REDMOND, Wash.--Microsoft kicked off its Professional Developers Conference today, releasing an updated test version of Internet Explorer 9, the company's effort to reassert itself in the Web browser market.
"We've tried to make the Web feel more like native applications," CEO Steve Ballmer said as part of a keynote speech this morning.
The update is a new platform preview that developers can use to test Web sites, but is not an update to the more full-featured beta version that Microsoft released earlier this year. Microsoft had said it would continue to update the platform preview versions for developers even after releasing the beta. Unlike the beta, the platform preview can be used alongside earlier versions of the browser. Microsoft said there won't be a second beta of IE9, but there will be a near-final "release candidate" before the final version is released.
Ballmer also talked about coming improvements to Windows Azure and noted that it expects to have more than 1,000 apps for Windows Phone when the devices go on sale November 8.
"We're driving hard," Ballmer told a crowd at the Microsoft conference center here. Although he talked about Windows 7, phones, and the browser, Ballmer stressed the role the cloud is playing in all areas of computing. "The cloud is a backplane on which to program and rapidly deploy applications. These are powerful new platforms."
Ballmer said that HTML 5 is the glue that will allow all kinds of new programs and devices to emerge.
Microsoft changed the format of its conference this year, having fewer people at the conference itself, but broadcasting it on the Web and having 30,000 people at local events worldwide.
"It is really remarkable," he said.
As for the phone, Ballmer said, "I think we really kind of nailed it," noting that it is more personal, offering more options than a one-size-fits-all approach (i.e. Apple) while offering more coherence (clearly a knock on Android).
Microsoft showed several Windows Phone apps including Facebook, a TurboTax title from Intuit, and, for the first time, the Kindle app for Windows Phone 7.
Ballmer also excited the crowd by telling the developers in attendance that each of them would be getting a free Windows Phone. Paid attendees will also get a free registration for the Windows Phone marketplace and Ballmer urged them to write some cool programs for their phone.
"We need your best work," he intoned, promising that in return Microsoft is going to put its full marketing muscle behind the new phone operating system.
Ballmer also showed the crowd some of the advertising for Windows Phone 7--ads that depict the phone as easy to access at a glance, contrasting humorously with current smartphones which often have users with their heads buried in their device as life passes them by. "Man, are we going to pump and thump," Ballmer said of the company's ad push for the new phones. "You're going to see a lot of these ads."
On the PC front, Ballmer said, as he has frequently, that Windows 7 machines will take new shapes and forms in the coming year, but didn't announce any new efforts on that front. The company has been under pressure to offer up a competitive response to Apple's iPad.
"You'll see people push," he said, noting ink (the ability to write onscreen using a stylus) and touch is built into Windows 7.
Ballmer gave way to server and tools boss Bob Muglia, who talked about Microsoft's effort to move from selling server software to offering tools and services for a world in which businesses can move more of their efforts to the cloud.
Muglia noted that, while it is a major shift, the move offers the ability to shift work from IT managers who today spend much of their time dealing with patches, updates, and other maintenance work.
"You are dealing with a lot of changes that aren't helping you," Muglia said. "That is all a lot of work," he said.
Windows Azure, Muglia said, allows businesses to offload much of that work. Even other virtualization options, he said, require hands-on work from businesses. "With today's world there is a lot of assembly required."
Microsoft announced some new options for Azure, including a lower-priced tier of the service as well as enhanced capabilities for moving existing virtual machines and applications onto the cloud-based operating system. The company also plans to add the ability to create virtual machines on Azure.
The goal, Muglia said, is to give businesses more time to spend on the applications that benefit the bottom line. To highlight the point, Muglia brought Disney's Pixar on stage to talk about how Azure will allow smaller moviemakers that can't afford their own huge data center farm the ability to use high-end rendering software.
Pixar's Chris Ford said the company has moved its RenderMan rendering software--an application that runs on Windows, Mac and Linux--to Windows Azure, which allows smaller studios to tap into the cloud only when they need server capacity.
In addition, Microsoft announced it has finalized a new marketplace for Windows Azure including a way to get data feeds, known as DataMarket. Formerly known by its "Dallas" code name, DataMarket allows companies to sell or make available for free various feeds that application makers can include in their programs.