IE7 gets tabs but does it matter?

commentary 1997 was a defining moment for Microsoft in its quest to dominate the browser market.After five months in beta, Internet Explorer 4.

commentary 1997 was a defining moment for Microsoft in its quest to dominate the browser market.

After five months in beta, Internet Explorer 4.0 made its debut in October 1997. Three days later, it recorded its one millionth download.

IE4 was then the underdog with Netscape Communications' Navigator holding nearly 60 percent of the browser market share. By the end of that year, the battle between the duo had intensified to a point of no return.

In time, Microsoft clawed its way up the ladder and in doing so, managed to wipe out any real competition from Netscape -- which was acquired by America Online for US$4.2 billion [in stock] in November 1998.

Fast forward to 2005 and Microsoft is still in the picture.

These days, the browser war is largely between IE and Firefox -- the Mozilla Foundation's open-source offering; its origins can be traced back to 1998 when Netscape Communicator was open sourced.

Two years ago, the foundation received US$2 million in start-up support from America Online's Netscape division and the story keeps getting better for Firefox -- it will soon hit 57 million downloads.

Market share figures comparing both browsers vary considerably. Some research firms put Internet Explorer 6 at 90 percent and Firefox with 5 percent. Others such as Janco have said the Microsoft product has an 84 percent portion, while Mozilla's offering sits at 11 percent.

Whoever you believe, the fact is Firefox has put a fire under IE. As for Microsoft, it hopes to widen the gap with a new version of Internet Explorer.

In February, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates announced that the company was working on IE7, with a beta launch slated for this September.

Gates didn't divulge much except to say that the browser would work with Windows XP Service Pack 2. This prompted me to question the availability of such a product: was version 7 just another security patch disguised as a "new" offering? Should it rightfully be called IE 6.1 for Windows XP Service Pack 2?

But since then, more light has been shed on the application.

Today, company executives finally confirmed that IE7 would incorporate tabbed browsing -- a feature which made Navigator even more popular in its heyday.

Internet Explorer users have been urging its maker to catch up with Firefox and other browsers like Opera by introducing tabs. Not only has Microsoft finally listened, IE's product manager went a step further by admitting it was a mistake to exclude the feature from its browser in the first place.

"I think we made the wrong decision here initially, and we're making the right one now," said Dean Hachamovitch.

Microsoft's capitulation is to be expected ... it swallowed a bitter pill last week when IBM openly declared it was encouraging employees to start using Firefox.

Market share numbers will always be open to debate but the bigger challenge for Microsoft is in winning the mindshare game. It's already lost so much with a bad reputation for insecure products ... and it will take more than tabbed browsing to convert Firefox users to IE.

Fran Foo is ZDNet Australia managing editor.