Microsoft offers Web, content design tool betas

Microsoft has released public beta versions of two of the three applications comprising its upcoming Expression suite of Web and content design software.

The company released a fourth community technical preview (CTP) of Expression Graphic Designer, a painting and illustration tool, and its first CTP version of Expression Interactive Designer, formerly code-named Sparkle, which also helps designers and developers work together to build 3-D animation and graphics.

Along with Expression Web Designer, the Expression suite works natively with eXtensible Application Markup Language (XAML) code. Graphics created with the software can be exported as XAML code that developers can use to build dynamic applications.

That should speed up workflow between designers and developers, said Scott Stanfield, CEO of Vertigo Software, a Californian software developer, and eliminate the need for designers to use separate applications such as Macromedia Fireworks or Adobe Photoshop. "I'm generally pretty jaded about this stuff, but Microsoft is blazing some new ground here," said Stanfield.

Expression and its use of XAML code is one aspect of the Windows Presentation Foundation, a new framework for creating user interfaces in desktop and Web applications.

"People tend to confuse this as being just pretty adornment," said Forest Key, director of product management at Microsoft. "In fact, this will matter a lot to consumers and business users."

WPF is part of WinFX, an object-oriented, managed API being introduced with the Windows Vista OS. Vista is due out by the end of the year.

Scott Golightly, Utah director for Keane Inc., a Boston-based business services firm, said programmers' ability to use Expression to easily import graphics and objects created by designers into XAML code will be an aesthetic boon.

"I am looking to the Expression suite of tools to allow the designers to do what they do best -- make very good-looking user interfaces," he said. "If designers and developers both start using Expression and XAML, we might see a lot fewer applications that look like they were designed by developers."

Other designers and developers such as Jered Cuenco, a Portland multimedia developer for avenue a/razorfish, said the CTP releases of Expression remain rough, although they offer a lot of promise.

"Interactive Designer is clearly still in its infancy," said Cuenco, adding that the workflow still has kinks and the software is hard to learn. "Do I think that Interactive Designer is the killer of Macromedia Flash? No. Do I think that is a direct competitor. Only somewhat."

Microsoft is expected to release a CTP version of Expression Web Designer in March during its professional Web developers conference, Mix, according to a source.

Key declined to name a final release date for the Expression suite, which will only run on Windows and will compete with products from Adobe Systems Inc. and Corel Corp.

The beta for Expression Interactive Designer can be downloaded now from http://www.microsoft.com/products/expression/en/interactive_designer/id_free_trial.aspx. The updated beta for Expression Graphic Designer is also available online at http://www.microsoft.com/products/expression/en/graphic_designer/gd_free_trial.aspx.

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