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Beyond the browser is a brave new world….. honestly

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MIX06 Microsoft’s sold-out MIX06 conference is a brave affair, attempting to bridge an almost impossible divide – the gap between developers and designers.

Under fake Italian skies, and hidden in the cavernous halls of Las Vegas’ Venetian hotel, 1700 attendees are learning about Microsoft’s new web technologies and, if all is going to plan, having a conversation about the future of the web. It's different from the usual sort of Microsoft event - with more than half the speakers coming from outside the company and many, many shiny Powerbooks among the hordes of laptops.

Bill Gates opened the event by introducing Microsoft’s web strategy, describing the future of the web as one where software helps deliver user experiences, and takes them “beyond the browser”. With Microsoft in the middle of launching a range of web application development tools and new browser and display technologies, now was the time for the company to start working with designers as well as developers. One key theme in Gates’ introduction was the idea that user experiences needed to scale from mobile devices to PCs to TV screens and large public displays, and only software was able to help solve this problem.

The CTO of MySpace described how moving from an earlier version to ASP.NET 2.0 allowed him to reduce server count from nearly 250 to 150, and still support 65 million users. He then demonstrated a Windows Vista sidebar gadget that displayed MySpace hosted images, and linked directly to the web site. Ashely Highfield from the BBC showed a WinFX concept application that could be the future face of the BBC’s planned P2P programme distribution platform. The economics make sense – a terrestrial TV channel costs £7 million a year to run, satellite £700,000, and online only £70,000.

The much hyped conversation between Bill Gates and Tim O’Reilly wasn’t the slugfest that some predicted, but nor was it the love-in that others feared. Instead O’Reilly interviewed Bill Gates, focusing on some of the Web 2.0 issues that have featured in O’Reilly’s recent conferences. While Gates’ replies were clear and consistent with Microsoft’s view of itself as a platform company, he seemed to miss on some of the vision of the social networks at the heart of many Web 2.0 applications, and how Office and Outlook specifically could help build and manage individual networks.

Internet Explorer7.0 took centre stage, and Dean Hachaumovitch began to drill down into its features, from the slimmed down user interface, to its built-in RSS feed management tools. A new preview build released at the event is “layout complete”, so while the application may change, web pages designed to use IE 7.0’s improved CSS support shouldn’t need updating before Microsoft’s new browser’s final launch with Windows Vista. There’s also support for Microsoft’s identity management platform, Infocard. A demonstration showed Infocard working with both local and third party information services.

Perhaps the most significant announcement (at least for developers) of the first day was the release of the March CTP of its Atlas AJAX toolkit – along with a “go live” licence. While it plugs into both Visual Studio 2005 and Visual Web Developer Express, there’s no new UI, so you’ll need to roll your own code to handle asynchronous operations. There’s a lot to be said for Microsoft’s ASP.NET control model, as it allows developers and designers to assemble a page using familiar techniques, and then edit the code to quickly turn it into an AJAX application. As Microsoft’s existing ASP.NET data controls are based on XMLHTTP, they’re ready to go – but your own controls may need some work to be ready for Atlas.

Expression Web Designer made a brief foray onto the stage. Unfortunately, despite rumours of an imminent public release, we won’t be able to get our hands on any code until June. The demo build was impressive enough, a standards-compliant web design tool that works with Dreamweaver templates and ASP.NET master pages. Its CSS design tools were impressive, and intelligent enough to avoid generating redundant CSS. Of course, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so any verdict will have to wait for another three months…

So far, so MIX. Microsoft seems happy with the event so far, and is planning future design oriented conferences. If they manage to keep the marketing out of the equation, MIX could be a regular fixture on the conference calendar. ®

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