A Face in the Cloud

First Internet Explorer 8 and Silverlight 2.0 betas are released at MIX08.

Microsoft has set the agenda for Web developers by unleashing some key technologies and putting forth bold promises on how the company will advance its Software plus Services (S+S) strategy.

With a slew of announcements at the annual MIX08 confab for Web developers and designers held March 5-7 in Las Vegas, Redmond delivered on two of its most anticipated releases: the Silverlight 2.0 rich Internet application (RIA) runtime and the first beta of Internet Explorer 8.

"I'm pretty jazzed up about Silverlight 2.0, IE8," said Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer in his keynote.

In a stunning reversal, Microsoft said its IE8 browser will default to standards-mode, saying the move is in keeping with the company's new "interoperability pledge" (see "Microsoft Changes the Game for Developers").

Microsoft released several technology previews at MIX08: Visual Studio 2008 and Expression Blend 2.5 tooling for Silverlight 2.0, the Expression Studio 2.0 beta and ASP.NET MVC Preview 2, among others.

The company also unveiled a key partnership with Nokia Corp. and officially launched Silverlight 1.0 for Mobile, a browser plug-in for mobile devices. The first community technology preview of that technology, expected in Q2, is Silverlight 1.0 for Windows Mobile 6.

Quote from Dave Wolf, Vice President, Cynergy Systems Inc.

MIX08 attendees were also invited to participate in the first preview for SQL Server Data Services. Based on SQL technology, it offers a simple service API that enables "storage as a utility service," based on a pay-as-you-go model (see "Storage in the Cloud" below).

Utility Computing in the Cloud
All of these technologies underlie an emerging shift in Microsoft's S+S strategy, outlined in part by Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie during his MIX08 keynote. Ozzie described Microsoft's strategy for using services as a hub for devices, the Web and deskptop applications. Unified data management and connected development -- already realized through .NET and Silverlight, according to Ozzie -- are part of that vision.

"All our software will be significantly refactored to provide a level of symmetry between enterprise-based software, partner-hosted services and services in the cloud," Ozzie said in his keynote.

Attendees at MIX welcomed the new developments in Microsoft's strategy, especially support for mobile devices.

"Microsoft really understands the need to move from one device, one person, one location to any person, any location, any device," says Dave Wolf, vice president of Cynergy Systems Inc., an RIA design and development firm based in Washington, D.C., that specializes in Adobe's Flex and Flash and Microsoft's Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) and Silverlight apps.

The missing piece for Silverlight, and RIA players in general, is monetization, Wolf says. "We tell our clients that Microsoft will solve the player distribution problem one way or the other."

Microsoft asserts that monetization will come through advertising and -- based on Ozzie's obscure assertions about utility computing in the cloud -- perhaps through services with Silverlight, IE and SharePoint as front-ends. The company is investing heavily in search and advertising, most recently through its Fast Search & Transfer (FAST) acquisition and Yahoo! Inc. bid.

Microsoft is also forming alliances to facilitate in-stream advertising for Silverlight. Two partnerships were announced at MIX08: one with future Google Inc. subsidiary DoubleClick Inc. -- its VP of Advertiser Products, Ari Paparo, demoed a preview of a Silverlight 2.0 SDK; and a partnership with Move Networks Inc., a provider of live and on-demand video content -- its customers include ESPN Inc., ABC Inc. and Fox Broadcasting Co., among others.

New Bits
The IE8 preview offered up during the keynote by Dean Hachamovitch, IE8 general manager at Microsoft, focused primarily on new interoperability features for developers, including support for CSS 2.1, HTML 5.0, performance enhancements, IE7 emulation and integrated dev tools that support debugging across browsers.

Previewed features of IE8 included an Activities menu that allows users to highlight text on a page and then choose an activity -- for example, an address and Live Search Maps, or a camera and eBay Inc. Another new feature is Web Slices, which allows users to subscribe to parts of a Web page -- to get Facebook updates, for example.

Microsoft launched Silverlight at last year's MIX07 and released alpha bits of version 1.0, essentially a media player with a JavaScript programming model. Silverlight 2.0 is the RIA version, based on subsets of .NET Common Language Runtime and WPF's UI framework. Developers can use the .NET programming model, .NET languages -- C#, Visual Basic, Managed JScript, Iron Ruby and Iron Python -- and Microsoft's declarative language XAML to build RIAs. Silverlight 2.0 beta 1 adds about 40 common UI forms, layout and data controls; a networking stack with support for REST, WS-* SOAP, RSS, POX and HTTP services; and a base class library that includes LINQ and LINQ to XML.

The same markup and code can be reused in WPF and SharePoint, according to Microsoft. SharePoint Extensions enable developers to embed Silverlight controls as Web parts. The week of MIX08, Microsoft had already fielded 50 check-ins, fixing small differences between WPF and Silverlight APIs, according to Brad Becker, Microsoft group product manager.

"We want to make things as easy as possible for developers," Becker says.

While Silverlight 2.0 beta 1 gives .NET developers the tools and standard controls to get started, a new "Deep Zoom" feature in Silverlight 2.0 offered the "wow" factor. Deep Zoom enables users to use a power tool, Deep Zoom Composer, to stitch static .JPG images together. Developers can also use programmatic access to hit a database or server, for example, and bring images in dynamically and sort them, through an advanced feature called Dynamic Collections. This functionality was showcased during the MIX keynote in Hard Rock CafŽ International Inc.'s "Memorabilia" project.

A keynote preview of the site based on Silverlight 2.0 mixed streaming video with data, including expert commentary, event alerts, social networking and a jaw-dropping rewind-and-play feature planned for live video. All of the demos were based on the existing Silverlight 2.0 technology, according to Scott Guthrie, Microsoft corporate VP of the .NET Developer Division. The technology is also gaining momentum among end users, according to Guthrie: The download rate of the plug-in after 6 months is more than 1.5 million per day.

Tool Support
To support Silverlight 2.0, Microsoft released updated tooling. The Visual Studio 2008 for Silverlight 2.0 preview supports debugging and IntelliSense among other functionality. As with its ASP.NET AJAX controls, Microsoft is opening the source code of its Silverlight 2.0 controls on CodePlex under an open source license to facilitate joint development.

"The most important thing is giving people the source code so that if they don't like the way that our controls work, it's really easy for them to go in and subclass them or modify them," says Becker. "We want Silverlight to be an open platform."

Microsoft is also releasing its own testing framework, covered under an open source license, for UI and non-UI testing with "200 seeded tests." These announcements, made during the keynote, were met with applause.

The Silverlight 2.0 tooling in the Expression Blend 2.5 preview helps designers customize controls, although skinning is planned for a later preview. The Blend 2.0 beta supports Silverlight 1.1 and adds XAML vertex animation, according to Wayne Smith, Microsoft group product manager. Support for Visual Studio Team System, "something we get asked most about," Smith says, is not planned for Blend 2.0 or 2.5.

Expression Web 2 adds support for ASP.NET AJAX 3.5 and, significantly, PHP. The Expression group also launched a community Web site and introduced the Expression Professional Subscription, "an MSDN for designers," says Smith.

More to Come
Additional updates are expected: Microsoft will ship a service update to .NET 3.5 this summer, according to Guthrie. ASP.NET 3.5 Extensions, ADO.NET Services and updates to ASP.NET 3.5 AJAX are also planned for later this year.

The next beta of Silverlight 2.0 is expected in Q2 with the final release to the Web in Q3. IE8, although in beta stage, is further out.

Storage in the Cloud

Among the surprises at this month's MIX08 was a preview of Microsoft's SQL Server Data Services, a cloud-based repository service that will offer APIs that enable storage in the cloud.

Microsoft envisions the service as a storage utility for small to midsized businesses that need archiving or storage for large amounts of data such as health diagnostics or computer-aided design.

SQL Server Data Services uses a simple schema based on a model that's defined by three levels: authority (location of the data), containers (unit of partitioning the data) and entities. SQL Server is "the DNA of the service," says Tudor Toma, a group product manager at Microsoft. Currently, it supports SQL Server 2005.

The objective is to provide a low barrier to entry, Toma explains, and then based on developer and partner feedback, Microsoft will add more functionality so that the service is closer to what SQL Server offers today. Toma's group is also considering on-premise service APIs.

Queries are made using a LINQ syntax from C#. "That's how you express the query," says Soumitra Sengupta, a Microsoft program manager, "but you can consume it from PHP, from Ruby on Rails, from whatever environment-it's completely based on REST verbs."

Like Astoria, SQL Server Data Services will support ATOM and the ATOM Publishing Protocol. Microsoft is not going forward with Web3S.

SQL Server Data Services will be a closed beta program until the second half of this year, says Toma. Updates will be released every few months, and the service is expected in the first half of 2009. Interested developers can register to participate in an invitation-only beta on the homepage.


About the Author

Kathleen Richards is the editor of and executive editor of Visual Studio Magazine.

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