Can Microsoft brand its way to coolness ?

Back to the name game. While names don't make a company cool or not, they can make a difference, even with geekier products like development tools. The Microsoft Expression tools team seems to understand that lesson quite well.

With the launch of Microsoft’s Zune media player this week, it’s a good time to ask the perennial question: What will it take for Microsoft to become “cool”?

Branding is one place to start. Product names like “Xbox” and “Zune” are arguably a lot cooler than “Visual Studio 2005 Tools for the 2007 Microsoft Office System.”

Is it fair to compare entertainment product names to developer-tool ones? It may not be as far-fetched as you’d think. It seems Microsoft is looking to bring more consumer-like hipness to Expression design tools family.

Microsoft officials this week demonstrated a tool that seemed to be Expression Interactive Designer (formerly code-named “Sparkle”) that now seems to be known as “Blend,” according to istartedsomething blogger Long Zheng. Zheng captured screen shots of the new Blend interface that is part of the yet-to-be-unveiled “Blend Beta 1” from Microsoft’s Ready Summit 06 in Melbourne, Australia.

For those who need a refresher on the somewhat confusing Expression product line, here’s a quick update: Microsoft’s Expression line is aimed at design professionals and meant to compete head-to-head with Adobe Systems’ products like Dreamweaver, Photoshop and Illustrator.

“Quartz,” a k a, Expression Web (the product until recently known as Expression Web Designer): Went to beta one in September.

“Acrylic,” a k a, Expression Graphic Designer: Available in Community Technology Preview (CTP) form. No beta yet

“Sparkle,” a k a Expression Interactive Designer – or, I’d wager, Expression Blend: Currently available as CTP. Set to go to beta real soon now.

“The (product) shown at Ready Summit is an upcoming version of Expression Interactive Designer that Microsoft will be making available shortly. Stay tuned for further details in the coming weeks,” a Microsoft spokeswoman said, when I asked about Interactive Designer/Blend. As to the Blend name change, Microsoft’s official response is no comment, she added.

Microsoft has said to expect the three Expression tools to ship within 90 days of Windows Vista’s release. Depending on whether you consider the “release” to be Vista’s release to manufacturing (November 8, 2006) or the retail launch (January 30, 2007), the Expression family could hit the market anytime between February and April 2007.

Back to the name game. While names don’t make a company cool or not, they can make a difference – even with geekier products like development tools. Got any suggestions as to what Microsoft should rename “Expression Graphic Designer” (the only one of the Expression trio that looks to be stuck with a boring, old-Microsoft name)?