market leaders, Internet Explorer and Firefox, have launched major new versions. So to round out our recent browser coverage, we present the Web Browser Faceoff – looking at how all the main browsers compare with each other in terms of features and innovation. We are basically looking for what is unique, interesting – and missing – in each browser.

Right now Microsoft still holds onto its huge market lead, but Firefox is gaining more ground every month. Probably more importantly, there are other major innovators in the browser space – such as the social browser Flock (a Read/WriteWeb sponsor) and the perennial innovator Opera. The Mac browser Safari of course has many passionate supporters, while new kid Maxthon is one to watch.

Regardless of who will prevail in the ‘browser 2.0 wars’, the users will win. While fighting each other, the browser makers innovate and simplify. They increase our productivity by integrating into the browser web concepts such as search, RSS, OPML, microformats and more. The core browsers are getting slimmer and faster, while extensions that cover a wide range of services are being developed by external parties.

Internet Explorer 7.0

Internet Explorer 7.0 is a major release from Microsoft, after nearly 5 years of silence. We just recently profiled this browser and concluded that it is solid – and even an exciting release, at least compared to its predecessor. Clearly Microsoft felt great pressure from Firefox to come up with the upgrade.

This release is mostly good. There are major improvements like Tabbed Browsing, beefed up security, support for RSS, built in search engines and better interfaces for bookmarks and history. Oddly, there are still some leftovers from IE6 – the major one being the in-page search box, which is nearly impossible to use.

Pros: Big improvement over IE6, nice user interface, very good RSS support.
Cons: Leftovers from previous release, performance is not great, not fully compliant with standards.
Faceoff bottom line: Solid release, which is going to help Microsoft maintain the market leadership in the near future

Firefox

Firefox just launched its 2.0 release. We covered the launch extensively with a Firefox 2.0 product review, an interview with Mozilla exec Chris Beard and a Firefox marketing discussion post. Firefox 2.0 impresses with its speed, stability and coolness. Mozilla has managed to create both a thriving community and strong extension ecosystem, that drives both improvements and market share. Firefox also has many great productivity features – like search engine integration, in-page search, simple RSS integration and tabs. It excels in overall usability, security and accessibility.

Pros: Great performance and feature set.
Cons: No built-in RSS reader, no hugely innovative features (like Flock) – so arguably not distinct enough from IE7.
Faceoff bottom line: We think that Firefox is going to continue narrowing IE’s lead, but await with interest the next major version!

Safari

No browser faceoff would be complete without Safari, the browser for MacOS. Like all things Apple, Safari has cool features – but it still feels like a ‘web 1.0’ browser. The most impressive feature is RSS integration. For each page that contains an RSS feed, Safari presents a handy search bar which allows the user to find entries by date, category and many other criteria. It also has built-in spelling – a feature that was just recently added to Firefox. The bookmarks and history are nice, but unexciting. Tabs are not enabled by default and there are no integrations with web services.

Pros: Simple, relatively fast, good RSS support.
Cons: Lacks web service integrations and productivity features.
Faceoff bottom line: It’s a clean and simple web 1.0 browser, but needs a major feature boost in order to be a contender even on the Mac.

Opera

Opera 9.0 is an interesting browser. It has a lot of good features, nice add-on infrastructure and a strong community. In terms of basic features it is not far off from Firefox. It is also fast and responsive, which makes us wonder why it is not used by more people. The answer, we think, is due to a couple of things. First the default skin and some UI elements are bit contrived. They look like a blend of future and past – and overall there is a lack of harmony.

The marketing of the browser has not been as strong, at least for desktop – since this browser has been focusing primarily on the mobile space lately. On a positive note, there is fairly complete RSS integration – including a built-in RSS reader. The URL toolbar and home buttons are done in a very clever and convenient way. Tabs are done well (and as a R/WW commenter noted recently, Opera had tabs even before Firefox). One other interesting thing about Opera are the desktop widgets. We found them to be cool, but somewhat unrelated to the browser since they run on the desktop.

Pros: Rich feature set, RSS integration, fast
Cons: Lacks coolness factor of Firefox, not as well known – but maybe an unfair comparison since Firefox is open source
Faceoff bottom line: We can see why fans like this browser, but a bigger future depends on spicing it up and poring in the marketing dollars.

Flock

Flock is the newest and perhaps the most exciting browser on the market today. This Firefox-based browser has taken the concept of browsing to the next level by radically integrating support for web services. For example, stock browser feature bookmarks have been replaced in Flock by integration with del.icio.us. Flock also features support for online photo sharing sites like Flickr and Photobucket.

Flock comes with a built-in Blog editor, which supports many blogging services including WordPress, Blogger and MovableType. There is also a built-in RSS reader, which is one of the best RSS readers on the market in our opinion. The innovation goes beyond the service integration, since Flock also includes interesting new UI elements like TopBar – which is an improved search box and scratch area for storing web snippets.

Pros: del.icio.us and Flickr integrations, built in blog editor, RSS reader, cool UI
Cons: Cloned Firefox code base, making it more work to make compatible add-ons.
Faceoff bottom line: Great productivity browser for web 2.0

Maxthon

We thought it would be worthwhile to profile the China-based Maxthon browser, which had over 55 million downloads by May 2006 – at which point it received an investment from Charles River Ventures. This browser is based on the IE engine and it claims to be 100% compatible with it. The first thing we noted is that the install was super fast, just a few seconds.

The Maxthon browser comes with many pre-installed plugins, mostly for integrating with web 2.0 services like del.icio.us, Digg and Technorati. The look and feel resembles Internet Explorer 6, with the addition of tabs and a sidebar for plugins. The UI is not great and we noticed a few hickups, but the integration with web 2.0 services is very impressive – at least from a purely features point of view. Consistency is achieved by placing all integrations into the sidebar and adding a vertical control for toggling between them. Besides these plugins there are many other features – perhaps too many, which could also be the cause of slow page loads.

Pros: Impressive integration with the latest web 2.0 services.
Cons: Too many features, lacks coolness factor, slow.
Faceoff bottom line: Need to apply Occam’s Razor (i.e. make it simpler), but definitely could be a contender because of solid service integration.

Summary

In one of his recent posts on ZDNet, Richard published statistics on the current browser market share. According to his post, IE still maintains a strong lead but Firefox is gaining ground – particularly in US. Looking at the browsers reviewed in this post, we can be certain that a lot more innovation will come over the next few years. Each of these browsers brings a unique, interesting approach – which will fuel the competition between them.

Whatever happens, we as users are certain to see better browsers that are focused on productivity and web services. Even though IE and Firefox are far ahead today, we see that other browser like Flock and Maxthon are ramping up support for the latest web 2.0 services – making themselves stand out and attracting early adopters.

Faceoff bottom line: This round of browser competition is going to be at least as interesting as the Netscape vs. IE ten years ago. And hopefully less one-sided!

Internet Explorer 7 vulnerability discovered

Internet Explorer 7 vulnerabilityAccording to security firm Secunia, the just-released Internet Explorer 7 contains a “Redirection Information Disclosure” vulnerability, which allows one site to fetch data from another site through the browser, which opens it up to all kinds of cross-site scripting (XSS) attacks. Interestingly, the same vulnerability has been known and unpatched in IE6 since April. It’s one thing not to patch an old browser, but seems quite another to release a brand new browser with the same vulnerability that you’ve been aware of for six months. If you’re running Internet Explorer and want to see the exploit in action, Secunia has set up a demo page.

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Microsoft hopes 7 is lucky number for IE

Some 18 months after Bill Gates pledged to revamp Internet Explorer, Microsoft is ready with the final version of Internet Explorer 7. The new Web browser, which has been in testing for months, is now available for download from Microsoft’s Web site.

On the feature side, Microsoft is playing catch-up in many areas. It has added support for Web standards, RSS Web feeds and tabbed browsing. The new browser also offers protection against phishing sites–malicious Web sites designed to trick users into handing over their personal information.

After months of ceding market share to Firefox, Microsoft has gained back a bit, according to the most recent statistics from OneStat. IE now has 85.9 percent of the market, an increase of 2.8 percentage points since July. Firefox has 11.5 percent of the market, down 1.4 percentage points compared with July. The Mozilla Foundation is getting closer to the launch of its own revamp, Firefox 2, which has hit the “release candidate” stage.

Chris Beard, vice president of products for Mozilla, said that Mozilla expects to release the final version 2 of Firefox late this month or early next month. As for IE 7, he said that his organization sees a lot in IE 7 that other modern browsers have had for a while. “We’re continuing on our path of how can we continue to improve upon the experience,” Beard said.


Microsoft is encouraging even Firefox users to install the IE update, promising them that it won’t make IE the default browser–or even ask them if they want to switch. “There are advantages to having it there, even if you are not a daily user,” said Gary Schare, Microsoft’s director of IE product management.

Earlier, on Wednesday, Yahoo made available its own custom version of IE 7, which sports Yahoo as the default search engine, Yahoo home pages and a Yahoo toolbar.

Arrival schedule
Those who have been beta testing IE7 will begin receiving the final version via automatic updates this week. Microsoft plans to push down IE7 via automatic update to IE6 users starting next month, though they will get to decide whether they want to install it.

Microsoft has also offered a tool for businesses that lets them indefinitely block users from getting automatically updated to IE7. Schare declined to say how many businesses have downloaded the tool.

Although Microsoft will begin making the browser available through Automatic Update next month, it could take many more weeks to get the application to all PCs in the United States. The software maker is staggering the release, in part to make sure it can handle the support calls. It will make free phone support available, as it has done since the Beta 2 version of IE 7 was introduced in April.

The software maker has primarily been touting the security enhancements that come as part of the new browser. However, Schare said anecdotally, the most popular feature among beta testers has been improved printing of Web pages.

Schare said Microsoft started focusing on trying to make the browser more secure when it updated IE as part of Windows XP Service Pack 2.

“That certainly helped a lot–clearly not enough,” Schare said. “We’re not done. We’ve already started thinking about the next one.”

Schare said the company is in the planning stages for another update, which is likely some 18 months out. Among the features Microsoft will consider adding are things that it wanted to include this time around, but opted against. Among the features in that camp are a download manager and improved searching within the current Web page.

It will also likely need more security improvements, though it is hard to say at this point what those changes will need to be. With SP2, the focus was on malicious software, while IE 7 is largely focused on social threats.

“We don’t yet know what the next one is,” Schare said.

It remains to be seen whether that update will come as part of an update to Windows Vista or on its own. “It may line up,” Schare said. “It may not. We’re willing to have it not line up.”

Rivals are not standing still either. The new version of Mozilla adds, among other things, its own anti-phishing abilities, which were co-developed with Google. Beard said Firefox is looking to improve further its lead on patching holes. Already, he said, Mozilla’s patches are released in “days, not weeks or months,” Beard said. “With (version) two, we’re looking to make that hours or minutes.”

Yahoo beats Microsoft to punch with IE update

Microsoft’s new Internet Explorer browser is now available–from Yahoo.

Although Microsoft has yet to release the final version of IE 7, its rival has posted a Yahoo-optimized version of the Web browser. The browser is essentially the IE 7 browser with a number of tweaks, such as Yahoo home pages, Yahoo as the default search engine and a Yahoo toolbar.

A Microsoft representative declined to comment on the fact that IE 7 is available from Yahoo before it is available from the software giant. Microsoft has touted Yahoo’s work as an example of the way other companies can customize the new browser.

The software maker has said it will make IE 7 available in the coming days for download, with automatic updates slated to go to IE 6 users next month. It has launched several publicly available test versions of the new browser.

Microsoft’s first major overhaul of the browser in years, IE 7 adds features such as tabbed browsing, built-in RSS reader and improved printing. The company has included a number of security enhancements as well, including an antiphishing filter.

How to Block IE 7 from Automatically Installing on Your Computer Via WinUpdate

The final version of IE 7.0 will be available anytime this month on Microsoft IE Website. Like other Microsoft Security Updates and Patches, IE 7.0 will also be distributed via Automatic Updates for Windows XP SP2 and Windows Server 2003 SP1 users.

If you have disabled Automatic Updates on your Windows system, you will be prompted to download and install IE 7 when you perform a manual scan for updates using the Express install option on the Windows Update or Microsoft Update sites.

Microsoft has provided a simple registry key to block automatic delivery of Internet Explorer 7 on your computer. Just download and install the following registry file.

Download DoNotAllow IE7 Registry Setting

For large corporates that may want to prevent their employees from installing IE7, Microsoft has provided a free IE7 Blocker Toolkit that contains a Group Policy Administrative Template (.ADM file) to allow administrators to centrally execute the action across systems in their environment.

Download IE7 Blocker

New statistics show Firefox is moving steadily to the top

browser market share

Is there still really a browser war? Microsoft hasn’t updated its browser in how many years? So obviously they might not seem to care about internet users. Nonetheless, new statistics are showing that Firefox and Safari are gaining more ground as the browser of choice for web users. Internet Explorer has been losing ground steadily since Firefox was initially released. This new batch of browser market share stats put together by Market Share by Net Applications, shows that IE is at its lowest point since 2005, sitting at 82%. While Firefox is gaining ground from 7.5% in September 2005, to 12.4% in September 2006. The new IE 7 is supposedly due out this month (beta release is out now) with a complete redesign and overhaul, but will consumers bite? Are internet users sick of the lack of updates and compliance issues with IE? Will Google continue to lead and grow the evolution and mass adoption of Firefox? We shall only see in next Septembers browser stats.
We want to hear what you have to say about this. What browser do you use? And what makes it better than all the rest?

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Sticking with Windows XP in a Windows Vista World

Article originally published by Paul Thurrott on winsupersite.com

Obviously, I spend a lot of time working with beta software. If you’re envious of that for some reason, consider this little slice of “grass is always greener” logic: Sometimes I wish my PCs just worked. Sometimes I wish I just used my computers as the tools that they are, and didn’t have to spend so much time installing, reinstalling, and fixing problems. From my side of the fence, your lawn is looking pretty darned good too.

What I’m getting at is that the Next Big Thing isn’t always a given. Sure, Windows Vista is cool, sort of, and it’s got some neat new functionality. But what would you say if I told you that the vast majority of new end user features in Windows Vista were already available to you–most of them for free, no less–in Windows XP? And that by skipping Windows Vista, at least for the time being, you’d be left with a PC that was faster, more compatible with the software and hardware you own, and just about as capable as an otherwise identical PC running Windows Vista?

Well, that’s exactly what I’m telling you. No, you can’t get the Windows Aero user experience without Vista, though I suspect the wizards over at Stardock will get pretty close. But do you really need Aero, along with its annoying incompatibilities, many of which result in sudden and jarring jumps into the Windows Basic interface? And no, most of Windows Vista’s security features aren’t available to XP users either, but you know what? You might not need them either, especially if your system is adequately defended with a hardware firewall and a good security software suite.

I’m talking about pure end user goodness here. Applications that are supposed to make people want Windows Vista. Things like the Windows Sidebar, Windows Calendar, Windows Photo Gallery, and Windows Media Player 11. These and other Vista-specific applications are really neat, but you can get identical or nearly identical applications on Windows XP too. And by doing so, you can eek some more time out of your XP investment, save up for a future Vista PC, or just avoid all the headaches that go along with upgrading to a new Windows version. Sure, you’ve waited 5 years for Windows Vista, but so what? Will another 6 months or a year be a problem? Really?

If you’d like to stick with Windows XP for a while longer, here’s some good news. You don’t need Windows Vista. And as I’ll describe in the next section, there are plenty of excellent solutions out there that will make you forget all about Redmond’s next operating system. At least for a little while.

XP replacements for popular Windows Vista applications and features

Windows Search: Windows Desktop Search

Back in 2003, Microsoft proudly showed off the WinFS-based Windows Search features it then planned to include in Windows Vista. Since then, three years of delays have allowed competitors like Google and Apple to take note of Microsoft’s strategy and release desktop search packages of their own. Today, there are plenty of desktop search products available for Windows XP. You’ve got your pick.

In my mind, the contest comes down to two choices. If you’re looking for the XP search tool that most closely resembles Windows Search on Vista–mostly because it’s based on the same technology–then Microsoft’s Windows Desktop Search (WDS) is the way to go. WDS replaces XP’s Start Menu-based Search tool with a far more functional version and provides you with a handy taskbar-based Deskbar.

If you’re looking for a bit more, consider Google Desktop as well. Like WDS, Google Desktop provides a taskbar-based Deskbar for quick hard drive searching. But Google Desktop also includes an interesting Sidebar feature that is very similar–but more capable–than the Sidebar feature in Windows Vista (see below). If you think you want to use both desktop search and a Sidebar-like feature, look into Google Desktop.

Both WDS and Google Desktop are free. WDS offers better shell integration than does Google Desktop, which runs its local searches in a Web browser just like Google Web search.

Windows Defender: Anti-spyware

When Microsoft purchased Giant Company Software in December 2004, I knew Windows users were in for a treat: I was a dedicated and enthusiastic Giant Antispyware user and knew it was the best anti-spyware solution on the market. Now, Microsoft’s version of Giant Antispyware, dubbed Windows Defender, is an integrated part of Windows Vista. But here’s good news for XP fans: Windows Defender is available for free on XP as well. And unlike some Vista applications that have been made available on XP in slightly-hobbled form, the XP version of Windows Defender is just as good as the Vista version.

Unlike some other security features, such as firewalls and anti-virus solutions, it’s not only feasible but advisable to run two or more anti-spyware solutions side-by-side on the same machine. For this reason, you should consider a second anti-spyware product. There’s been a lot of confusion in this space, and many people seem to have particular favorites, often for nonsensical reasons. My choice is ZoneAlarm Anti-Spyware, which is only $19.99 (you can also get it as part of the excellent ZoneAlarm Internet Security Suite).

Internet Explorer 7: Web browser

Say what you will about Internet Explorer–I certainly have–but version 7 is not just the best IE version yet, it’s also a credible challenger to the current Web browser champion, Mozilla Firefox. Best of all, Internet Explorer 7 is available for XP as well, though it loses two key Vista features, IE Protected Mode and parental controls integration. It’s still worth it: IE 7 is more capable and more secure than its predecessor. Even if you’re not going to use IE regularly, upgrade IE 6 to IE 7 as soon as possible.

It’s a tough call, but I’m going to remain with Mozilla Firefox. While I recognize that most mainstream Windows users will continue to use IE, I feel that Firefox is still safer, and it’s definitely got some unique features that are missing in IE 7, though the gap is closing. However, both IE 7 and Firefox are superior to IE 6.

Windows Sidebar and Gadgets: Mini-Applications

Windows Sidebar is an onscreen real estate-stealing panel designed to hold HTML- and script-based mini-applications that Microsoft calls Gadgets. The Sidebar is clearly a reaction to Apple’s Dashboard feature, which hosts HTML- and script-based mini-applications that Apple calls Widgets. Dashboard, in turn, was clearly ripped off from Konfabulator (since purchased by Yahoo) and other desktop customization utilities like Stardock Object Desktop.

If you’re into this kind of thing, there are a number of XP-based solutions. Microsoft is reportedly working on an XP version of Sidebar, but I haven’t seen any code since January and Microsoft has been curiously silent on the issue. But you could always go with the original, Konfabulator, which is now called Yahoo Widget Engine. This solution is more similar to Apple Dashboard–go figure–than Windows Sidebar, however, and doesn’t include a screen edge-mounted panel of any kind. So if you’re looking for something that more closely mimics Sidebar, you’ll need to look elsewhere.

I mentioned Google Desktop previously as a replacement for Windows Search. Google Desktop also includes a Sidebar-like mini application environment called the Dashboard, and it’s a decent Sidebar replacement, though it offers the standard Spartan Google interface. The Google Desktop Dashboards hosts HTML-, XML-, and COM-based mini-applications called Google Gadgets, and as you’d expect from a Google service, there are all kinds of useful Gadgets out there.

Windows Backup: File Backup and Restore

The new backup functionality in Windows is Windows Vista is as full-featured as it is attractive. In fact, it’s so full-featured that it offers both file backup and restoration features and image-based full-PC backup, the latter of which uses the VHD virtual machine format first developed for Virtual PC.

System imaging is pretty much a power user feature, but everyone should be regularly backing up their data. The problem is that virtually no one does. Vista’s Backup and Restore Center, with its automated backup feature, should help fix that problem in the future. But if you’re using Windows XP today, you’re going to have to look elsewhere.

There are plenty of decent backup applications out there, but my favorite also happens to be part of a complete PC protection and maintenance suite called Windows Live OneCare. It’s not free, but it’s not expensive either, and I’ve seen it available for as little as $15 after rebates (it’s typically about $20). Windows Live OneCare is a must have for a variety of reasons–it’s got tremendous anti-virus and firewall features, integrates with Windows Defender, and keeps your PC running at full speed by regularly defragging the hard drive. But the best feature, perhaps, is its Backup and Restore functionality, which lets you backup data automatically to external hard drives or optical media.

Windows Mail: Email

Windows Mail–aka Outlook Express 7.0–is one of the few Windows Vista applications that has almost no redeeming value. Therefore, even those who do upgrade to Windows Vista should look elsewhere for an email application. The commercial alternative–Microsoft Outlook–is your best bet. But if you don’t have Outlook and don’t feel like paying for it, fear not. There are plenty of excellent alternatives.>

If you’re looking for a standalone email client, look at both Mozilla Thunderbird and Microsoft Windows Live Mail Desktop Beta. Both are free, though WLM Desktop is ad-supported, unless you pay for a Hotmail Plus or MSN account. WLM Desktop is the most similar to Windows Mail; indeed, it’s based on the same Outlook Express underpinnings. But unlike Windows Mail, WLM Desktop supports Web mail accounts like Hotmail.

Don’t be afraid to consider a Web-based email client. Most of the new generation Web mail clients are quite nice, but the winner, by far, is Yahoo Mail (currently in beta). Gmail (from Google) and Windows Live Mail (which works with Hotmail accounts) are functionally similar, but neither is as attractive in a Web browser.

Windows Calendar: Standards-Based Scheduling

Windows Calendar is a tough one: It’s nicely designed and has all the sharing features you’d expect from an iCal-based application. Frankly, there isn’t a standalone calendar application that comes close on Windows. The only exception is the Calendar component of Microsoft Outlook: If you have that, just use Outlook. If you don’t, your options are a bit more limited.

The Mozilla Corporation, responsible for some of the finest Web browser (Firefox) and email (Thunderbird) applications on the planet, is also working on a standalone calendar application codenamed Sunbird. Mozilla Sunbird isn’t as fine-tuned as Firefox or Thunderbird, and it certainly isn’t as fully developed. But even the current pre-release Sunbird versions are decent enough for regular use. My guess is it will get more attractive over time.

If you’re already using Web-based email, the major vendors of those services–Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo–all offer Web-based calendars as well. Curiously, Yahoo’s entry isn’t particularly nice looking (unlike its new Web mail), but then neither Google Calendar nor Hotmail Calendar are particularly Web 2.0 either. If I had to pick one above the others, it would be Google Calendar. Why? Like most Google services, Google Calendar is supported by a wide range of third party add-ons and has a nice community of users. It’s also updated fairly frequently.

Windows Photo Gallery: Photo Management and Sharing

With Windows XP, Microsoft was pushing a task-based photo management scheme that was based in the files and folders of the Windows shell, and not in a standalone application. The success of Apple’s iPhoto on the Mac OS X platform proved, however, that users prefer to use a nicely-designed, attractive, and functional application for photo management. So Vista, as is so often the case, follows in OS X’s footsteps with an application, Windows Photo Gallery, that handles photo management, importing, and sharing.

To be fair, Windows Photo Gallery isn’t actually an iPhoto clone. No, as it turns out, Microsoft already had an excellent photo management solution, which it had been selling as Digital Image Suite. Photo Gallery is simply a pared down version of Digital Image Suite 2006, so if you want something that works like Photo Gallery but is even more capable, that’s the way to go.

Of course, Digital Image Suite isn’t free. What’s amazing is that you can get an application that offers much of the functionality of both Windows Photo Gallery and Digital Image Suite 2006, but is absolutely free. It’s called Google Picasa 2, and it’s a fantastic application. Since it’s a Google application, Picasa utilizes Google’s search engine to automatically find all the photos on your PC, regardless of where they’re hidden. But its editing and sharing features are excellent too, and a recent update adds Picasa Web Albums compatibility, so you can upload your photos easily to Google’s version of Flickr.

Windows Media Player 11: Digital Media Jukebox

Microsoft’s next-generation version of Windows Media Player had its thunder stolen recently when Apple finally shipped a version of iTunes, iTunes 7, that includes beautiful album art views. But the real irony here is that the best looking version of Windows Media Player 11 is available for Windows XP, not Windows Vista. Weird, eh?

Anyway, if Windows Media Player isn’t your thing, fear not. There are better digital media jukeboxes out there. My favorite is, go figure, Apple iTunes 7. It was recently updated to fix the stability issues that dogged the initial iTunes 7 release, and it’s got a much cleaner and professional-looking interface than does Windows Media Player.

Windows Movie Maker 6: Digital Movie Editingp

The version of Windows Movie Maker (WMM) included with Windows Vista is the best yet, with support for Microsoft’s recorded TV (dvr-ms) format and outputting in various HD formats. But XP users already have a very capable digital movie editor in Windows Movie Maker 2, and if you can live without those two aforementioned new features, you pretty much already have everything you need.

Windows Media Center: Digital Media in the Living Room

The Windows Vista version of Windows Media Center (WMC) is an evolutionary upgrade over the version offered in Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005, though it should be more widely distributed thanks to its inclusion in two Windows Vista product editions, Vista Home Premium and Vista Ultimate. It also includes unique new features like DVD jukebox integration and digital/high-definition television support. Unfortunately, there isn’t really any true analog to Vista’s WMC. If you have Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005, however, you get most of the best WMC features.

But what if you don’t have XP Media Center 2005? Snapstream Beyond TV 4.x offers the same digital video recording (DVR) functionality as Media Center, but without any of the Digital Rights Management (DRM) silliness that bogs down Media Center (with protected content anyway; Media Center won’t let you share certain content, such as that recorded on HBO or Cinemax). Note that Beyond TV is not free, however: The download version is $69.99, and of course you’ll need a TV tuner card and possibly other hardware. Check the Snapstream Web site for some reasonable bundles.

Final thoughts

In the interests of complete disclosure, there are definitely important new features in Windows Vista that you just can’t get anywhere else. But for many XP users–and let’s face it, we’re talking about several hundred million people here–there’s no need to upgrade to Windows Vista right away. To stave off the sense of loss that might accompany any decision to hold off on that upgrade, I hope this list of applications and services helps. But if you absolutely have to get Windows Vista right away, logic be damned, fear not: I’m working on a similar list of gotta-have-it Vista features as well. I’ll be looking into these reasons why you simply won’t want avoid Windows Vista in a future showcase. –Paul Thurrott

Screenshots


Windows Desktop Search

Windows Defender

Mozilla Firefox

Google Desktop

Windows Live OneCare

Mozilla Thunderbird

Yahoo Mail Beta

Mozilla Sunbird

Google Picasa 2

Apple iTunes 7

Windows Movie Maker 2

Snapstream Beyond TV 4.x

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Internet Explorer 7, out this month?

IE7So, Internet Explorer 7 will be here, ready for rockem, sockem jet-pack action (or not) in the next few weeks. I am still not convinced that IE7 is quite safe enough to use in every day browsing, and it is not extensible, I will still stick with Firefox, but IE is coming. Microsoft will release the update via Automatic Update to Microsoft Windows users “in the next few weeks as it becomes available.” Via the IEBlog, you can download IE7 RC1 to test for compatibility issues, the IE7 readiness kit, Application Compatibility Toolkit, or visit the IE development center, or read the Automatic Update announcement. Whether or not IE is ready for the world, that is still up for debate, but now at least you can be ready for it.

Source: IEBlog : IE7 Is Coming This Month…Are you Ready?