As reported yesterday in WinInfo, Microsoft has quietly released the first public beta of Internet Explorer 5.5, which follows the previous developers-only "Platform Preview" that was released previously. IE 5.5 features improved navigation performance and printing support, a cool new Print Preview feature, and numerous Web development updates. Internet Explorer 5.5 Beta is also the version public version of this browser to support 128-bit encryption. But the pickings are otherwise slim for end users, who won't notice much of a difference over previous versions of IE 5.0.
Windows 2000 users will be particularly disappointed with IE 5.5 Beta, which will only allow an install of the new browser, and not any of the other tools. Microsoft says that other updated IE components, such as Outlook Express, will be made available separately soon after the final release of IE 5.5, which is due on May 26, 2000. But the biggest problem with IE 5.5 on Windows 2000 is that it disables Windows Update; Windows 2000 users have to access a static download site to find and download any updates.
For Web developers, Microsoft has added a slew of new features, which is confusing as this is a minor update. The company points to improved editing features, support for vertical text layout, and some "compelling" visual effects as the highlights, but I question the need for such changes in such a release. In some cases, however, the new developer features allow IE to better support Web standards such as Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), and such improvements are always welcome. And some of the features clearly seem inspired by Microsoft's move to a hybrid HTML/Win32 user interface, first hinted at in Windows Millennium Edition ("Windows ME") and Whistler Windows 2001. Indeed, IE 5.5 will be included in Windows ME when its released in early June.
As I noted in my review of the Platform Preview release, the market for IE 5.5 is unclear: For end users, there aren't many compelling features beside Print Preview to justify the massive download. For Web developers, the new features are of interest though the potential target market will remain too small to bother through the end of the year at least. And with the first preview of Netscape 6, the massive IE 5.5 browser seems almost quaint in it's bloated 1990's sensibilities.
Also curious is Microsoft's lack of promotion for the new browser beta, which isn't currently being advertised on the company's Web site. Simply finding the download for IE 5.5 requires a serpentine series of steps through Microsoft's MSDN Web site. I'll spare you the details, however: If you're interested, simply navigate to the MSDN Beta and Preview site and follow the links in the left pane for "Internet Explorer 5.5 and Internet Tools Beta"