Microsoft Expresses itself with wares

Aiming to bring the worlds of the designer and the developer closer together, Microsoft Corp. released a new suite of graphics and site design tools at its Professional Developers Conference (2005) this month in Los Angeles.

The Microsoft Expression suite will include Sparkle Interactive Designer, a new tool for building 3-D animation and graphics, as well as Acrylic Graphic Designer, a painting and illustration tool, and Quartz Web Designer, a layout and design tool for building Web sites. All of the current names for the individual tools are Microsoft code names.

Jeffrey Zado, a Microsoft Canada senior product manager, said the Expression announcements show Microsoft is following through on the vision presented at PDC 2003.

“It’s fundamentally changing how development is going to happen going forward,” said Zado. Microsoft Expression is now available as a Community Technology Preview (CTP), and the suite is expected to ship in 2006.

Microsoft plans to make several more CTPs available before a full production version of the suite is released.

David Treadwell, Microsoft’s corporate vice-president for the .Net developer platform, said graphic design tools are a new area for Microsoft, and the Expression suite will integrate closely with Visual Studio, making for a more seamless development process for .Net applications.

“The Expression suite lets designers and developers work together very effectively, and make it easier for a designer to create a very welcoming, compelling user experience that’s easier to use and has a lot more impact,” said Treadwell. “We think at all levels of the industry, from hardware to software, we’re going to see a lot of innovation around user experience in the coming years.”

Quartz will offer some similar functionality to Microsoft’s FrontPage Web design tool and the two will co-exist for some time, but long-term, Treadwell said Microsoft sees most users moving to Quartz.

Microsoft also released several new platform technologies at PDC for developers working on the Microsoft platform. Atlas is a Web client framework for building Asynchronous JavaScript and XML (AJAX)-style applications with Dynamic HTML that will be integrated with Visual Studio 2005 and ASP.NET 2.0.

The Language Integrated Query (LINQ) Project uses extensions to C# and Visual Basic to give developers integrated querying for objects, databases and XML. As well, Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) Everywhere, a subset of WPF, will allow delivery of content-rich material on different platforms and form factors.

Treadwell said Microsoft has worked hard to make sure the Expression suite of tools are compliant with the various Web standards, and will create sites that will run in the major browsers, including Firefox and Safari, not just Internet Explorer. Quartz is totally standards-compliant, but Sparkle-created content will require Windows Presentation Foundation, which will be built into the Windows Vista OS and available for download by Windows users.

Brad Clements, vice-president of engineering for Netdocuments, an Orem, Utah-based application service provider that hosts corporate document management environments, cautioned not everything Microsoft is doing is a bull’s-eye. That includes the Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF), which provides developers with dramatic visual options on the desktop, such as 3-D rendering. “I think this may bring less consistency across the Windows interface, because now developers and designers can do just about anything they want.” Clements said the inconsistency will be jarring to end users and could mean a rise in training costs.

While Expression gives designers an alternative to using tools such as Adobe Photoshop, Macromedia Flash and Macromedia Dreamweaver, it’s not likely they’ll begin migrating in droves from those tools to Microsoft Expression anytime soon, said one analyst attending PDC. Macromedia’s tools are most widely used on Apple Computer Inc.’s Macintosh hardware, which is still the platform of choice for graphics and Web site designers, said Ron Schmelzer, senior analyst at Zapthink LLC, a research firm in Waltham, Mass.

“Macromedia and Adobe aren’t that threatened because they have a Macintosh installed base,” he said. “Most designers prefer the Macintosh [as a platform], and I don’t see Microsoft offering Expression for the Mac anytime soon.”

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