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Microsoft Shows Off IE8, Developer Tools at Mix08

Ray Ozzie has taken over the role of head visionary at Microsoft, but those looking for the "vision thing" at the company's Mix08 developer's conference in Las Vegas, might have been disappointed. Instead, the opening Mix08 keynotes in Las Vegas today, seemed more a culmination of several technology threads than a revelation of a new vision.

However, Ozzie and corporate vice president of developer platforms Scott Guthrie, did announce several concrete steps coming as early as today, aimed at helping achieve key goals in the company's evolving software-plus-services strategy. Included were the announcements that some long-awaited pieces of the puzzle are shipping in beta as of now.

For example, one of Ozzie's pet projects is the recent expansion of Microsoft's cloud-based Online Services for Business to customers with fewer than 5,000 users – bringing its Microsoft-hosted business services to small and medium-sized businesses later this year.

"[We're providing] the power of choice as the enterprise moves to embrace services in the cloud," said Ozzie, who is Microsoft's Chief Software Architect. "It's going to come from the inevitable shift to utility computing in the datacenter and in the cloud."

While Ozzie said little that he hadn't articulated before, he did announce a developer preview of a new, upcoming cloud service for businesses and developers. "Today, we're introducing a beta of SQL Server Data Services," he said.

The service is designed for developers building Web-based applications that need a scalable, easily programmable and highly available utility-based data store, according to company statements.

Internet Explorer 8 Preview

In addition, the company demonstrated several new features coming in Internet Explorer 8 (IE 8).

IE general manager Dean Hachamovitch demonstrated IE 8's new "super standards" compatibility mode to show that the next major release of Microsoft's browser will display Web standards-compliant pages as accurately as the Firefox and Safari browsers do.

"My son asked me, 'Daddy, did you guys break the web?'" he joked, referring to the company's spotty attempts to provide consistency in Web page display.

Over the years, Microsoft has taken plenty of criticism for not completely supporting Web standards and, in fact, on Monday announced the new browser will default to super standards mode – in part to help head off yet another investigation of its business practices by the European Commission.

"IE 8 will support by default the best compatibility that we can provide," Hachamovitch said. He also showed off new developer tools and features coming in IE 8, including support for cascading style sheets (CSS) version 2.1, as well as the addition of debugging tools built into the beta browser. Another new feature – called "Web slices" – will enable developers to write Web pages that allow users to subscribe to parts of a Web page instead of the whole thing.

Hachamovitch announced that the first private beta test release is now available for developers to begin testing. IE 8 is due in final form later this year.

Silverlight 2 now in beta

Also during the keynotes, company officials demonstrated features coming in version 2 of Microsoft's Silverlight cross-browser, cross-platform streaming media technology, including support for Visual Studio languages and the .NET Framework. Silverlight 2 also entered beta test Wednesday.

"With Silverlight 2, you can [write applications using] JavaScript, Visual Basic, C#, Iron Python, and Iron Ruby," Guthrie said

Additionally, Guthrie told the audience of Web developers and designers that the Silverlight 1.0 browser plug-in is currently garnering 1.5 million downloads per day. "With Silverlight 2, we expect that to accelerate further," he said.

Meanwhile, the company also announced it has also begun beta testing version 2 of Microsoft's Expression Studio design tools.

Expression Studio 2 will provide support for PHP in Expression Web, as well as support for Silverlight 1 in Expression Web, Expression Blend, Expression Media Encoder and Expression Design. An Expression Blend 2.5 preview that lets developers use the tools to write Silverlight 2 applications will be available this month.

On the wireless front, Guthrie said Microsoft is working on a version of Silverlight for Windows Mobile. Nokia, the largest maker of mobile phones in the world, announced yesterday that it will provide support for Silverlight on its S60 handsets later this year.

"Silverlight will support both Windows Mobile as well as non-Windows Mobile devices," Guthrie said.

Near the end of the day's keynotes, third-party content provider WeatherBug demonstrated its weather tracking plug-in running on Silverlight 1.0 on a Nokia N95 S60 phone.

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