Microsoft is gearing up to ship Internet Explorer 7 (IE7) for Windows XP by offering a late beta release of the Web browser, known as Release Candidate 1.

Expected to ship during the last quarter of this year, well ahead of Windows Vista, IE7 is the first real upgrade of the browser since the summer of 2004. And it is the first version of Internet Explorer in this decade to offer new features.

IE7 RC1 is a bug-fix/refinement revision. Microsoft's IE7 Beta 3, released on June 29, arrived with a modest set of tweaks. There's very little new in this release. Microsoft added French- and Spanish-language versions, and IE7 RC1's setup program automatically uninstalls previous installations of IE7 Beta 1, Beta 2 and Beta 3.

The installation program is also able to carry over user settings from previous IE7 installations.

In July, Microsoft announced that Internet Explorer 7 would be released via Automatic Updates. Following the release of Microsoft's Windows Genuine Advantage Notifications anti-piracy measure, many industry observers were critical of Microsoft's plan to release IE7 the same way. Traditionally, Microsoft has released almost exclusively high-priority and critical security updates through Automatic Updates.

Tony Chor, group program manager, the Internet Explorer team, reaffirmed in a telephone interview that Microsoft intends to release new versions of Internet Explorer every 12 to 18 months. "We already have software architects working on the next two versions of IE," he said.

Chor also pointed out that during the IE7 beta period, the browser's new anti-phishing feature has already blocked half a million attempted phishing scams.

Earlier this month, Chor posted in the IE development team's blog, IEBlog, about a very minor name change for Internet Explorer 7.

IE7 will come in two flavours, with a version for XP and another for Vista. The Vista version of IE7 had been called IE7+ because it adds some functionality over the XP version, most notably something Microsoft calls protected-mode browsing.

In Vista, IE7 will operate in a locked-down account environment that has little access to the rest of the operating system - a move designed to cut down on malware vulnerabilities. But Microsoft has decided that IE7 in Vista will no longer be called IE7+.

Chor says that it didn't help anyone understand the differences between the two variations of IE7, so the new naming convention wasn't all that useful.

IE7 Release Candidate 1 (RC1) is available for download from Microsoft.