Microsoft's PDC (Professional Developers Conference) isn't the sort of occasion that's highlighted with marker pen in multimedia developers' diaries, but judging by this year's event, it won't stay that way for long.
That's because PDC was responsible for two of the biggest multimedia announcements this year: the Expression graphics suite and Microsoft Max. I've covered - and raved about - Expression in previous months, but what surprised me at PDC was the fact that Expression has ballooned into a collection of products aimed at programmers just as much as designers.
As well as Expression (now codenamed Acrylic Graphic Designer), Microsoft previewed Sparkle Interactive Designer, which lets you design user interfaces without using code, and Quartz Web Designer, a graphical Web-authoring program with support for CSS (cascading style sheets).
I haven't had a chance to play with either Sparkle or Quartz yet, but if Sparkle doesn't have designs on Macromedia Flash then it should have. Quartz, at this early stage, appears to do a lot of what Dreamweaver does - but more intuitively. Although I've scoffed at the idea in the past, it does look as though we are going to see an interesting battle between Adobe and Microsoft for supremacy in the consumer multimedia market.
But judging by a preview of another multimedia product, Microsoft has another target in its sights: Google. Microsoft codename Max looks like it's shaping up to be a competitor to Google's wonderful photo-sharing application, Picasa.
Like Picasa, Max lets you make lists of your photos, turn them into slideshows and share them online. What sets Max apart is that it uses WinFX, the application-programming interface that Microsoft will introduce with Windows Vista later this year. Microsoft is allowing XP users to install WinFX now. Click here to see a nice preview of what Vista might offer.
There's no doubt that Max looks amazing. A stunning 3D Mantle view that comes complete with reflections is a beautiful way to frame photographs. Photos scale perfectly as you resize them. But Max is surely a technology preview rather than a serious hint at an upcoming application, because at this stage of development, it's still looking for a proper purpose.
Max contains hardly any editing tools and few publishing options. You can share photos with friends, but rather than uploading pictures to a Web page, where your friends can view them, Max takes a much more tortuous route.
First, the people you share photos with must also be running Max - and the program's download size and stringent system requirements are enough to limit it to broadband users with current PCs. Click here to view a screenshot.
Second, even if your friends have Max it's no guarantee of success. To share a photo, you enter your friends' e-mail addresses - each copy of Max is linked to a Microsoft Passport account and registered to an e-mail address - which gives these people rights to view your pictures. Once your friend opens Max on their PC, they see an invitation to download your list. Once accepted, they can connect to your PC through Max and download the photos, click here to view an example - as long as you are connected to the Internet and signed in to Max at the same time.
That's a hefty hurdle. In effect, it means that not only do you have to be online to share your pictures, but Max has to be running. Microsoft is surely aware of its limitations - on the Max Web site (www.microsoft.com/max) - the company hints that there might be a lot more to come from the program. But considering this is flagged as a beta, it's hard to see exactly where it is going with this.
Microsoft and Google aren't the only ones interested in fresh ways of storing and sharing photographs. I've tested Slide, (www.slide.com) a free, visually rich application that scans and groups the photos on your hard disk into channels, which can then be shared with other Slide subscribers online. Slide-subscribed photos appear in a ticker-tape display that scrolls down the side of your desktop, click here to view a screenshot.
Slide will inevitably be virally networked - the value of the program lies in sharing it and a healthy channel-sharing community is already starting to build up. But although the ease with which you can share pictures puts Max to shame, Slide is not the answer either.
Some of its features are wonderful - but I doubt people will keep this program on their desktop once the enthusiasm has worn off. It's a similar problem to the one facing a technology such as Max. I don't think that in the near future anyone is going to beat the sheer ease of use of free services such as Flickr (www.flickr.com). Yes, it might be old-fashioned to upload photos to a Web site, but in the end, it's a far easier way to share images.