Forest Key is leading Microsoft into uncharted territory for the software company: the land of professional design tools. After years of continual leadership in the developer tools space, Microsoft is marching in with a set of tools for designers, having announced its Expression suite last month.
Key, who is director of product management for Microsofts design tools, is indicative of the new breed of Microsoft employee. He is steeped in the designer world and has worked as both a creator and a user of design tools and technology. Key previously worked at Macromedia—which has since been acquired by Adobe Systems, one of the primary companies Microsoft will be competing with in its new push—on the Flash platform.
It is no secret that when Microsoft wants to enter a new market, it goes out and gets the talent to make its move credible and to swiftly produce a viable first offering. It did so in the enterprise operating system space, hiring people such as Dave Cutler from Digital Equipment and others from IBM; it has done so in the search and Web services spaces with strategic hires; and it is doing so again in the design tools space with people such as Key.
Key is an artsy fellow who speaks of a passion to equip designers and developers with new, better tools and also witness the products and content those tools can help create.
"In tools, you live for enabling capability in others—to be able to say, We made that possible," Key told eWeek during an interview at Microsoft, in Redmond, Wash.
Key has had a high-level taste of the creative side of the business. Before he worked at Macromedia, he worked in the film industry at Industrial Light & Magic, a Lucasfilm company founded by movie special effects giant George Lucas. Key even has his own entry in the Internet Movie Database citing his work on movies such as "Star Wars" and "BigLove." The software and processes Key helped create have been used to produce several other films, including "Mission Impossible," "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Matrix," as well as TV commercials for American Honda Motor, he said.
Key said that in his days at ILM, he would spend up to 70 hours a week using expensive hardware and software to render scenes for films. Yet he said he knew he could create tools that could cut both the time and cost of producing the same material.
"At the time, there was a product called Flame by Discreet Logic, now Autodesk, that cost $500,000," Key said. "The complete system we used was $1 million because before desktops were powerful enough, we had to do everything on SGI [Silicon Graphics] machines."
So Key and two others from ILM left the company to form Puffin Designs, which produced Commotion, a visual effects application for video, film and digital content creation professionals. Puffin later sold Commotion to Pinnacle Systems, which then was acquired by and remains a division of Avid Technology, where Key said he worked while he was in college.
"With Version 1 of Commotion, we solved the process of rotoscoping," Key said. "We realized it didnt take a million-dollar machine to do it. We took that to the desktop."
Rotoscoping is an animation technique in which animators trace over live-action film movement, frame by frame.
Key draws on his past but said he likes to look ahead and has a 10-year plan for where Microsoft and the industry will be with graphics, design and multimedia technology.
"In the next five to 10 years, well see interactivity on physical things, like in [the movie] Minority Report," he said.
Key sprinkles movie references into his conversation.
"In the movie Brazil, they had a very dark, fatalistic view of the future and computing," Key said. "I am an eternal optimist about science fiction and how well use computers and the [user] interface. And I think well get to the point where itll [the user interface] be voice-activated or gesture-activated. And Microsoft can enable that because we do think long term where other companies only think, like, six months to a year down the road."
Having worked at Macromedia on Flash and Flash Video, Key said his interest in interactivity, multimedia and the Web was whetted. But something was lacking.
"Thats how I got interested in Microsoft; I was charmed by the vision here to change the world," Key said.
Indeed, in a blog post from December of last year, Key describes how an engineering manager on the Macromedia Flash team came back from Microsofts 2003 PDC (Professional Developers Conference) and told him of a demo that signaled the direction Microsoft was heading, and it made Key want to have a closer look.
In the PDC demo, "Adobe After Effects was used to output this new markup language called XAML [Extensible Application Markup Language] and then Windows magically was able to render a rich multimedia representation of the experience, in real-time, on hardware rendering," Key wrote in the blog post.
"The idea that such skills (those of my own, as an advanced After Effects user) and a yet-to-be-released Windows technology would allow for a real-time design experience for actual applications. … I was hooked," Key said.
Key described Windows Presentation Foundation and the Microsoft technology code-named WPF/E, or Windows Presentation Foundation Everywhere, as foundational technologies that provide "ways in which the developer and designer community can build rich content experience for both Windows and the Web. Meanwhile, the tools in Microsoft Expression Suite—Expression Web, Expression Blend, Expression Design and Expression Media—complement each other to enable the development of applications."
Users say Microsofts tools are making their jobs easier.
"WPF has this great concept of separating work of designers and developers which we are very excited about. Expression tools are phenomenal," said Dmitry Mikhailov, president and CEO of Flowfinity Wireless, in Vancouver, British Columbia.
"Expression Blend provides an intuitive way to manage animations and create WPF motion graphic mini-movies," said Ryan Dawson, a designer with Thirteen23, in Austin, Texas. "This same type of work done by hand in XAML is tedious, error-prone and generally just hard to do."
Moreover, Key credited Microsoft for enabling him to build a team to focus on the user experience and for the companys "acknowledgment of individual contribution." He said his team includes people from varied backgrounds, including creative designers, lab researchers, cinematic experts, software developers, site designers, print experts and even a rock musician.
But they all unite to help Microsoft build its next-generation platform for designers that will enhance workflow between developers and designers.
That notion is only starting with the Expression tools, he said. "With Expression, were not nearly done," Key added.
Obviously, some of the overall vision for where Microsoft wants to take Expression is in the Version 1.0 products—which are either shipping or in some form of preview. But fully achieving that vision will take a few more years of that 10-year plan Key talks about. That means more years and more people to work on the projects.
"Each year, were hiring more and more people," Key said. "Right now, we have up to 70 positions we need to [fill]."
Indeed, Key said he believes that Microsoft, overall, "has to grow by an entire company to meet our targets. We just cant hire enough people fast enough."