Microsoft sends mixed messages with its new design tools

Microsoft is sending out some mixed posturing and positioning messages regarding its Expression Studio and Windows Presentation Foundation/Everywhere (WPF/e) technologies.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

Microsoft is sending out mixed messages, in terms of its Web-design-tool strategy.

First, there's the positioning. Redmond's "we plan to complement, not compete with Adobe" rhetoric -- which I'm doubtful anyone who knows Microsoft will buy for a second.

And then there's the partitioning. Microsoft's decision not to make available its new design products available via its traditional developer channels, like Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN). Already, that move has got some Microsoft customers up-in-arms.

On December 4, Microsoft shared more specifics on its somewhat murky strategy for its Expression design tools and Windows Presentation Foundation/Everywhere (WPF/e) Web- presentation software. Microsoft is making available for download and/or purchase on Monday the following products:

• The first public beta of Expression Blend (the product formerly code-named "Sparkle," and, later "Expression Interactive Designer");

• A new Community Technology Preview (CTP) build of Expression Design (the product formerly code-named "Acrylic," and, later, "Expression Graphic Designer");

• The final version of Expression Web (the product formerly code-named "Quartz," and later "Expression Web Designer") and

The first public CTP test build of WPF/e.

Microsoft is planning to release the final versions of its Expression tools either as standalone entities, or as a complete suite. If you buy the Expression Studio suite -- which is set to ship in Q2 of 2007 -- you get Blend, Design, Web, a new digital-asset-management tool called "Media" (based on the iView Media Pro technology Microsoft bought in June); and a copy of Visual Studio. Microsoft is pricing that bundle at $599 (estimated retail price) -- which is considerably less than Adobe Systems charges for Creative Suite 2. (CS2 Standard costs roughly $899; Premium, $1,199.)

WPF/e -- to which I and others have referred as Microsoft's "Flash killer" -- will be available in two phases. In the first half of 2007, Microsoft will make WPF/e for a variety of Web browsers (including Firefox and Apple's Safari). In the second half of the year, WPF/e will be available for a variety of mobile devices, as well.

Surprisingly, even though Microsoft missed its first public CTP target for WPF/e by several months, it is still holding to the same ship schedule it outlined for the technology back in March 2006.

Microsoft isn't keen on the Flash killer rhetoric. But it's even less enamored of the inevitable Expression Studio vs. CS2 comparisons, it seems.

"We think people will look at Expression Studio as an adjunct -- not a replacement for CS2," Forest Key, director of product management for Microsoft's design tools, told me recently.

(According to one source of mine, Microsoft recently conducted an online survey where it asked participants quite specifically about how they expect the Expression Studio suite to stack up against CS2. Make of that what you will.)

"It’s unclear how willing people will be to shift allegiances from those entrenched tools, but initial feedback from professionals has been very positive," acknowledged Chris Howard, a vice president with the Burton Group. "WPF/e is positioned head-on with Flash, although the technologies are slightly different. WPF/e promises to integrate more easily with HTML than Flash does, but both require JavaScript as a bridge between the page and the embedded media object."

What do the in-the-trenches designers think of all this posturing and positioning?

"Expression Studio is another late-coming solution that Microsoft perhaps intends to be just on-par with the alternative. However, that might not be a bad thing," said Long Zheng, of istartedsomething.com blog fame. "Just look at the XBox. First leverage the competition, then knock them out cold."

"To me the biggest hole in Visual Studio has been the poor design tools," said another designer, Jason Burns, who runs the philoking.com blog. (Burns also works as a senior developer/analyst with SuperValu Corp. in Boise, Idaho.) "You can create great back ends, but the front end has to be bland or designed elsewhere.

"These tools have the potential to give developers the end ot end solution to truly create rapid application development for Web and native Windows applications that are stable and functional as well as graphically appealing," Burns added.

The Burton Group's Howard noted some of the potential positioning challenges Microsoft could face with the new Expression line.

"Organizationally, it’s not clear that the roles exist within development in most large organizations to do proper design," Howard said. "Graphic designers are usually in marketing. User Experience professionals are new kids on the enterprise block, and may be used for motion studies and static interface design. For the tools to work best, organizations need to embrace the need for good design and retune their development orgs and processes to accommodate it."

That said, Howard also said he sees a lot to like in the new tools.

"Graphic designers and user-experience professionals can focus on graphic design and user experience without the overhead of a general purpose IDE (integrated development environment), or the frustration of incompatible tools," he said.

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