Microsoft on Dec. 4 announced its Expression Studio suite of tools for designers, consisting of four tools—three of which had been introduced heretofore and a new tool stemming from an acquisition the Redmond, Wash., company made last summer. In addition, Microsoft announced a new CTP (Community Technology Preview) of its WPF/E (Windows Presentation Foundation/Everywhere) technology.
The Microsoft Expression Studio consists of Expression Web (formerly known by the code name Quartz); Expression Blend, the new name for Microsoft Interactive Designer (formerly known by the code name Sparkle); Expression Design, the new name for Expression Graphic Designer (formerly known by the code name Acrylic); and a new tool, Expression Media.
Expression Studio and all of the individual products will ship in the second quarter of 2007, said Forest Key, director of product management for Microsofts design tools. However, Expression Web, Microsofts Web design tool that had been in beta up to now, is available immediately through Amazon.com and other channels, Key said.
Newly named Expression Blend enters a public beta testing period on Dec. 4. The interactive design tool for building out Web user experiences is based on Microsofts XAML (Extensible Application Markup Language) and enables designers to create designs that lay out XAML code that developers can use in building applications that leverage both design and development expertise, rather than having the two disciplines work separately.
Microsoft also announced a new CTP of Expression Design. Both Expression Blend and Expression Design also boast new user interfaces, shaped largely by feedback from participants in the CTP process, Key said.
In the past, graphic designers, user experience professionals and developers worked in tool silos, and each step in the design process required translation from one format to another, said Chris Howard, an analyst with Burton Group.
"Now, a graphic designer using Expression Design hands off XAML-based assets to an interaction designer," Howard said. "The interaction designer combines those assets into a user experience, using Expression Blend, where the structure of the solution is created. That solution is opened by a software engineer in Visual Studio and complex application logic is added. No more Photoshop-to-Visio-to-Visual Studio reinterpretations. The result: final product that is truer to original design and less time wasted redoing work because of incompatible tools and asset formats."
Meanwhile, Microsoft announced Expression Media, a digital asset management system based on technology the company inherited from its acquisition of iView Multimedia in June. Expression Media is essentially the next version of iView MediaPro. The product supports more than 100 different file formats.
Moreover, the Expression Media tool features a new capability, the Expression Media Encoder, that is focused on batch encoding workflows with video, Key said.
Howard said Expression Media solves the problem of asset management across distributed teams. "It is a librarian for all media types and is the potential bridge to more robust source control management," he said.
Meanwhile, the new user interface for Blend and Design is a "significant" improvement over the former interface, Key said.
Indeed, Key said the initial user interface for the Expression technology—as inherited by Microsoft from Creature House via acquisition in 2003—required substantial modernization. "This was a C++ application, unmanaged code," Key said. "We implemented a WPF user interface. We call it the Expression Shell."
Meanwhile, with WPF/E, Microsoft is targeting the Adobe/Macromedia Flash developer.
"WPF/E is a confluence of the capabilities of the standards-based Web development model, adding media and video capabilities," Key said.
The new WPF/E preview "is very focused on rich media scenarios," he said.
"As much as you can enrich a Web experience using AJAX, youre still limited from things like vector graphics and video—which WPF/E supports," Key said.
Indeed, WPF/E offers both Web-standard DOM (Document Object Model)-style programming combined with an XAML-based approach to development, Microsoft said. WPF/E also enables users to have the same user experience on an Apple Mac as on a Windows system, supporting the Firefox, Internet Explorer and Safari browsers, Key said.
"This is a huge milestone for the team," Key said of the Expression Studio and WPF/E announcements. Microsoft also announced new Microsoft Design (www.microsoft.com/design) and Expression (www.microsoft.com/expression) Web sites.
Ryan Dawson, a designer with thirteen23, a design and development company in Austin, Texas, said the typical thirteen23 workflow derives from Adobe Photoshop to Visual Studio. "We have good development talent that doesnt have to worry about the tools that much," he said. "But Expression Blend provides an intuitive way to manage animations and create WPF motion graphic mini-movies. This same type of work done by hand in XAML is tedious, error-prone and generally just hard to do. With a tool that provides instant feedback, it makes our job that much easier."
Moreover, Dawson said, "With the same file format usage between Expression Blend and Visual Studio, there is no downtime, no hoops to jump through, no nothing that prevents us from skipping back and forth between the tools." Dawson called this Microsoft achievement "huge" because there is no intermediate serialization format, "which means there is no black magic," he added.
Robby Ingebretsen, an early adopter of Expression and designer at IdentityMine, in Tacoma, Wash., said, "There is a clear focus on UI [user interface] in this set of tools and because of that, the most important thing that Expression can do is fit back into Microsofts development ecosystem."