The browser isn't everything when it comes to Microsoft's platform strategy for next-generation web applications, but it remains key, chairman and chief software architect Bill Gates made clear yesterday at MIX 06.

Microsoft made a mistake in waiting to build new innovations in its own browser technology, IE (Internet Explorer), he admitted.

"In a sense we're doing a 'mea culpa' in saying we've waited too long for a new browser release," Gates said during his talk to kick off Microsoft's first show for designers and developers of high-impact websites. "We are very immersed in the browser as a platform."

Microsoft's lacklustre attention to the browser allowed competitors like Mozilla with Firefox and Opera to challenge IE's dominance in the browser space.

Now Microsoft is answering that challenge, Gates said. The company is building innovations into IE to improve the experience of users, as well as in security and next-generation technologies such as RSS, he said. Microsoft is already looking ahead to the next two releases of IE, and expects the next version, IE 7.0, to be broadly adopted once it is released later this year.

IE 7.0 will be included in the Windows Vista OS, which will ship later this year. Microsoft will also offer a version for Windows XP at the same time.

As expected, Gates announced a new test version of IE 7.0 at MIX 06, which drew a solid attendance for a first-ever show.

Attendees, the bulk of them web designers and developers, said Microsoft is wooing creative web design firms to establish credibility in this sector, which traditionally has favoured a combination of Adobe and Macromedia software and Apple hardware to build websites and applications.

One web designer from Washington, who asked not to be identified, said Microsoft is courting his company and even paid for him and his colleagues to attend the show. Microsoft is also trying to lure big-name web-design customers into using its tools and platforms, including the forthcoming Microsoft Expression set of design tools, which competes with Adobe software.

MIX 06 attendee Lynn Langit, founder and lead architect of WebFluent, said Microsoft in part is using its renewed focus on IE "to establish its dominance on the web". She said she was particularly impressed with the IE 7.0 compatibility lab at MIX 06, where developers can test their websites to see how they will perform in IE 7.0.

The browser wasn't the only focus of Gates' talk. He spoke of going "beyond the browser" with tools for providing web-connected applications on myriad devices, such as the new Windows-based ultramobile PCs. Microsoft and partners unveiled the devices, codenamed Origami, at CeBit earlier this month.

"We can't be device-centric. We have to be user-centric," he said. To do this, Microsoft is poised to offer an easy-to-use platform with tools and within Vista for developers to build next-generation web applications.