Conceding that it got a bit too lazy with updating Internet Explorer 7, Microsoft Corp yesterday kicked off MIX, a new conference in Las Vegas focused on “the web experience”. Aside from the release of IE7, the keynotes were short on hard news and long on vision.
The tools and technologies demonstrated yesterday were largely announced last fall when Microsoft unveiled Vista, the successor to Windows XP that is anticipated before the end of the year. Last fall, it said that it would get serious in providing tools, not only for Microsoft’s traditional base of software developers, but web and graphics designers as well.
The MIX conference this week is Microsoft’s attempt to flesh out that vision and cultivate a new audience traditionally associated with Adobe and the Mac.
The headliner was the release of IE7, which is now available for download. Acknowledging IE’s reputation for insecure and dated technology, Microsoft liberally laced its announcements with mea culpas.
We fell behind, conceded Dean Hachamovitch, general manager for Internet Explorer, as he and colleagues demonstrated how Microsoft has improved rendering, printing, and security features.
In most cases, the features brought IE7 up to parity with Mozilla Firefox, the first browser to give IE a fight since Netscape became toast. For instance, IE7 has added the tabbed browsing taken for granted in Firefox. IE previously had indirect support of tabs through its MSN search bar.
The same goes with print previews, which now show a page view that is reasonably accurate, much as you can currently do with Firefox. However one nice addition was the ability to crop page edges for to accommodate printer requirements or actual paper size.
IE7 has also improved Microsoft’s rendition of Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), a W3C standard that until now it supported mostly in the breach. Showing side-by-side comparisons of IE6 and IE7 displays of a Christmas tree drawing rendered using CSS, IE7 actually showed a recognizable tree. You could hardly say the same for its predecessor.
With security one of IE’s weakest points, Microsoft has gone to great pains to clean up its act. It demonstrated a layered security system that maintains a blacklist of rogue websites or pages, and the ability to see business details behind reputable sites that have taken out VeriSign SSL certificates (such as how long the site has had a valid certificate with VeriSign).
It also demonstrated support of InfoCard, the successor to Passport, which exchanges identity tokens with trusted web sites. Microsoft demonstrated how you could select the token matching a particular aspect of your profile with an online merchant.
And IE7 does a better job of alerting you when your guard has been lowered with permissive security settings. For instance, you might lower the settings while connected to a LAN. But if you forget to restore them when you log on again at a Starbucks hot spot, IE will alert you loud and clear.
Finally Microsoft demonstrated a feature of IE7 that is intended to extend beyond the browser. RSS (short for Really Simple Syndication) is associated with blogs and news groups.
Microsoft demonstrated how IE 7’s RSS support is being extended to other Microsoft Office products, such as Outlook, so you can be alerted when relevant feeds come in. It also showed a capability to query feeds by category, preview them, and use RSS to receive other data, such as rich images, not normally associated with these feeds.
Microsoft also spent a lot of time demonstrating Project Atlas, its tooling implementation of Ajax style web client programming. Gates emphasized that Microsoft hardly a newcomer to many of Ajax’s underlying technologies.
We began building many of these capabilities into the browser as far back as 1997, he said, referring to IE’s early support of Dynamic HTML.
Ironically, Microsoft’s promotion of DHTML at the time was as a Java killer. Gates boasted that Microsoft’s support of DHTML, a component of Ajax, is now in its third generation.
As we reported last week, Microsoft said it is now OK to start working with Atlas, which is now in its fifth Community Technology Preview (CTP), but only for non-mission critical applications.
During the question and answer portion of the keynote, Gates was asked by publisher and evangelist Tim O’Reilly (the same guy who claims credit for inventing the Web 2.0 moniker) as to whether Microsoft would accelerate its development model and issue more frequent software releases.
In fact, Microsoft, and most other major vendors, are doing just that in the tools space. But it gave Gates another opportunity to pledge that Microsoft would be faster on its feet with IE in the future.
He said that Microsoft would continue being cautious when it came to mission critical technologies like OSs or SQL Server. But when we think about IE, we’ll be more explicit with the UI portion, which we will rev more rapidly.