Internet Explorer is a key part of Microsoft’s next-generation web applications strategy, Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates made clear Monday at MIX 06.

The company had made a mistake in waiting to build new innovations in its own browser technology, Internet Explorer (IE), 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 Web sites. "We are very immersed in the browser as a platform."

Microsoft's lacklustre attention to the browser allowed competitors such as Mozilla and Opera to challenge IE's dominance in the browser space.

Now Microsoft was 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 (Really Simple Syndication), he said.

Microsoft was already looking ahead to the next two releases of IE, and expects the next version, IE 7, to be broadly adopted once it is released later this year. IE 7 will be included in the Windows Vista OS, which will ship later this year. Microsoft also will offer a version for Windows XP at the same time.

As expected, Gates announced a new test version of IE 7 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 hard to establish credibility among this sector, which traditionally has favoured a combination of Adobe Systems Inc./Macromedia software and Apple Computer Inc. hardware to build Web sites 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 also is dangling big-name customers in front of the Web design shop as an attempt to lure them to use its tools and platforms, including the forthcoming Microsoft Expression set of design tools that competes with Adobe software.

MIX 06 attendee Lynn Langit, founder and lead architect for her own company 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 compatibility lab at MIX 06, where developers can test their Web sites to see how they will perform in IE 7.

The browser wasn't the only focus of Gates's talk. He spoke of going "beyond the browser" with tools for providing Web-connected applications on myriad devices, like the new Windows-based ultra-mobile PCs. Microsoft and partners unveiled the devices, code-named 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.