IE 9 Beta, Windows Phone 7 Tools Marked Microsoft Week

Microsoft's week saw the unveiling of Internet Explorer 9, developer tools for Windows Phone 7 and the rebranding of its Office Communications software.

Microsoft unveiled two major products this week: the beta version of Internet Explorer 9, which the company hopes will allow it to maintain its market-share lead against Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome, and the final release of its Windows Phone Developer Tools, which developers will presumably use to create applications for the upcoming Windows Phone 7 platform.

Both products represent substantial bets for Microsoft in the strategically important areas of mobile and Web browsers. In the former, Microsoft faces an uphill battle against the likes of the Apple iPhone and Google Android for market share; the latter is a necessary component in Microsoft's plans for the cloud.

Microsoft claimed in a Sept. 15 presentation in San Francisco that Internet Explorer 9 provides the best performance on the Web, leveraging both HTML5 and Windows 7 to deliver rich content faster.

"The Web is about sites; the browser should be, too. People go to the Web for sites, not the browser-much as you go to your PC for apps, not Windows. Today, Websites are boxed-in. The box is the browser," Dean Hachamovitch, corporate vice president of Windows Internet Explorer, explained to the audience during the presentation. "We asked ourselves: How could we put sites at the center of the experience? How can IE make sites shine. Our approach here is to use the whole PC."

New browser features include the ability to tag tabs into Windows 7's taskbar, for later retrieving a Web page without having to start up the browser, and "JumpLists" that allow easy access to Website tasks such as creating and checking email messages, or reading updated news.

Internet Explorer 9 also reflects in some ways on Microsoft's vision for the cloud, where traditional operating systems and localized hardware remain front-and-center in the user experience. The browser leverages the PC's underlying hardware, most notably its graphics processor, for accelerated graphics and video. "It makes HD video smoother, colors truer, graphics clearer and Websites more responsive," reads a note on Microsoft's new IE9 corporate Website. "Combined with our new JavaScript engine, the Web now performs like an application installed directly on your computer."

Internet Explorer also operates in a holistic way with Windows 7, such as the aforementioned "pinning" of Web pages to the taskbar. Pinned sites offer added functionality when selected, including links and player controls. Microsoft's "Chakra" JavaScript engine is designed to take advantage of most modern PCs' multiple CPU processing cores.

Microsoft hopes that Internet Explorer 9's greater speed, combined with features such as extensive support for HTML5, will allow the browser franchise to solidify its market-share lead. Analytics firm Net Applications estimated Internet Explorer's July market-share at 60.74 percent, an increase from June's 60.32 percent, followed by Firefox with 22.91 percent, Chrome with 7.16 percent, Safari with 5.09 percent, and Opera with 2.45 percent. Those other browsers, though, have gradually eaten into Internet Explorer's market share over time.

Microsoft's other big release of the week was the final version of its Windows Phone Developer Tools, which the company hopes will entice developers into creating apps for the upcoming Windows Phone 7. A large mobile app storefront will likely help Microsoft better compete against the likes of Apple iPhone and Google Android, which have steadily eaten into its mobile market share over the past few years.

The developer tools download includes Visual Studio 2010 Express for Windows Phone, the Windows Phone Emulator, Expression Blend 4 for Windows Phone and XNA Game Studio 4.0. Although the new tools are only available in English, Microsoft has expressed plans for French, Italian, German and Spanish versions in the next few weeks.

"We're really focused on quality; we have pretty lofty aspirations," Brandon Watson, Microsoft's director of developer experience for Windows Phone 7, told eWEEK in a Sept. 15 interview. "We have to show developers that they can build applications, that they can make money. So we're really focused on the quality of the applications."

While Microsoft has specific internal targets for the initial size of its application storefront, Watson declined to make public any numbers. Last year, however, Microsoft executives were very public about their desire for 600 apps heading into the launch of Windows Mobile 6.5.

Microsoft missed that target with Mobile 6.5, which may explain the company's reluctance to impart any numbers now. Nonetheless, Microsoft's executives hope the smartphones prove popular enough to help reverse the franchise's market-share slide. The first smartphones running Windows Phone 7 are rumored to be for release in October, although Verizon will reportedly not be a carrier until 2011.

Microsoft also announced Sept. 13 that it would re-brand the next generation of its Office Communications software. The new name, "Lync," is meant as a combination of "link" and "sync." Lync 2010 and Lync Server 2010 will offer users a unified end-user platform for enterprise telephony, instant messaging, video and audio conferencing, and application and desktop sharing.

"Beyond simplifying and shortening the current branding, customer research found that the name Lync appeals to end-users and IT pros, even more than descriptive options like Communicator," Kirk Gregersen, senior director of communications server marketing at Microsoft, wrote in a Sept. 13 posting on the company's Unified Communications Group Team Blog. "We were pleased that most people in research and internally gravitated toward Lync."

That news, of course, was quickly overshadowed by the IE9 and Windows Phone Developer Tools.