Microsoft has opened its annual developer conference with a push for Azure cloud services, a repeated commitment to HTML 5 and praise for what chief executive Steve Ballmer called "smart devices".
It is a combination of hardware and software that makes a device 'smart', and that 'smartness' is needed to get the most out of the cloud, Ballmer told the audience at Microsoft's 2010 Professional Developers Conference (PDC) on Thursday.
He highlighted Microsoft's work on natural user interfaces with the Xbox Kinect and on the recently released Windows Phone 7 OS for smartphones, before describing PCs as "the smartest device" for their processing power.
After pushing smart devices — as opposed to the 'dumb' browser-based terminals that some believe will take over from the PC — Ballmer moved on to the software.
He positioned HTML 5 as part of the next stage of Microsoft's familiar 'three screens plus cloud' vision. This foresees applications running on the PC, phone and TV and working in conjunction with services in the cloud.
"The glue that allows this world to come together and allows for amazing innovation is HTML 5. It's... a way of allowing and facilitating a level of independence between the back end and front end, even as people continue to invest in innovations to the front end," Ballmer told the PDC audience in Redmond, Washington.
"People build apps on the back end that increasingly think about HTML 5 as their lingua franca for talking to all the smart devices across the planet," he added.
Microsoft is placing the combination of smart devices with cloud services on Azure as key to the next generation of applications. In his presentation, Ballmer exhorted developers to "take advantage of Internet Explorer 9, build Windows Phone 7 applications and continue to fall in love with Windows Azure".
In line with its commitment to HTML 5, Microsoft announced a new platform preview of the Internet Explorer 9 rendering engine. This adds improved standards support, with CSS 2D transforms and HTML 5 semantic tags.
Bob Muglia, president of Microsoft's server and tools business, then took to the stage to unveil new Azure features, including a new Virtual Machine role — or elements of functionality that can be moved between Azure instances seamlessly — and support for Server Application Virtualisation.
Intended to help businesses get started in the cloud, the new Virtual Machine role will allow developers to run instances of Windows Server 2008 R2 on the Azure platform, using existing physical-to-virtual conversion tools to take whole existing servers and put them in the cloud.
Server Application Virtualisation takes a similar approach, but just for applications. Applications can be packaged from existing servers and delivered to run on Azure as a worker role.
The Virtual Machine role will be available as a public beta by the end of 2010. Server Application Virtualisation for Windows Azure will be available as a community technology preview (CTP) before the end of 2010, while the final release will follow in the second half of 2011.
Drilling into the new features in Microsoft Azure, Muglia described Microsoft's focus on platform-as-a-service (PaaS) in Azure. He talked about the role of PaaS in simplifying the way applications are developed, with consistent services and an underlying platform that is managed and maintained as a service, and with regular updates that do not affect the software running on it.
"We're very clear that this is the future of applications, and it will redraw the landscape," Muglia said.
Unveiling a new partnership, Muglia introduced Pixar's Chris Form, who announced that the animation company had built a proof-of-concept Azure-hosted version of its RenderMan software. This has the potential to provide smaller film-makers access to the same technologies used by large studios with their own render farms, according to Form.
Form appeared impressed by Azure. "We just uploaded the current version of RenderMan into the cloud, and it just worked. We didn't have to do anything. We can run same software in the cloud without any extra effort," he told the audience.
Other new Azure features include Extra Small Instances, which support low-demand applications using less than a full core for a much lower price. By the end of this year, Azure will also get Remote Desktop support and a full version of Microsoft's IIS web server platform, with support for smooth streaming video, the company announced at PDC.
An update to the Azure AppFabric platform will add support for a range of authentication methods, including OAuth, Facebook and Google, Microsoft said. AppFabric will also be used as a composition service, using declarative programming techniques to bring together services, data sources and workflows, and simplifying scalable cloud application development. The App Fabric updates are scheduled for release as CTPs by the middle of 2011, according to Microsoft.