IE7 marches toward completion

The most interesting part of today's announcement that an IE7 release candidate is now available is the almost complete lack of news. If you're using a previous beta version, the upgrade is a must; for everyone else, it's a yawn.

The most interesting part of today's announcement that an IE7 release candidate is now available is the almost complete lack of news. No new features, a few bug fixes since the last beta release. And now the march is on to fix remaining bugs and compatibility problems. General Manager Dean Hachamovitch explains what this milestone is all about:

A release candidate is fundamentally different from a beta. With the exception of a very short list of issues we’re aware of and working on, we think the product is done. We’re looking to enthusiasts, developers, and IT Pros to tell us if this build has any critical, must-fix before we ship issues. The real world is much richer than our test environment and I appreciate the feedback that has helped us make the product better.

Ironically, installing IE7 makes the most sense if you're already using an alternative such as Firefox or Opera for some or all of your web browsing. You can continue using your preferred browser and get a generally better, safer experience for sites where Internet Explorer makes sense. If you prefer IE, you're better off sticking with IE6 for now, because of the number of sites that don't yet support IE7. Of course, if you already are using a previous IE7 beta, you'll want to install this one right away, and the good news is that it will take care of the previously messy work of uninstalling the old one for you.

Last August, when IE7 Beta 1 was released in a developer-only preview, Paul Thurrott called Internet Explorer "a cancer on the Web that must be stopped" and said: "My advice is simple: Boycott IE." Apparently Paul switched to decaf sometime in the past year. Today, he gives IE7 RC1 a rating of 4 smiling Paul-heads out of 5 and writes: "As for IE 6 users, I think it's both safe and prudent to migrate to IE 7 now... I don't think there's enough there to sway Firefox users quite yet--maybe IE 8?--but IE 7, even in RC1 garb, is looking good. Recommended."

Joe Wilcox, on the other hand, disagrees. His personal website "looks like crap" in this beta, even though it looks "beautiful" in Firefox, Opera, and Safari. The problem is IE7's still imperfect CSS support, Joe concludes:

Absolutely, way, way many more Websites properly load in IE 7 than do not, and Microsoft at least deserves some of the credit for that. The company has done a terrific job communicating what it's doing with the browser, and Microsoft put IE 7 into protracted beta, which facilitated broad testing by many Web developers. So, Microsoft has made great strides, just not enough to reach the goal.

My view falls somewhere in the middle. Given the size and general diversity of the web, I think it's pointless to be fanatical about any browser (unless you're actually writing code for it, of course). For most mainstream Windows users, the combination of IE7 and Firefox 1.5 should be a nearly ideal combination, in whatever mix suits your personal preference.