I can’t believe these words I’m typing, but Microsoft has turned out some much improved products in the past few months. If you can overlook Windows Vista for a moment, they’ve actually built a pretty good momentum of positive change in the company’s policies and products, culminating in their work invested in the upcoming version of Internet Explorer.

Take, for instance DreamSpark, their recently launched deal for college students to get copies of Windows Server, Visual Studio, and other normally costly software completely free. Sure, it’s under a license restricting the use to noncommercial uses, but that’s understandable. They’ve had the express versions of Visual Studio available for free for a while, but this another step in the right direction.

Consider their much improved pack of ‘Windows Live’ software. I’m writing this post in the latest version of Windows Live Writer, which I have been very impressed by. I had tried it about a year ago when it was first introduced in beta, and at the time it didn’t really stand out ahead of any other desktop blogging software like Qumana or ScribeFire. I can’t guarantee that it will always be as easy as I had it, but all I had to do was give it the URL to my site and it not only automatically collected my categories and preferences, but it figured out the style of my site and applies it to my posts as I write them so they look like they will once they reach the site. Also part of the ‘Windows Live’ collection is Windows Live Photo Gallery which has also impressed me, though not quite as much. It’s comparable to Google’s Picasa, though not quite having the layer of polish Picasa’s interface seems to have. The big plus I see in Live Photo Gallery is that it can natively publish photos to Flickr, which is the last thing Google would want Picasa to do (Flickr being owned by rival company Yahoo and all).

There’s a lot of cool stuff Microsoft has added to their online ‘Live’ offerings as well, such as their SkyDrive online storage. They give you 5GB of online disk space that can be organized into folders, public or private, embedded into other pages, or directly linked to. All pretty cool if you ask me, except that I’m only just getting to the best part:

Internet Explorer 8 is now available to the public in it’s first beta (you can download the latest beta here), and for the first time since I can’t remember when, it no longer deserves to be an object of contempt to all standards minded web developers. First and foremost, the designers rewrote the rendering engine from the ground up to be compliant with the CSS 2.1 specification, which means that IE8 passes the Acid2 test with flying colors! Now this doesn’t mean much to most users, but as a practicing web developer, it’s reason enough for me to be pretty excited. Unfortunately, this also means  that compatibility with a lot of pages specifically written for IE will be broken. Thankfully, they’ve designed the new rendering engine with three different rendering modes: Standards Mode (the new standards compliant behavior introduced in IE8), Strict Mode (the current behavior of IE7), and Quirks Mode (the old school method as found in IE5). To specify which mode IE will use to display your page, they have introduced a new use for the HTML meta tag described here at A List Apart. This is a huge step forward for Internet Explorer that other browsers should adopt in the future as well, as it maintains both backward and forward compatibility for web sites with the proper ‘X-UA-Compatible’ tag. They’ve added a few other fairly cool features, my favorite being WebSlices, but everything else is mostly end-user features which you can check out a preview here.

While I still greatly prefer my beta version of Firefox 3 to IE8, there is an incredible amount of promise in the changes coming up for the most dominant browser on the web. It is beginning to look like one day in a much nearer future, one standards compliant page could actually be rendered correctly by all major browsers on the market. Now, as long as we can start firming up the CSS3 specification I don’t know what else to ask for.