Microsofts Sparkle: Is It a Flash Killer?

Developers get their first taste of a test build of Microsoft's new visual-development tool. But can Windows woo creative professionals?

Microsoft Tuesday released new previews of its upcoming tools for designers. Microsoft Interactive Designer is a product for building Avalon ("Windows Presentation Foundation" or WPF) user interfaces.

These tools have been dubbed a Flash killer by some industry watchers, as it is expected to compete head-to-head with the Macromedia Flash product that was acquired by Adobe Systems last year.

The software giant has released the first Community Technology Preview (CTP) of its Microsoft Expression Interactive Designer tool, formerly known as Sparkle, and the company also released the fourth CTP of its Expression Graphic Designer, formerly known as Acrylic, said Forest Key, director of product management for Microsofts design tools.

Microsofts Expression Suite consists of the Expression Graphic Designer, Expression Interactive Designer and the Expression Web Designer. Microsoft has yet to release a CTP for the Web Designer, also known by its codename Quartz.

Key said that with the Microsoft Vista operating system being "all about user experience," with the Windows Presentation Foundation and support for rich media and advanced user interface capabilities "we believe professional designers will be fundamental to the growth of the Windows platform."

/zimages/5/28571.gifRead more here about the team behind Sparkle.

Key said the Expression Interactive Designer is a "rich design surface" for developing the look and behavior for rich Windows applications. The new CTP features edit templates and support for both two-dimensional and three-dimensional design.

The new Expression Graphic Designer CTP features improved support for exporting Extensible Application Markup Language (XAML).

Key said the Graphic Designer is focused strictly on the look of applications, while the Interactive Designer is about "look, behavior and interaction."

The Microsoft design tools share XAML code, Key said. In addition, the design tools can share XAML code with Microsofts Visual Studio tools, he said.

Meanwhile, last month Microsoft released a preview of its design tool for its upcoming Windows Presentation Foundation subsystem, also known as Avalon.

Known as "Cider," Microsofts Visual Designer for the Windows Presentation Foundation is set to be part of Visual Studio "Orcas," the next major release of Microsofts Visual Studio tool suite, which is expected to support Windows Vista development. Orcas is slated for release in 2007.

/zimages/5/28571.gifClick here to read more about the December CTP of Cider.

"Just as were doing tools for designers, were doing a design surface for developers who are laying out controls," Key said. However, designers can take output from Cider and do design with it, and designers and developers can more easily collaborate using the Microsoft toolset, he said.

"Look, Microsoft gets it when it comes to simplifying software development, said Rob Howard, a developer with Telligent Systems. "The last big hurdle here, and a challenge many companies (including mine) face when building rich and interactive applications are the handoffs between design and development."

Added Howard: "Our design team currently uses Macintoshes and occasionally builds Flash applications. Were hoping, as is our design team, to transition to 100 percent Windows across design and development in the next 18 months. If Microsoft can execute with the Expression line of tools Microsoft will not only capture the hearts and minds of developers, but designers too."

Scott Golightly, senior principal consultant at Keane Inc., said: "I am hoping that the Expressions studio will change the way that I work. I am a developer and I dont have a lot of design skills. I have occasionally looked at design programs but I get lost really quickly in what they want me to do or even what some of the options mean.

"I have worked with designers who do a great job of laying out a look and feel for a user interface and then expect me to recreate that in code. The hardest part of the whole process is understanding what the designers want.

They talk about pantene colors and RGB values and I tend to think more along the lines of is it red or blue. With the ability of the Expression products to export the design to XAML and then import that into Visual Studio I expect to save a lot of work translating what the designer wanted into what I can create."

Sparkle is available for download here.

Acrylic is avaliable for download here.

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