Last week, Microsoft hosted its annual MIX web development conference in Las Vegas. MIX is smaller than other Microsoft shows--much smaller than TechEd, WinHEC, or PDC. But it's no less important. In fact, with the computing world transitioning inexorably to cloud computing, one could make the argument that MIX will eventually rival TechEd in its importance to Microsoft's customer base.

And yes, that's true of you too, if you're in the IT field. Looking over the topics discussed at MIX--including Internet Explorer (IE) 8, Silverlight 3, Windows Azure, and even Windows Mobile 6.5--you'll see a number of technologies that leak over to the IT side of the fence, even today. But I think the most important news to come out of MIX this year is the notion of Microsoft's next-generation web platform.

Microsoft first unveiled its web platform back in October 2008, providing a way for developers and IT pros to download the company's entire web stack via a single Web Platform Installer (WPI). The first version of the WPI included the IIS web server with various extensions, the .NET Framework, SQL Server 2008 Express, and Visual Web Developer, Microsoft's free web development-oriented version of Visual Studio 2008. This week, a beta version of WPI 2.0 is available, adding such things as free and popular web apps like DotNetNuke and WordPress and the latest community version of PHP for Windows. In either case, WPI examines your system, determines what you don't have, allows you to pick and choose from its offerings, then installs and customizes accordingly, all from the web. It's pretty slick.

The Microsoft web platform, and WPI specifically, point to an interesting and interoperable future. This, of course, is driven by the very nature of the web. Consider IE 8, Microsoft's recently released new web browser. Finally walking away from over a decade of incompatible rendering engines, IE 8 will render web pages in a (somewhat) web standards compliant way for the first time. This could be painful for customers--and as Microsoft has pointed out, those customers are over one billion strong--but the temporary pain will pay off in the long term as IE becomes a better web citizen and an easier target for developers.

Also, note that WPI 2.0 is providing Microsoft customers with a popular ASP/ASP.NET alternative in PHP, in another agnostic move by the company. It's also providing customers with "the most popular Open Source and community Web applications that run on Windows." In other words, yes, Microsoft would prefer that you use ASP.NET and Silverlight. But the most important thing is that its underlying web platform be able to accommodate the web technologies that you choose. It's very pragmatic.

Lauren Cooney, the group product manager of Microsoft?s web platform, says that the company is evaluating other languages and applications going forward, and that the web platform will continue to offer turn-key and simple solutions for businesses wanting to get up on the web. WPI 2.0 is a great step in that direction, and one that I think will benefit those who have chosen to base their businesses on Microsoft technologies.

You can find out more about the Microsoft web platform and WPI 2.0 at the Microsoft Web Platform website. Also, be sure to check out Lauren Cooney's blog (which, incidentally, runs on TypePad).

An edited version of this article appeared in the March 24, 2009 issue of Windows IT Pro UPDATE. --Paul