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When asked whether Microsoft will release an updated version of its IE (Internet Explorer) browser before Longhorn ships in 2006, Microsoft’s pat answer is that it has no current plans to do so. IE is part of Windows, and that’s that, according to the Microsoft party line.

But if you ask a slightly different question–whether Microsoft intends to add new features and functionality to IE without releasing a whole new standalone version–you’ll get a different answer.

“We are looking at whether we can use the add-on mechanism [used by third-party software developers] to roll out new IE features” before Longhorn, said Gary Schare, director of product management with Microsoft’s Windows client unit.

Schare did not volunteer any information on what kinds of enhancements or add-ons Microsoft might be considering. But IE users have been vocal in their demands for features such as tabbed browsing, built-in RSS (Really Simple Syndication) reading capabilities and support for the most recent cascading style sheet standards.

Microsoft has published a number of IE-related APIs (application programming interfaces) to its Microsoft Developer Network site, to which it is encouraging third-party developers to write. The IE programming model includes support for XML and enhanced dynamic HTML, company officials said.

A number of third-party ISVs are developing to this platform and are distributing all kinds of IE add-ons, ranging from blogging tools to search tools to RSS aggregators.

Microsoft recently aggregated this growing pool of IE add-ons and showcased it on its Windows Marketplace Web site. Windows Marketplace is Microsoft’s one-stop online shop for Windows hardware, software and services from Microsoft and other vendors.

There are nine third-party browsers listed on Windows Marketplace that use the rendering engine underneath, as does America Online Inc. with the current release of its AOL browser. Among them are Maxthon from the MyIE2 team; Net M@nager from Virtual Innovations; InnerX from InnerX; IESnap from Tonec; and the Avant browser from Anderson Che.

Microsoft’s strategy for competing with these and non-IE browsers, such as Mozilla’s newly minted Firefox 1.0, is a three-pronged one, Schare said.

Click here for a review of Firefox 1.0.

He said Microsoft will continue to issue security updates and hot fixes for its installed base of IE users; to evangelize to ISVs to get them to develop more IE add-ons; and to focus on building up the IE platform that will be integrated into Longhorn so that it is a great platform for customers and developers alike.

“There are no plans right now” to issue a separate standalone version of IE between now and when Longhorn ships, Schare reiterated.

To read the full story on Microsoft Watch, click here.