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IE 8, Silverlight 3 on tap for Microsoft's Mix

The software maker's conference for Web designers kicks off on Wednesday in Las Vegas. A new browser and update to its would-be Flash rival will take center stage.

A correction was made to this story. See below for details.

The expected release of Internet Explorer 8 is likely to be the biggest headline out of Microsoft's Mix conference this week, though the company is likely to spend at least as much time talking about Silverlight 3, the next version of its would-be rival to Adobe's Flash.

Microsoft has already released a near-final release candidate version of IE 8 and is widely expected to declare the browser done as it prepares to address a crowd of Web developers in Las Vegas starting on Wednesday. Microsoft used last year's Mix event to offer the first public demo of IE 8.

Among its features, IE 8 includes a private browsing mode, the ability to create "slices" of a Web page that can be viewed on their own as well as greater compliance with Web standards.

The release of IE 8 comes as the market for Web browsers is heating up. Microsoft has seen its share of the browser market slip and has also been on the negative side of lots of speed comparisons from Google and Apple. For its part, Microsoft released a video last week that shows that IE 8 can still be faster overall at loading many Web pages, despite having a slower JavaScript engine.

As for Silverlight, Microsoft continues to add features and announce some high-profile deals, although Adobe's Flash has also won back some customers, such as Major League Baseball, and continues to maintain its ubiquity advantage.

Microsoft is also expected to offer new details on its Windows Azure road map. The cloud operating system suffered its first black eye over the weekend when it suffered a nearly day-long outage.

The software maker announced Windows Azure at its Professional Developer Conference in October. Microsoft has yet to detail what it will charge for the service, although pricing is not expected to be among the details Microsoft clarifies at Mix.

Personally, I'm looking forward to a chat from multitouch pioneer Bill Buxton, who currently works for Microsoft Research. Buxton is expected to talk about the importance of design in technology--a notion he has been trying to advance within Redmond's walls since his arrival at the company.

I had a chance to chat with Buxton at the recent TechFest event at Microsoft. He talked about the challenges that he faced when he joined the company three years ago. At the time, he said there was just one person with a design background that was in the company's senior leadership.

"It's not been part of the DNA," he said. Buxton maintains that Microsoft can do better, though, pointing to the company's Arc Mouse as an example of what it can do when it puts design at the forefront.

It was the lack of a design focus at Microsoft that attracted Buxton. "You go where there is a place you can apply your skills," Buxton told me. He just wanted to make sure he had "a willing patient." Buxton said Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer convinced him that the company did want to improve on the design front.

Buxton said he expects the effort to take some time, though. "It's a big company to change overnight."

Correction 1:34 p.m. PDT: This story was updated with the correct launch date of the Mix conference. It starts this Wednesday.