Microsoft Expression Studio fosters designer-developer synergies

Microsoft’s Canadian launch of Web and desktop application design suite, Expression Studio, will likely mean richer media apps for the consumer before it will make a dent in the enterprise space, said an analyst.

We could see richer search engine functionality or a richer online bookstore, said David Senf, manager of Canadian application development and infrastructure software at Toronto, Ont.-based research firm IDC Canada. “That’s where we’ll see it used, rather than better CRM or ERP solutions.”

However, in the next 18 to 24 months, said Senf, enterprises will catch on once they see what can be done in the business-to-consumer space. Uses for such design tools, he added, are training videos for human resources and sales and marketing, for instance.

The suite includes Expression Web (for creating standards-based Web sites); Expression Blend (for creating rich media applications incorporating vectors, high-definition video, 3D content, pixel images, etc.); Expression Design (for creating user interface elements for Windows desktop applications); and, Expression Media (a centralized resource for organizing digital assets). The suite takes advantage of the Silverlight run-time, which Microsoft has positioned as a competitor to Adobe’s Flash.

Given the increasing number of applications that touch the individual user nowadays, it’s no surprise vendors are trying to “focus on user experience as their key differentiator,” said Narinder Gahir, senior product manager for developer tools at Mississauga, Ont-based Microsoft Canada Co.

Considering enterprises spend a large amount of resources on application development, said Gahir, it’s essentially wasted money if products fall short of user expectations.

In particular, he added, given the prevalence of software-as-a-service, such user interface design tools will grant vendors that added bonus.

Actually, Expression Studio reflects a changing design community with new emerging challenges and opportunities facing designers, said Garry K. VanPatter, director of strategy with Humantific Inc., a New York-based think tank.

Specifically, VanPatter said the designer’s expanding role in the creative process and the need to work in multi-disciplinary teams, means people in and around the design community must change to keep pace – that will then breed innovation.

According to Senf, the pendulum has swung from the early days of the Web when it was all about the designer, to around Y2K time when the developer began creating rich Internet elements such as shopping carts to incorporate e-commerce. “The designer got pushed off to the side. Now we’re seeing the designer come back,” said Senf.

Users can now speak the same language, Gahir said, because the tools provide the “ability to connect the designer camp with the software camp.”

He said, for instance, designers can work on project files without worrying about code and back-end functionality, while developers enjoy “granular control” by accessing the same project file and tweaking that code. “This will result in a more efficient, more collaborative development community.”

Another Canadian designer agreed that collaboration between designers and developers is a huge advantage to both groups.

“We don’t have to actually hand off the code anymore,” said Bryce Johnson, director of user experience design at Navantis Inc., a Toronto, Ont.-based developer of custom Web software applications for large enterprises.

In addition, Johnson said, the tools will allow the company, a Microsoft shop, to continue finding new ways to deliver solutions to their clients.

“Before, we had a Microsoft back-end and a Flash front-end for a certain type of application. Now we have the opportunity to keep it .NET from end to end.”

Using Expression, Navantis is currently looking to build, for a client, a WPF application that distributes over the Web.

Robert de Korte, general manager of the interactive practice at Toronto, Ont-based Momentum Advanced Solutions Inc., believes the tools will help developers meet the increasing demand for faster proof-of-concept development.

The Internet outsourcing company has created a proof-of-concept interactive donor kiosk, using Expression Blend, for The Hospital for Sick Children. “We can now take this code and move to build very quickly,” said de Korte.

Microsoft faces some stiff competition, believes Senf, with Adobe’s Creative Suite 3 that “certainly has the lead in Web site design in Canada and around the world.”

That having said, Microsoft has a “strong offering” that’s browser and platform independent, said Senf – as are other cross-platform rich Internet application tools like Adobe’s Apollo and Sun Microsystems’ JavaFX.

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