Microsoft has announced an integrated suite of tools for designers, as well as a new preview of the companys “Flash killer” technology, putting Microsoft squarely into competition with Adobe.
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.”
Ingebretsen said he thinks Microsoft has done a “great job” with the suite.
“Both Blend and Design have native support for XAML, which is Microsofts lingua franca of next-generation UI—a format which is designed to give designers the richness they need for creating incredibly expressive and immersive experiences as well as give developers a powerful and modern object model,” he said.
Meanwhile, Burton Groups Howard said he believes the most powerful impact of the Expression tools is the realization of Microsofts DSL (Domain-Specific Language) vision for user interface development. The tools are role-appropriate and produce artifacts that interoperate across the suite, he said. “Graphic designers and User Experience professionals can focus on graphic design and user experience without the overhead of a general-purpose IDE [integrated development environment] or the frustration of incompatible tools,” Howard said.
Ingebretsen agreed, saying he believes the most salient piece of the new releases is the improved user interface.
“Microsoft has rationalized the UI between Blend and Design and its very sleek,” Ingebretsen said. “The changes to the experience go beyond visuals, though. Blend, in particular, has seen real refinement since the last public release. Its a lot more intuitive and, frankly, just feels a lot better.”
In particular, the real estate within the workspace is much easier to manage, Ingebretsen said, noting that Microsoft has added a new search/filter mechanism to aid in navigating the property editor.
On the concept of Microsofts emerging competition with Adobe, Ingebretsen said, “Many designers who otherwise wouldnt, will use Expression because of the way it integrates their work into the development process. Thats a real step up against the competition.”
Indeed, despite the products being yet unreleased products, IdentityMine has had success with the Microsoft Expression tools, particularly Blend and Design, he said.
“Our designers use Expression Design almost exclusively for UI work,” Ingebretsen said. “There was a learning curve there, but its really enhanced our productivity.”
Howard said he thinks the tools and concepts in the new Microsoft Expression Studio suite will feel familiar to people who have worked with Adobe/Macromedia tools in the past.
Yet, “Its unclear how willing people will be to shift allegiances from those entrenched tools, but initial feedback from professionals has been very positive,” Howard said.
However, early adopter Dawson said as far as he is concerned, the jury is still out on WPF/E.
“Although we believe WPF is a great technology, it is yet to be seen whether WPF/E presents the same benefits,” he said. “In theory, a common file format—XAML—is a great way to bridge the development for two platforms. But in practice, we suspect that the development and workflows will differ so much that the same file format is hard to be used as that much of an advantage.”
Besides, Dawson said, “WPF/E is not that great of a technology when you recognize you have to download a runtime. Why not just use Flash, if that is the case? Flash is a mature product with lots of reach.”
“[But] at the end of the day, WPF and WPF/E are two different technologies. Naming them similarly and using a similar subfile format is moot,” Dawson said.
The bottom line is the results, he said. “Our job is creating experiences and dreams for our clients,” Dawson said. “Thats it. Everything else is in the details. So whatever tool makes that easier, we use.” Key said Microsoft will discuss more about the Expression Studio suite at its Mix 07 conference in Las Vegas starting April 30.
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