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Silverlight 3 Beta Bows at Microsoft MIX09

Microsoft Wednesday kicked off beta testing for Silverlight 3, the company's competitor to Adobe Flash, and also released a preview of a major update to Expression Blend, one of its key Web design tools.

The announcements came during the opening keynote at Microsoft's (NASDAQ: MSFT) MIX09 conference at the plush Venetian resort in Las Vegas.

During his speech, Scott Guthrie, corporate vice president in the Microsoft Developer Division, announced a number of new features that have been added in Silverlight 3. Most had been expected since Microsoft officials began talking about Silverlight 3 last fall.

Silverlight 3, which is due out this year, will include major media enhancements -- including H.264 video support -- as well as 3D support and GPU hardware acceleration, according to Microsoft statements.

Version 3 will also run applications outside a browser, including on mobile devices, Guthrie said. It will also feature enhanced data binding support and additional controls, he added.

Microsoft's Silverlight streaming media client and server technologies debuted in 2007, with a significant update – version 2 – last year. Silverlight 2 added the ability to program applications using .NET languages like C#.

Guthrie said that Microsoft only plans a single beta test for Silverlight 3, which is available for download as of Wednesday.

Microsoft's annual MIX conference aims to bring Web designers and developers together to drive synergies in evolving Web technologies. For that reason, sessions and announcements at MIX cover a wide range of technologies, from browsers like Internet Explorer 8 to development tools like Visual Studio 2010 to cloud computing technologies such as Azure Platform Services.

The Expression Blend 3 preview adds SketchFlow, a new capability that helps designers prototype both the flow and composition of applications, the statement said. In addition, Expression Blend supports importing Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator files – including both layers and paths.

It also adds what Microsoft calls a "superpreview" mode that lets developers try out their designs under IE8, IE7, IE6, Apple's Safari, and Mozilla's Firefox, without exiting Blend. "You can test on IE6, 7 and 8 on the same machine," Guthrie added.

As expected, Microsoft's emerging Azure Platform Services, the company's cloud computing system, also received its share of the spotlight in Guthrie's speech and, indeed, in multiple conference sessions this week.

Azure is designed to provide an entire operating environment running invisibly on Microsoft data centers around the world. One recent addition to Azure, Guthrie said, is the ability to host both PHP and .NET code on the cloud.

For developers impatient to begin building Azure applications, there was good news there as well. "Azure is on track for commercial release later this year," Guthrie told the audience.

Guthrie also announced a number of new partnerships with media companies that have signed on to use Silverlight. Netflix, for instance, demonstrated how it is working with Silverlight to deliver streaming movies over the Internet.

Additionally, NBC announced that – just as it did for last year's summer Olympics in Beijing – it will partner with Microsoft to use Silverlight to stream the 2010 winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada.

Of course, Microsoft also plans sessions on both IE8, which InternetNews.com has reported is likely to be "released to manufacturing" this week.

The show also features sessions on Windows 7, which is about to begin "release candidate" testing as early as next month.