IE9, Windows Phone, Silverlight: What can we expect from Microsoft at MIX?

At this moment, Microsoft is kicking off what is probably the most important MIX conference since 2006, with three make-or-break developments in key product categories taking the spotlight. Since January, the company has dished up a very cloudy picture of Windows Phone, and I don't mean in the sense of "cloud computing." That incomplete picture of the company's newly bifurcated roadmap was perhaps intended to spark anticipation and excitement, but instead in some quarters, it's sparked outright anger: What is the system that we now know to be Windows Mobile, supposed to become?

Windows Phone, and Windows Other Phone. At CES, we were told to expect the future of Windows Mobile. Correction, we were told later, it's not Windows Mobile. That particular episode was reminiscent of a 1970s detergent commercial: No, Mrs. Clawson, you're not using Tide, you're using new improved Tide! So we had a cute little name change. Correction, no we didn't, because New Improved and Classic will co-exist. But will they be compatible? Well, suppose Classic edition is called "Starter Series," or something to that end. If you start at one end of the product line, that naturally implies you're progressing to the other end, and that implies compatibility, right? Sure. Correction, not necessarily.

So what are the developers, developers, developers who comprise the audience of MIX 2010 supposed to do? How do they plan their projects? What do they develop for? Does Windows Phone 7 Series have a specific "interface," but for "Starter Edition" or "6 Series" or whatever it ends up being called, they use whatever the phone manufacturer decides? And whose apps marketplace does a "6 Series" app go to? Will we get answers today, or corrections?

Internet Explorer 9 is expected to be demonstrated at length tomorrow, though we may get some glimpses of it today. It's probable that MIX attendees may be the first to get their hands on the early code, with MSDN and TechNet subscribers next -- it would be a surprise if a public beta were to be released first before the developers see it.

What we expect from IE9 is more features under the hood than on top of it. Microsoft has been promising to build a more efficient and more standards-compliant browser this time around, but at this point, it would need a total replacement to become competitive in those departments against Firefox, Chrome, and now Opera. Some have advised Microsoft that a total replacement is indeed easy to do, if it were to embrace the open source WebKit engine used by Safari and Chrome (and soon to be partly embraced by Firefox). Adopting open source may be against Microsoft's genetics, but certainly its development team knows the browser field has become extremely competitive in the past year, and that Microsoft lags far behind.

Expect a warm embrace of the concept of HTML5 -- the next generation Web language, whose first complete working draft was published earlier this month with Microsoft playing a role. But in terms of the broader concept of Web standards, expect the company to continue its policy of "cafeteria compliance" -- warmly embracing some segments, and with others (such as high Acid3 scores), casting doubt as to the legitimacy or authenticity or public acceptance. ("Who writes these standards anyway?" was one message we heard frequently at last year's PDC.)

Silverlight will also be important this week because developers are expecting a cross-platform bonanza. Specifically, they've been led to believe there will be a breakthrough in mobile Web-driven video across a wide spectrum of new platforms, including this time Symbian. Last year at PDC, we saw the first glimpses of Silverlight video on iPhone, delivering the kind of quality developers know is feasible from Flash, if only politics didn't continue to stand between Apple and Adobe. It's ironic that Microsoft should have fewer boundaries between it and Apple than does Adobe...but not extraordinarily ironic, given the three companies' histories.

The whole cross-platform question will come full-circle this week with the issue of Silverlight on Windows Phone. Developers already know they'll be able to use Silverlight as both an applications and video platform for 7 Series, but what does this mean for "Other Phone?" If Silverlight can run 1080-line HD video with .NET speed and efficiency on what we've called Windows Mobile 6 in the past, then why shouldn't it? Wouldn't any barriers preventing it from doing so, be artificial?

These are the three questions which Microsoft may or may not answer this week, but we do know it will respond -- and how it responds could set the course of the company, and of Web development in turn, for the next several years.

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