I had a very, very long day yesterday that revolved around what I thought was an extremely good Expression Session by Microsoft. This was the first run of the event (there are two more in Chicago and New York) and while there were a couple of rough spots, for the most part, I think it went quite well.
The keynote was primarily by Eric Zocher who is the General Manager of Expression and worked at Silicon Beach Software as well as Adobe where he was in charge of Photoshop 1.0. Clearly a bright guy with a lot of industry knowledge. He demoed some of Microsoft's tecnologies including the Sidebar, Vista application switching, the New York Times Reader (my thoughts here, Live Search Local, and Photosynth (after a bit of a delay). I think the gist was to show that Microsoft is focusing very heavily on experience and I think he got the message across.
Eric then talked about experience on the Xbox and the new Office interface. Then he got to what he described as the "components of user experience": platform, tools, and craft. I'm a big fan of this breakdown and something I wish I could tell Ajax developers (high on craft) is that there are MUCH better platforms out there. You could take the world by storm! But I'm getting off track. Eric talked about the platform at Microsoft which he described in levels of richness. First is the "standards based web" which Microsoft provides ASP.NET Ajax for. Next is the richer web, which WPF/E fills the need for. Finally is the richest part of the equation (with the smallest reach), the desktop, which provides the ability to build WPF applications. When he got to tools, he talked about Expression Studio and the demos started.
First up was Expression Web, which looks really awesome. It's not my thing, so I won't talk a lot about it, but suffice to say as someone who has had to hack through CSS, this thing would have been great to have. Bravo to that team, I think Expression Web is going to really turn heads. Maybe even atone for the trainwreck that was FrontPage. Maybe. But then Brad Becker came out showing Blend. They're positioning Blend as a tool for Interactive Designers (ID), which is good. Blend integrates with projects created in Visual Studio and allows the ID folks to go in and add interactivity to components. I've played with the Beta a bit (and Beta 2 is on its way sometime in February) and Blend is almost there. It's a solid tool, and I think the focus on interactive design is great, but it just doesn't "feel" quite right yet.
Then they broke out some application demos. The talented guys at Metaliq put together a WPF application for Burton snowboards that focused on the Aspen ski resort. Quick disclaimer: as a big outdoor guy, I'm pretty much a sucker for anything to do with outdoor sports. If a GPS device is involved, you could probably show me a gallon of curdled Milk and I would fawn over it. So that said, I thought this app was really cool. They used Burton to show off the platform. They had a website done using ASP.NET Ajax, an embedded movie with WPF/E and then this application for "Burton customers who want more than just to go to a website a couple of times a month". The application had a 3D model of the mountain with the ski runs mapped out, along with conditions and a video promo for Burton snowboards. Then Brad showed how they built GPS integration. Part of he application allowed you to connect your Garmin GPS and download your runs into the app. This was pretty much my "you had me at hello" moment, so take this with a grain of salt. But I really do believe that this is exactly the kind of thing that makes desktop applications relevant. If I can download an RIA that will let me directly connect my GPS unit and interact with its data then that's valuable to me and something that just can't be done with a web application. Then they took that data and went to the "Visualization Screen" which was even cooler than the GPS connection. They used the GPS data to figure out rate of descent, angle of descent, speed and altitude which they then graphed at the bottom and used a 3D snowboarder model to show off what you would have looked like going down the mountain. To be honest, the snowboarder was pretty cheesy, but it was still a cool idea and like I said, they used GPS data, so….case closed.
All joking aside, Expression Session was a very good event for anyone who wants to build applications that are heavy on experience. I came away with a much better understanding of how all these pieces fit together. I still think that WPF is going to have trouble competing with cross platform solutions, but I think they've made it compelling enough to jump start some desktop development. I talked to people at design/developer shops that are doing WPF applications and they all said that there are customers out there who have shown interest in WPF. I asked if those customers were okay with the fact that WPF is going to be limited to Windows and they said that customers seem to be okay with that. I got to chat with a lot of people including a session with Eric, the guys at Electric Rain (who's application is awesome and I'm going to do a separate post on it later), Lee Brimlow, Tim Sneath, Joe Marini. I even got a chance to meet Lynda Weinman, so the whole conference was a blast for me. In the end, designers and developers are all going to win now that Microsoft has made it a focus. The competition is good for everyone and Microsoft is coming in with guns blazing, so we should continue to see interesting things down the road. For more thoughts check out The Pasz, By Expression and Design Thinking Digest.