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In a complete about-face, Microsoft has decided to deliver a new, standalone version of its Internet Explorer browser in order to stem potential customer defections due to security and feature concerns.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates announced at the RSA Conference in San Francisco on Tuesday that Microsoft will deliver Internet Explorer (IE) 7.0 for Windows XP Service Pack 2 customers. The 7.0 release, which will go to beta this summer, will add new anti-phishing, anti-spyware and anti-virus safeguards, according to company officials. Microsoft officials did not offer a target release date for the final IE 7.0.

On Microsoft’s IE group blog, company officials acknowledged they had received some requests for an IE refresh for older versions of Windows, including Windows 2000. The response?

“Right now, we’re focused on XP SP2. We’re actively listening to our major Windows 2000 customers about what they want and comparing that to the engineering and logistical complexity of that work,” posted Dean Hachamovitch, the head of the IE team.

Hachamovitch added that Microsoft is now discussing its plans for an IE 7.0 release “because our customers and partners have asked us, with increasing urgency, what our plans are. We want to convey our intentions to our customers and partners clearly and in a timely way. “

Gates told keynote attendees that the company plans to launch a first beta of its Microsoft Update patching service in March. Microsoft Update is the successor to Windows Update, and will allow users to patch not just Windows, but also Office 2003 and Exchange Server 2003.

Gates also announced during his keynote address that Microsoft will deliver the personal version of Windows AntiSpyware for free. He added that Microsoft released to manufacturing the enterprise edition of its Internet Security & Acceleration (ISA) Server 2004 product, and that a second version of the Microsoft Baseline Security Analyzer tool for identifying common security misconfigurations should be available by mid-2005. And Microsoft is working to release the final version of Service Pack 1 for its Rights Management Services technology by mid-year, a company spokeswoman added.

Microsoft officials for months had been telling customers and partners that Microsoft had no plans to upgrade IE until the company rolled out its Longhorn client operating system in 2006. At the most, Microsoft might introduce some minor downloadable IE add-ons before then, officials said last year. In justifying its decision against upgrading, Microsoft had argued in antitrust cases in both the U.S. and Europe that IE was an inextricable part of the Windows operating system, and no longer a standalone product.

But with the numerous viruses, worms and other security problems that have become an increasing plague for IE users, Microsoft decided to change its course. The fact that FireFox has been making steady market share gains on IE over the past few months no doubt also helped Microsoft to deliver an updated IE release. According to the latest market data from WebSideStory, IE has about 92 percent of the browser market, and FireFox now has more than 5 percent.

Three weeks ago, Microsoft began informing selected partners that it was rethinking its self-imposed ban on doing a new standalone version of IE. According to sources close to Microsoft, the decision to refresh IE came none too soon, with some major Microsoft customers threatening to move to FireFox if Microsoft failed to do so.

During his keynote, Gates said that Microsofthas distributed worldwide more than 170 million copies of the XP SP2 Windows operating-system update since it first began shipping it in August 2004. Microsoft customers also have downloaded more than six million copies of Windows AntiSpyware, since Microsoft released a first beta of that technology on January 6 of this year, according to the company.