Microsoft Begins Rolling Out Expression Tools

Microsoft announced Monday it is shipping the first of four components in its new Expression Studio suite and predicts that the other three will ship in the second quarter of next year. Simultaneously, Microsoft also released the first community technology preview (CTP) of the Windows Presentation Foundation "Everywhere" (WPF/E), which is designed to provide a cross-platform browser plug-in for delivering rich media, animation and video content based on Windows Media.

The first shipping product in the Expression Studio line, Expression Web, is meant to let Web site designers and developers build standards-based Web sites. The other three products include Expression Blend (formerly "Interactive Designer") for designing rich interactive user experiences for Windows applications, Expression Design (formerly "Graphic Designer") for designing visual elements for both Web and Windows-based experiences, and a new tool, called Expression Media, which will provide digital asset management and is designed to unify team workflow across the suite.

"What we’re doing with Expression Studio is taking the first steps in helping designers become better integrated into the process of building and delivering user experiences, and helping designers and developers work better together," said Expression general manager Eric Zocher, in a statement online.

As user needs become more complex, the need to design ever more intuitive and responsive user interfaces becomes ever greater. As that occurs, "good enough" is no longer good enough, Zocher said, thus requiring better understanding and cooperation between the two constituencies.

The announcements come as Microsoft is overhauling its overall approach to visual design tools to include both developers and designers of various graphical experiences from Web sites to application user interfaces, to media production. For instance, Microsoft is discontinuing FrontPage in favor of Expression Web. (See "Extra, Extra: FrontPage Is Dead," April 11, 2006.) It’s no coincidence that the Expression suite -- along with WPF/E -- is beginning to come out near the same time as .NET Framework 3.0 with ASP.NET AJAX, not to mention Windows Vista, with its new user interface. "Great user experience is at the heart and soul of our Expression family of tools ... Used in collaboration with our Visual Studio development tools and the .NET Framework technologies, the solution directly involves the designer in the software development process," Zocher added.

As part of the announcement, Microsoft unveiled enhancements in Expression Blend and Expression Design which include a new user interface created specifically for professional designers. That work was based on feedback the company garnered following more than half a million downloads of Expression CTPs that began last January. Additionally, Expression Blend Beta 1 and the Expression Design December 2006 CTP are available for download.

The fourth component, Expression Media is based on the iView MediaPro product acquired by Microsoft earlier this year. It supports more than 100 media formats and provides offline access to visual catalogs, making it easier for creative professionals to manage and use their digital assets, according to company statements. Expression Media includes Expression Media Encoder, a complete solution for the preparation, encoding and deployment of rich video and audio for Web and Windows experiences. A first CTP of Expression Media is expected early in 2007.

Meanwhile, WPF/E may provide an important pivot point for playback of and searching for media on the Web and could pose a threat to other de facto tools like Adobe Flash over time.

"What we are hearing from our customers is that they need a simple way to embed Windows Media files and streams directly into a fully customizable Web player for cross-platform playback," said Zocher. "The WPF/E December CTP takes us closer to meeting that need by providing support for playback of Windows Media, which enables the delivery of rich audio and video integrated with animated graphics and text overlays, dynamic resizing and marker support for interactivity."

In addition, Microsoft will introduce Expression Media Encoder as a feature of Expression Media "next year to more easily automate encoding workflow and publishing of rich video content for this new platform," he added.

Expression Web is available for $299, and qualifying users of FrontPage can upgrade to Expression Web for $99. Expression Blend will cost $499, while Expression Media will go for $299, and the full Expression Studio for $599. Expression Studio will also be available as a $349 upgrade to users who have purchased Expression Web and other qualifying Microsoft products.

Further information on downloading the beta of Expression Blend and the CTP of Expression Design CTP is available here.

About the Author

Stuart J. Johnston has covered technology, especially Microsoft, since February 1988 for InfoWorld, Computerworld, Information Week, and PC World, as well as for Enterprise Developer, XML & Web Services, and .NET magazines.