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Tech-Ed 2008 Gates' Long Goodbye

In what Microsoft chairman Bill Gates described as his last keynote before he stops working full-time at the company he co-founded, the enigmatic tech visionary showed developers attending the company's 16th Tech-Ed conference Tuesday that he still has the drive to promote upcoming products even as he's cleaning out his office.

Amid reminiscences about the evolution of the software industry –Microsoft's first product was a Basic language interpreter, after all – Gates took the time to show off forthcoming development platforms and programming tools.

Gates announced pending second betas of the company's "Flash Killer" – Silverlight 2.0 – as well as Internet Explorer 8 (IE8). Silverlight is Microsoft's cross-platform, cross-browser, cross-device, streaming media player.

At his Tuesday morning keynote at Microsoft's (NASDAQ: MSFT) Tech-Ed for developers event in Orlando, Fla., Gates showed off Beta 2 of Silverlight 2.0, which will be released to testers this week.

The biggest change between Silverlight 1.0, which shipped last summer, and Silverlight 2.0 is that the latter supports programming using the .NET Framework, enabling application developers to use Visual Studio languages rather than just JavaScript.

Beta 2 will also feature what Microsoft calls a "Go Live" license, which enables developers to write commercial applications using the beta code. It is due out in final form by year's end.

Besides highlighting some of the browser's new features, Gates also said that the company will ship Beta 2 of IE8 in August.

"It's got what are called 'slices,' which are essentially small Web pages where you can highlight the portion of your page that should appear when somebody has not got it in a full-size window. It lets you get at the snippet type things, and provide a persistent presence in a very simple way, and we've made that extremely straightforward," Gates told the audience.

IE8 has not been without its share of controversy as the company tries to live up to its promises of more frequent updates as well as more complete support of Web standards.

Given Microsoft's tête- -tête with browser vendor Opera and the European Commission over IE's incomplete support of current standards, the company has decided to emphasize standards support beginning with Beta 2 of IE8.

It's no surprise then that the most obvious feature coming for consumers in IE8 Beta 2 will be the browser's new default rendering mode. The new mode will work with sites built that use the most recently ratified Web standards -- a so-called "super standards" mode that the company agreed to support as the default in March. However, that will require many Web site operators to make minor changes to their pages in order to display properly.

IE8 is also due out in final form before the end of 2008.

Gates' 'final' speech comes as he prepares to officially end his day-to-day participation in the company as of the end of the month – although he did say recently that he will still likely work as much as one day a week at Microsoft on special projects.

The rest of his time will be dedicated to working at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – his and his wife's charity. As the company's largest shareholder, he'll retain his job as chairman of the board.

Among other announcements, Microsoft officials embraced a new alliance with competitor IBM aimed at integrating IBM DB2 database access with Visual Studio Team System 2008 Database Edition.

Microsoft also announced two community technology previews (CTP) – sort of "non-beta betas" – of pending technologies.

The company released a new CTP for the Microsoft Sync Framework, which the company debuted in November.

The Sync Framework aims to provide a synchronization platform that enables developers to create collaboration features and provide offline access for applications, services and devices.

"It really comes back to the key things about this industry from the very beginning, which is … having platforms that are very low cost and very high volume, and having the right kind of tools," Gates said.

The company plans to release the final version of the Sync Framework during the third quarter of 2008, and will provide complete support for the FeedSync open protocol format on devices. Additionally, Microsoft will release a CTP for Windows Mobile devices, also in the third quarter, the company said in a statement.

The second CTP announced Tuesday is the first release for a project codenamed "Velocity,"

"Velocity is a distributed in-memory application cache platform for developing scalable, high-performance applications," according to a post on Microsoft's Data Platform Insider blog on Tuesday. Among its features is the ability to use large clusters of computers as a single high-availability data cache.

Both Velocity and the Sync Framework are harbingers of where the company is headed longer-term, Rob Helm, director of research at Directions on Microsoft,

"The Sync Framework will eventually fit into [Microsoft's] Live Mesh [in order] to build a giant synchronization network," Helm said. Chief software architect Ray Ozzie introduced Live Mesh at an event in April.

Live Mesh is Microsoft's vision of a personal interconnected world in which all of a person's devices can communicate with each other -- called the "device mesh" in Microsoft's lexicon. The user's device mesh will be able to synchronize all kinds of data and applications among devices via communications capabilities, scalability features, management functions, and storage services provided "in the cloud."

"It's an interesting milestone toward the goals of Live Mesh," Helm added.

Microsoft made one significant change from previous Tech-Ed conferences. This year there were so many developers who wanted to attend that the company split the event into a two-week affair. This week is for developers while next week's event in the same Orlando venue is for IT professionals.

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